How to Get Through a Tough Run or Race

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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How to Get Through a Tough Run or Race

Mental running strategies are as much a part of training as logging miles. You know the feeling: You start a run, heading into a challenging workout or the first mile of a race, and a little bit of dread settles in.

This feels hard.

My legs feel like lead.

I’ll never get through this.

On days like this, it may seem easier to give up and reschedule your workout or simply phone it in rather than pushing hard to the finish. If you are sick or struggling with injury, there are legitimate reasons to stop a race or reschedule a workout. But most days, there’s value in pushing through, both physically and mentally.

Whenever a race or workout doesn’t start off as planned, it’s important to make a mindset shift as early as possible. The more time you spend stressing over how you feel or how slowly you think you’re running, the harder it is to make a comeback. Instead, it’s essential to treat this as an exercise in problem-solving.

Learning to problem-solve on the run or during a race is a skill, one we have to continually develop over time in different types of scenarios. What may work for a short, fast workout is probably different than how you’ll solve problems on a long, arduous training run. But it’s all good mental training! The more you learn how to adjust on the fly, the better prepared you’ll be to face any curveballs on race day.


Some days workouts just feel tough from the start. Maybe it’s the weather or a poor night of sleep. But sometimes you just feel off or sluggish for no obvious reason. For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume you’re healthy enough to continue the workout — if you’re sick or injured, get some much-needed rest!

If you started a workout and find yourself in a mental tailspin, you have several options:

1. Complete the workout as planned, but run by feel rather than trying to hit specific pace targets. Avoid staring at your watch if it’s making the head game worse. If you use a heart rate monitor and know where your heart rate should be for specific workouts, this may help guide your effort as well.
2. Shorten the duration of the workout but maintain the intensity. Maybe you run a 30-minute tempo instead of 40 minutes. You can also shorten the number of interval repetitions, running 6 reps of 3-minute intervals instead of 8.
3. Lengthen the rest interval. Rather than adjusting the hard part of the run, allow yourself more recovery time between sets with easy jogging or walking for active recovery.
4. Address fueling or hydration if it’s part of the problem. This is especially true for long runs. Back off the pace if it feels too hard, especially in the early miles.

While all workouts have a physical value, there is a great deal of mental value and strength that can be gained by pushing through when you’re feeling challenged. Try to maximize your benefits by changing your focus so you can feel good about what you complete.


Readjusting your goals to make a comeback during a hard workout can help prepare you for when things don’t go as planned on race day. Even though you may feel more pressure to perform well, especially if you have spent weeks or months training, many of the same strategies still apply.

As with a long run, if you’re racing distances such as the half, marathon or an ultra, make sure fueling and hydration aren’t part of the problem. If you need to take in fluid or calories but feel queasy, try taking smaller amounts more frequently to help the digestion process.

If fueling is not the problem and you’re struggling, it’s time to go into problem-solving mode:

  • Address your goals: Will you be content if you finish? Is there a more generous time limit you can allow yourself rather than only being content with a PR? Race goals don’t have to have a number attached to them — sometimes not giving up on yourself is the best goal to have!
  • Run by feel: Tune into your body and focus on an effort that feels sustainable. Aim to settle into a pace that is manageable and an appropriate effort for the distance you must cover.
  • Treat it like an ultra: It may be especially true for ultras, but no matter the distance remember things can always get better! Often a rough patch is temporary. Just because you feel sluggish at mile 1 it doesn’t mean your race is doomed. Adjust your plan and pace as needed and try to keep a little faith that it can get better.


Training and racing are as much mental as they are physical. Learning how to address setbacks in workouts or races is a skill that takes ongoing practice.

Not every run goes as planned, but with a little problem solving you can bounce back to get the most from your efforts.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.


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