I Had a Bad Run – Now What?

Everyone who runs has experienced it. Things just don’t feel right. Your rhythm is off and you can’t find your pace. You struggle with breathing – chest restricted, shortness of breath, shallow breathing. Your muscles don’t cooperate. You feel stiff… Sore… Nothing flows. Your stride is off. You don’t have any zip. You may even feel aches pains and such that you have never felt before. It’s just a bad day running.

Sometimes there is a reason that you can point to such as a long hard week of training. Or you are getting over an illness. Or you are stressed with life events or lacking sleep or the air quality is poor. Other times, they come out of nowhere and for no reason at all. Or worse yet, sometimes they are a string of days. (How about a week or a month of feeling out of sorts and experiencing bad run after bad run?)

The fact is that a bad day most often is just that, a bad day (ok, or two or three…). There are as many reasons for bad days as there are bad days. Sometimes you will know or figure out why. Other times you won’t. The important message to get through is that a bad run, the inability to complete a prescribed or scheduled workout pace-distance-effort, does NOT mean you are suddenly out of shape.

Now contrary to what I stated earlier, I actually do believe that there are reasons for everything. I believe that there are reasons for every bad day. Our problem is that we are not in tune with ourselves. We don’t track the right variables (weather, sleep, training, HR, medications, life events, travel, etc.) We are even poorer at integrating all variables! Which combinations yielded the perfect storm – that bad day? Until we tune in to all these variables we cannot get a handle on any cause and effect. It is our task to figure it out. Even if we could, most of us will not take the time and effort to track all the possible variables that cause bad days. The fact is that in most cases bad days are just that – a bad day or two. Only if there is a string of them or a long pattern is there a real strong reason to figure out why.

So we agree that bad run days are a bummer. Other than analyze the heck out of it what should we do about a bad run day?

We all embrace those good runs and feeling free when we run. Those good days energize us and we look forward to our next runs. But in the case of the “bad run” runners often take a mental U-turn. Oftentimes our thinking degenerates into doubting our conditioning (a temporary situation) or worse yet doubting our capabilities (a permanent condition). We doubt all we’ve done. We discount any successes we’ve had in the past. We may even start to dread facing our next workout fearing yet another “bad day”. Now it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – your mindset going into the run sets you up for over-interpretation of every sensation. It’s like being sucked down a toilet – a vortex of negative thinking.

Allowing bad days to just pass and not allowing your mind to go down the cesspool of negative, over-interpretation thinking is key. In the larger scope of things, “this too shall pass”. It does not mean you are out of shape or lost conditioning. You do not lose conditioning because you had a slower or shorter run than scheduled. It is a bump in the road.

You can give yourself a bonus on a bad day though. It is a perfect opportunity to practice your mental toughness. What will you do when you hit a bad patch in a race? Where will your mind go when you have those “bad day” symptoms on race day? Bad days are the perfect opportunity to find out what you focus on, how you think and what you say to yourself to get through it. It is in these moments you learn how to be mentally tough on race day…. NOT on race day.

Your homework: On your next bad run day – log your thoughts, self-talk, and focal points; along with as many other variables as you can. Note what kept you going and what made you want to just give up and walk home. If you can learn from this… you have just reframed a bad run into a “learning run”. And you are doing what I ask of everyone of my runners – giving me your best bad day possible.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
This entry was posted in Excuses not to run, focus, Motivation, Running, Sports Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to I Had a Bad Run – Now What?

  1. Rob Nichols says:

    How about when you have weeks of bad runs?

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    That is of course an important question. The answer lies in tracking, documenting, logging and then doing analysis. There is something in the patterns that generate longer term plateaus as well as the little bumps in the road. If any pattern of poor running performances persists it is an indication that some change is needed. What is currently being done isn’t working. That can mean taking a break, start a new phase of training (stuck too long doing the same or similar things), integrating new cross-training, not racing OR start racing OR train for different kinds of races (changes the paces, distances and nature of your training).

  3. I’ve been running for three months in preparation for my first triathlon. I’ve never been a runner and still struggle to find that free feeling I hear runners talk about. I want that feeling! 🙂

    • Dean Hebert says:

      It can happen. It will happen. One thing that is really difficult when you start out is just getting the general conditioning under you belt to run strong and efficiently. Until that happens it’s not likely or often that that “great” day will be there. I’ll add this it also sure is tough feeling “great” running if it is AFTER swimming and biking! You’re never fresh enough to really experience it to its fullest. And if running is not your primary sport it does make it tougher. Why? Because the focus is not on running and honing, perfecting and getting the physical requirements to efficient running. But, keep after it .. and when it happens… savor it!

  4. That was exactly what I needed to hear. I headed out for my long run on Sunday morning and it all went wrong. I headed back early determined to get it done on Monday morning! I did… I made sure when I went home on Sat that I only thought that tomorrow would be better.. and not let the negative stuff creep in.


  5. Greg says:

    Well, I handle occasional “bad days” as positively as possible. If for whatever reason I can’t do my scheduled workout I go right into recovery mode, trying to log a few miles at recovery pace and then call it a day. Trying to push hard trough a “bad day” only means extra fatigue, possibly even injury and certainly a longer recovery time which would affect the next scheduled workout.
    Having run for many years, I know this happens and thus have no problem accepting it.

    • Greg says:

      When experiencing a “bad race” I either DNF for those same reasons (extra fatigue, possibly even injury and certainly a longer recovery time) or turn it in a training run by switching to an easier pace. It all depends on the importance of the race. In an A category race I would DNF.

    • bunica88 says:

      This is exctly what I did – i slowed my pace down by a whole minute and cut my length to 2.5 miles, then packed it in. I’m more afraid of causing injury than running through a block. I’m also in tune a bit more to know when its a mental block and when its fatigue and this was fatigue from yesturday’s 7 mile run. Bummed that i couldn’t do another 5 mile but my body was slowing down and resisting more than usual and it felt right to DNF it.

  6. Colin Whiteley says:

    Another great post on a fabulous blog. Love it!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Awesome post! I’ll add that if you have an amazingly good day, that doesn’t necessarily mean you sign up for a race that weekend and expect a huge PR! “Feel” changes from day to day, and you take the good with the bad. Thanks for this reminder.

  8. Pingback: the mysterious “bad” day | minutes per mile

  9. Nancy Jordan says:

    Don’t know when this blog ran but it is dead on for me. Yesterday I had my long run of 11 miles scheduled and could only do 6.5 and walked some of that. I just wiped out. After reading this blog and the comments I am looking forward to my long run make up on Saturday.

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