Dealing with a bad workout

This time last week I was suffering – I’d completed a workout but I hadn’t got the result I wanted and that started a short downward spiral of deflation, self criticism and low mental health. I’m a perfectionist at heart and my perceived failures hurt. It’s something I need to learn how to manage, so I sought advice on how to deal with this in future. Here’s some gems I learned from those who provided their own advice or techniques.

Some days, things just don’t fall in to place

Some days, things just don’t fall into place. Whether you got up late and missed the gym, you didn’t have the energy or you just weren’t as fast or as strong as you wanted to be on the bike or on your run.

Really, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But for some people, like me, one bad workout can lead to a slippery slope and cause a series of skipped workouts or a complete loss of momentum.

So after some reflection and a few social media posts seeking advice, I’ve put down some of the suggested tips and techniques we can all use when things don’t go our way in sports and exercise.

Practical tips for when it doesn’t go to plan

Take time to reflect on the journey as whole – It’s important to remember why you are doing the workout in the first place and how far you’ve come. We need to acknowledge that all those negative feeling we experience are your motivation. They’re just the dark side of your motivation. While in the moment these feelings are hard to take, they’re the reason that you are where you are now and harnessing them will mean you can continue to make real progress.

I’ve been saying for the last few weeks how good I feel, that I’ve not felt stronger or fitter. When I joined Spokes my FTP was 171 and over the course of a year I raised that to 281. OK so it’s dropped, its now 266, but my ability is more than just a number in a test. In the three years since taking up cycling my body has got me through some amazing challenges, including setting the record for the fastest solo cycle of the Welsh Three Peaks.

On this note, it is important, particularly in our oversharing social media age that almost forces us to compare ourselves with others, to remember that this is your journey, it is not a race, or a competition – it is simply about being better than you were yesterday.

It is this quest for perfection that often sparks the downward spiral in me, so it is important that we knowledge that not every workout will be perfect – we need to look at the plan and the external factors to your performance as a whole. There can be lots of reasons for changes in performance – recovery, sleep, stress and lifestyle are just a few. Amateurs and professionals alike have bad days, we need to remember they are part of the process and progress is not about PB after PB. In my case, this recent FTP test is just one measure of my progress, there are many more factors which show how much I have progressed.

The offending workout on my TrainingPeaks account

Because it won’t always be on point, we do need to make the effort to celebrate even the smallest victory. We’ve all seen the classic memes “A bad workout was still a workout” or “The only bad workout was the one that didn’t happen”. While cliche, there is some truth to these often used statements. Progress is often born in consistency, consistently trying and putting in your best rather than calling it a day because you didn’t hit the goal of the workout.

Something my Coach has said to me before and again recently on our Mental Health podcast is that if the session hasn’t gone our way we should always try to end the workout on a positive. This will depend on the workout, but it may be a case of practicing a technique or a drill that you enjoy – think pedalling technique or track stands on the bike, but could easily be taking some time to focus on your running form and how your feet land.

If you can’t end the workout on a positive, then take the time after it to do something for you, something fun that is good for your soul – spending time with your partner, children or family and friends can all dull the frustrations through focusing on other people or activities.

With a view to the longer term, understanding why we feel the way we feel is important – asking ourselves why the workout was bad or why we considered it to not be successful are good questions and one’s we can only answer with some reflection. Taking the time to understand what you’ve done, how you’ve performed and learning from it can be a powerful thing. Think of it like event or race day preparation, write down what you’ll do differently next time. Sometimes the root cause is obvious, but if not keeping a diary of your workouts can help you spot patterns and then address them!

Final thought

Our perspective shapes our experiences, so in exercise and sports, if we look at bad workouts as something that must be endured, something not to look forward to or worse something we believe we won’t succeed at, then we are already in a negative mindset. As hard as it is, you need to realise just how much that mindset contributes to your overall success, or failure as an athlete.

Approach each session positively, take it one set / rep / mile at a time – focus on that one and what you need to do, finish it and move on to the next, don’t think any further ahead.

Lastly, when you’re at the point of quitting, when your head is telling you you are done – hold on, whether its for 30 seconds or 5 minutes more – stick it out for a little longer so even if you do quit, you were 5 minutes closer to finishing than you might have been.

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