How to Cope With (and Turn Around) a Bad Workout

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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How to Cope With (and Turn Around) a Bad Workout

Not every run is going to be the perfect wind-in-your-hair, endorphins-flowing, fun-fest you’re hoping for. Some workouts aren’t going to go your way: You’ll feel lethargic and achy, you won’t be hitting your goal times or paces, or you’ll stare daggers at your run partner if they run way ahead of you on the trail. The good news is even the worst workout can be turned around or at least used as information to help you develop into an even stronger runner.

“A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside,’ just by changing the contents of consciousness,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his famed work on flow state. Here’s how you can shift your bad workout and miserable mood to a happier, successful run:


Odds are good a bad workout isn’t truly bad, it’s just boring. Check in with yourself and really assess whether your workout is going poorly or if you’re just not feeling motivated or ‘on’ today. Maybe you simply need to switch from podcasts to pump-up jams to get moving. Or perhaps switch up your workout to hill intervals or fartleks to spice things up.


Every professional runner has bad days. Every amateur runner has bad days. “The big thing to remember is that setbacks and failures are inevitable no matter what you do,” says David Roche, a running coach and author of “The Happy Runner.” A bad workout is part of being a runner or athlete. Know you’re going to get through it and be stronger because of it.


If a workout is going badly, often, we just need to push through. But take a few moments and do a head-to-toe body scan, paying attention to aches and pains. If something truly feels ‘off’ and you’re afraid pushing through the workout will make it feel worse (foot pain or a severe sore throat, for example), then stop your workout. But if all systems are a go, it’s time to push through.


You know that cheesy adage emblazoned on T-shirts sold at the beach, “A bad day of vacation beats a good day at work”? The same applies to running. If you’re not hitting your PR pace on hill intervals, that’s OK. No coach will berate you for having a less-than-stellar interval set as long as you’re clearly trying. Think about putting in the effort, not calling it a day because you can’t hit your goal.


Rest assured that, at some point, you’re going to hit a rough patch in a race. Use this rough workout as training for when things are going sideways on race day: This is a great way to practice your mental toughness and figure out how to get through tough moments. A bad workout can be a gift — if every workout feels amazing, you might not be pushing hard enough. Also, you might not know how to handle it when you miss an aid station in a race and are bonking or when the person you always beat is sprinting ahead of you.


After a bad workout, take a few minutes to reflect on what your day leading up to the workout was like. Sometimes, a bad workout has an obvious root cause, like a fight with a spouse, a bad day at the office or a nagging pain in your knee. But there are sneaky culprits, too. You might see patterns emerge: You have bad stomach cramps after a certain sandwich at lunch, you tend to feel ‘off’ right before your period hits or your bad workouts correlate to the bad nights of sleep. So many ‘bad workouts’ are completely preventable — but not until we know what’s causing them.


When you’re debating throwing in the towel and heading home, just get through five more minutes. You might slow to an easy jog, a slow shuffle or even a walk: Whatever you need to do to get through just a few more minutes. Sometimes, you need to push through the slump to turn a bad workout into a decent one, and all it takes is sticking it out for an extra few steps. Even if you end up quitting, at least you got five minutes closer to finishing.

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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