Ten Strategies for Surviving Running Workouts When Nothing is Going Right

It happens to all of us at some point.  An uninspired workout – a grueling, excruciating, inexplicably terrible workout.  There’s no good reason for it – just no go-juice.

It’s awful.

This happened to me on Sunday morning.  The longest 45 minute run of my life.  Ten times longer than Friday’s 80 minute scorch-fest.  Seriously.  Bad.

As I suffered, I wrote this post, taking notes on all of the various things that I was doing to keep myself moving forward. The main goal is to remove your focus from the reality of Your Infinite Human Suffering and redirect it onto something more productive. Check out my ten agony-inspired strategies after the jump…

Distractions. Smart distractions in some cases, but distractions nonetheless.

  1. Promise yourself stuff.  This is as base and low-down as it sounds. Just tell yourself about all the amazing crap you are going to give yourself as a reward for getting through this hell. Monster tacos, plates of pasta, chocolate shakes… whatever it takes. Shit, I was promising myself Zipp 808′s, Kreitler rollers, a Rapha jacket, and a Sicilian vacation at one point. Am I actually going to get any of that stuff?  Probably not. But that’s not the point. I’m gullible when I’m suffering and so are you.  Tell yourself stories, asap.
  2. Re-route.  One of the simplest ways to immediately divert your attention is to change your planned route. Now you’re thinking about where you’re running, how you’ll still measure this, and whether re-routing was a good idea.  Either way, you’re not thinking about suffering anymore. There are some variations on the re-route technique that count as the next few strategies:
  3. Run Towards Home.  I did this three times yesterday. Running towards home does not mean you’re going to stop there, but it does mean you can if you want to.  Chances are, you won’t.
  4. Run uphill.  I did this yesterday, too.  I re-routed so that the course started turning up.  Running uphill demands a special kind of effort. Instead of focusing on how crappy you feel, you tend to focus on just. getting.  up.    this.    damn.   hill.  A lot of times by the top, you actually will feel a little better.
  5. Run to where there are people or other runners.  As runners, we are a lonely lot. We suffer in a desolate vacuum of pain. We rise from our beds with the weight of our assigned lot heavy on our hearts.  Not really… but that’s kind of what it feels like sometimes, huh? If you’re running alone, think about re-routing to a road or path where there are more of your kind to bolster you.  I did also did this yesterday, detouring into Laurelhurst Park to soak up the easy smiles of some Sunday joggers. They made me feel better. A little.  Seeing other runners can be hugely motivating.  The fast ones steel your resolve and the slow ones inspire you with their determination.
  6. Force yourself to smile.  Sound cheesy? It is. But it works for me sometimes. Smiling has a noticeable and very real effect on your mood. It will help.  I swear.
  7. Run faster.  What!? No, really. Increase your pace if you’re not already going fast (you’re probably not if you’re really suffering so much). This is similar to turning uphill.  Funnel and focus the pain, instead of letting it become all-encompassing and completely unwieldy.  Wrangle it. Gather it. Focus it at something.  It may not diminish in size or intensity, but at least you are putting it to work.
  8. Stop. Have a coffee (or water, or whatever). Go.  This isn’t ideal.  The point is to keep running.  But if taking a 15 minute break in the middle is enough to let you gather your wits about you and pull your shit together so you can bang out the rest, then do it.  Stop, stretch, go into a cafe and get water or a shot of espresso (if you’re into that kind of thing and can stomach it), relax for ten minutes, then get back out there.  This is akin to the "mini-set-break" in weight-lifting.
  9. Focus on what’s going right and remind yourself about your accomplishments.  Now is not the time for modesty. Let your mind fill with memories of your glory moments, shards of past victory, fractals of triumph. Go to the ego. Draw from it generously. And if you can find anything – anything – that is going well right at this moment, remind yourself about that, too.
  10. Change your workout.  This is a last resort – because we all like to finish what we set out to do – but consider altering your intended workout.  If it’s intervals, decrease the number a bit.  If it’s a long, moderate run, consider splitting it in half and coming back to finish it later in the day. Be creative. Sometimes being flexible enough to reconsider your workout is going to get you better results at the end of the day. If you can come back to it later with renewed energy and 4-6 hours of positive visualization under your belt, you might be able to deliver much better effort and intensity and reap increased benefits.

Getting through a running workout that isn’t going well can be challenging and frustrating.  Sounds like a lot of stuff in life, huh?

As in life, be strategic, be positive, and be pro-active.  Don’t let the workout run  you over.  Take control and get it done.

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  1. I’m impressed by the wisdom of your comments.

    #7 stands out for its psychological and physiological benefits. Much of our training is based on the principle of causing stress to our systems and adjusting to that stress. Our bodies encounter various levels of stress at a variety of intensities.

    In some instances our bodies display their discomfort at a particular pace. Our inclination is to slow down, but actually an increase in pace may produce a desired change of intensity that actually removes that inital discomfort.

    Think of an engine. It may run more sluggish at slower speeds. That change in rpms can remove that sluggish tendancy and allow the engine to open up.

  2. Coach Volk,
    I love the engine analogy – that is such a powerful image.
    My cross-country coach used to reference this phenomenon as “50 Quick Steps”. That is what he would yell to us in races to try to get us to push into that next level. My partner Sal has been talking about this lately (as he tries to convince me that I will, actually, someday be good at cycling) as the “20 Second Rule”. If you can just stand that searing agony for 20 seconds, you will “break through” and it will feel better.

  3. I was going to add a new one for you, but I’m just going to rephrase #9, “Focus on what’s right.”

    Whats hurting? Your knee? Forget it. Focus on your ankle. Your back. Completely absorb yourself into what another body part is feeling. If “everything” hurts, focus on your elbow, your fingers, it doesn’t matter. If you’re suffering, I guarantee you’re focusing on the pain. Focus on something else.

  4. #7 is one that my trainer suggested to me and it was the first that I heard it. And gosh darn it, it does work.

    One you didn’t list that I use a lot – I draw on past runs – they are deposits. Rainy? Sheesh. I’ve run in worse rain. Long run? Forget it. I’ve run farther, in hotter weather, colder weather, without a working water fountain, in the morning before work, in the evening before cooking dinner, blah, blah. Whatever my mental block is, I can usually summon a previous run where I overcame it.

  5. You have a TON of good tips here! :)

  6. BettyC – You’re right. That is a HUGE one!
    Doug – I like the way you’ve rephrased that a bit… it takes it to a bit more of an in-the-moment granule approach. Very cool.
    Zandria – Thanks! I’m glad you found them helpful! Like I said, this one wrote itself on Sunday as I cringed. :)

  7. Just wanted to make sure you knew that your RSS feed still points to the old site. But, for now, I’ll just be old fashioned and use a bookmark. :)

  8. This is a good post. One of the things that I do is tell myself that I could turn just up ahead and shorten my route. By the time I get up ahead, then I tell myself, Well, if I go up there, then I could turn and shorten this awful run. Then, when I get up there … you get the idea.

  9. Looks like you hit on a topic we all relate to. Some days my body is just like an undisciplined child. I dare not give in to its tantrums, lest I program it to think it can get its way by whining and throwing a tantrum!

    But sometimes, a day like you describe causes me to evaluate my training strategy and ask if I’m overdue for a rest day. I really like periodization training, and plan easy days and easy weeks in advance. But sometimes, I built my plans on the 25 year old body in which I no longer reside, and have to deal with the reality that I just need more recovery time. I’m getting where I can better tell the difference between a lazy day and a legitimate need for a rest day. So for what its worth…

  10. Bob – Yeah, pure psychological trickery! I love that.
    Ed – Good point! In my case I was running on a full day’s rest but not quite enough sleep and some marginal Saturday night nutrition choices. I think that was the real kicker for me… I’ve been eating so clean for so long that when I stray a little it tends to take a toll. My gut was not my best friend that morning!
    I did have the “overtrained” version of fatigue the previous week… man, was it obvious. I mean, I was absolutely battling to push the heart up to 150bpm. It was interesting from a science-experiment perspective and painful from an experience perspective. :)

  11. Suzzie Carleson

    #6 really works for me while running every day on Terwilliger even though it may be between clenched teeth! Thanks for your insight and humor!


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