Overcome Disappointing Marathon Workouts

How to turn a bad training day into a positive learning experience.
Staff Writer

Jeff Gaudette–The fall marathon season is almost in full swing and if you’re preparing to tackle 26.2 miles this fall, it’s likely your marathon-specific training phase has recently started or is about to begin. While there are many different ways to approach the last six to eight weeks of your training plan, it’s safe to say that the next four to five weeks of training will be some of your most grueling: marathon simulation sessions, challenging long runs, and lots of miles in between.

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During this time, having a rough day out on the roads is something that comes along with pushing your limits in training. While bad workouts are never something a runner looks forward to, they can be especially crippling in the final six weeks of training when you want to feel good and need the positive momentum. This is especially true for a daunting race like the marathon, which leaves you in a state of perpetual fatigue and irritability from training and, no matter how many times you’ve run one, is an intimidating distance to contemplate.

Over the following pages we’ll look at why having a rough workout or two in the middle of marathon training block is OK, and also outline some specific strategies you can follow to bounce back quickly.

Why It’s OK To Have A Bad Workout

Bad workouts are an unavoidable reality for runners. No matter how talented you are or how much you try to control every variable in your training, you will have a bad workout on occasion. Sometimes the reason you struggle is out of your control or not something you can pinpoint specifically, and other days the cause is quite apparent – bad weather, allergies or a stressful day at work.

In the last six to eight weeks of marathon training, the likelihood of a bad workout increases exponentially as your training reaches its peak and you push your body further and faster. In essence, you’re walking a tight rope each day, just hoping to maintain that optimal ratio of recovery while getting in the most miles you can handle. When you spend six weeks walking a tight rope, odds are you’re going to fall off at least once or twice.

Understanding this reality is something that separates elite runners from the mere mortals. Many elites, particularly the powerful Easy African runners, generally have the mentality that they are always as good as their best day and that a bad workout is just a bad workout. They shake off bad runs and understand that the performance was not indicative of their potential or fitness.

On the contrary, many non-elite runners will dwell on the bad workout and question whether they’ve lost all their fitness. It sounds extreme, but after coaching hundreds of runners over the last 5 years, I can attest that this reaction is very accurate and more common than you might think.

Moreover, some of America’s best marathoners and coaches even expect to have one or two bad workouts during a marathon training segment. Nate Jenkins, a 2:14 marathoner, admits that he’s “never had a marathon cycle where I didn't have one or two bad workouts."  If you adopt this mindset from the beginning, you’ll bounce back quickly from the bad days and keep your confidence high.

What To Do When You Have A Bad Workout

Analyze Your Workout

The first step to take after a bad workout is to perform a post-mortem and identify what went wrong and any potential areas you can improve. Sometimes the reason might not be something within your control – a long day at work, too much time in the car, etc. A lot of times you won’t be able to pinpoint anything. However, if you do find things you can improve upon for your next workout — making sure you’re hydrating well, for example — you can prevent yourself from making the same mistake twice.

Be careful with changing too many variables at once. If you believe your bad workout was a fueling issue, don’t try to change what you ate the night before, breakfast the morning of, and drink choice or gel frequency during the run, all at once. In this case, it will be hard to identify which might have been the culprit.

Learn From the Negatives

One way to turn a negative workout into a positive is to identify mistakes you can learn from and improve upon. Big lessons, such as starting out too fast, will be apparent. There are less obvious lessons you can learn from, however, if you really pay attention.

For example, one of my athletes recently ran a half-marathon tuneup race and got to the starting line a little late. As a result, he wasn’t able to start in his appropriate corral. He spent the first mile panicked about getting on pace and weaving through the field to where he should have been running. All that surging and stress used up lots of energy, both physically and mentally, and he bombed the second half of the race.

Afterward, he realized two valuable lessons. First, it’s not likely he will show up late for his goal race. He’s already made plans to be better organized the night before his big race. Second, if the start is more crowded or slower than he anticipates, he now knows first-hand that it is better to relax and work his way up gradually. Both of these lessons will help him perform to his potential on race day.

Think Big Picture

One workout is not going to make or break your training segment. If you’ve trained properly, you’ve had at least a couple months of specific training, four to five solid long runs, and countless workouts. Having one bad day is a blip in the grand scheme of your training cycle. It’s easy to lose perspective after a tough workout, but you have to remember all the other solid workouts you’ve had and keep in mind the opportunities you have remaining on the schedule.

Remember that workouts are designed to improve your fitness, not to prove how fit you are. Too often, runners use workouts as a constant barometer to measure improvement and compare themselves to how they will be able to perform on race day. Rarely will your performance in a workout translate to how you will feel on race day, so don’t get too stressed about a bad day or two.

As you work through your marathon specific phase of the training cycle, remember not to get too down about a bad workout. When you’re pushing the limits for weeks at a time, it’s difficult to feel good every day. Put each workout in perspective, extract a few good learning lessons, and maintain confidence as you continue gearing up for your goal race.

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