How to Adjust Your Workouts for an Off-Day



Every runner goes into every workout hoping for the best. We all want to feel great and hit or even surpass our planned paces. The reality, however, is that you’re likely to have a few workouts where you just don’t feel good. Or you may show up to the track for your workout and find that the wind is howling. Or maybe the heat index is so high that your body can’t cope with both the external heat load from the environment and the heat load you develop when running fast. Or maybe winter has arrived and you’re finding it hard to get moving? What’s a runner to do?

One difference between pro runners and us amateurs is that pro runners (often with the wisdom of their coaches) are able to manage their workouts in these situations. The best pro runners learn to be comfortable with adjusting their expectations for compromised workouts. This openness to adjusting a workout when things aren’t going well allows pro runners to make the otherwise compromised workout a positive training session. Where many recreational runners will throw in the towel and begin a slippery slope of frustration because they “failed” in the workout, pro runners have the ability to turn a lemon workout into lemonade.


For example, let’s say you have a workout of six 1-mile repeats at 10K pace with a 3-minute recovery jog. Let’s also say that you find you’re just “off” that day or that the weather isn’t cooperating. The best option, if available, is to delay the workout to another day, one where you hopefully feel better or the weather is more cooperative. Let’s say, however, that you can’t move the workout or the weather pattern won’t change. If you’re following the example of pro runners, you’ll adjust the workout in one of three ways.

First, and the best option for 10K runners to marathoners, is to slow the goal time for each repeat. If your ideal training pace for this workout is 6:30 per mile, shoot instead for around 6:40 per mile (a 2.5 percent adjustment using the chart below). Then you can settle in and complete the workout, feeling good that you salvaged what could have been a disastrous day. In such a situation, pro runners see no need to push so hard to hit the prescribed times that they overtrain. They would rather adjust the workout and get the work in. They know that they put in the effort and that will result in positive adaptations.

A second option is to adjust the number of repeats. So instead of doing six repeats, which would require too much effort in tough circumstances, run three to four repeats at the goal pace and call it a day. This is the best option if you’re concentrating on shorter distances, from 800m to 5K, because practicing race pace is of critical importance. For these short distance runners, they will want to run the prescribed fast pace but they just do fewer repeats. This allows them to get in some work at a fast pace but they modify the volume of fast running so they don’t over do it and require extended recovery after the workout.

The third option can help with both of the first two options: Increase the recovery time between repeats. Instead of taking 3 minutes between each repeat, take 4 or 5 minutes.

Again, pro runners are comfortable making these adjustments to ensure a positive workout. And, they are comfortable making these adjustments on the fly based on how they are feeling as they are working out. We amateurs should get more comfortable making these “compromises” as well. Doing so leads to more positive training results, which always builds our confidence for racing.

McMillan’s Guide to Perceived Fatigue and Compromising Conditions

I put this chart together as a guideline for when you aren’t feeling well or the weather won’t cooperate. There are four levels listed and you can adjust your workout or race by these levels depending on how you’re feeling or the weather conditions. This is just a guide; with a little experimentation, you’ll find how best to adjust your expectations.


You feel a little off but not too bad; there’s a slight headwind; or the heat index is above 80. Adjustment: 2.5 percent reduction in performance.


Your legs are heavy and lack the snap you wish they had; there’s a moderate headwind; or the heat index is above 90. Adjustment: 4 percent reduction in performance.


You can run but your body (and mind) aren’t cooperating; you feel slow and tired and your legs are dead; there’s a strong headwind; or the heat index is above 100. Adjustment: 6 percent reduction in performance.


You’re sick or on the verge of injury; your body and mind are elsewhere and you have no energy to run hard; the wind is so strong that you have to lean into it just to make forward progress; the heat index is above 105. Adjustment: Don’t bother. Take the day off or jog easy. Nothing positive will come from the day.

With a McMillan Run Team subscription, I’ll not only provide you with your best training plan but I’m available to help you make adjustments as life, weather, etc. inevitably require that you modify your training.

Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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