The Benefits of Bad Workouts


Bad workouts and races–we all have them and we always will. So why fight them? Why not learn from them? As I work with beginners, Boston qualifiers and Olympic hopefuls, I no longer fret about the occasional bad workout or race. I see them as learning opportunities. Most of the time, they’re harbingers of better things to come, because the coach and athlete are now smarter than they would be if things went exactly to plan. Let’s look at the main reasons for bad workouts and what to do about them.


If you have a workout that goes poorly, evaluate if that workout fits what type of runner you are. Workouts in areas that are our weakness are where we are more likely to struggle. For example, I’m more of a speedster whereas my training partner is more of an endurance monster. So, when we do workouts at 5K pace or faster, I’m usually the one who has the “good” workout. However, when we get to tempo runs, he kicks my butt, making me feel like it was a “bad” workout. At first, I was frustrated because we both have the same race times. But I learned that it really came down to our physiological and psychological differences. I now accept that workouts that are my weakness are more likely to be “bad” ones. (“Bad” is a relative term. In this case, I mean that I struggle to hit the paces that I would expect based on my fitness level.)

I know going into these longer workouts that I’m going to have to really “bring it” to have a good one; if it doesn’t go as well as I’d hoped, I don’t worry about it. For workouts that are my strength, however, I always expect them to go well. (If they don’t, I can probably tie them to the outside factors discussed in the next paragraph.) This subtle understanding of your strengths and weaknesses can take the pressure off every workout–no matter what kind it is (stamina, speed, sprint)–and make you more accepting of the tough workouts and races.


I’m always amazed at how upset runners get when a workout or race goes poorly when there’s clearly a reason for it. For example, let’s say you have an important deadline at work, and this looming project weighs heavy on your mind. But your training plan says to do a 30-minute tempo run. You try to squeeze in the workout at lunchtime, but the workout goes poorly. Any outsider can see that your workout was compromised by your work stress, but you’re likely to get worried about your “bad” workout and let it affect your confidence.

We tend to separate life stress from training stress. But they’re all part of one stress pie, and you can tolerate only so much of it, no matter how tough and determined you are.

The same goes for environmental conditions. If it’s hot, humid or both, your workouts will be compromised. You may read that and think, “Of course.” But how often do you hope for a great workout even though it’s hot? This is setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Instead, adjust your expectations and use the “bad” workout as a time to build your determination–the quality that keeps you going even though the workout or race isn’t going your way.

Read more about how to adjust your workouts for an off-day.


Recovery often plays a role in bad workouts and races. When a workout goes wrong, look at the few days preceding it. Were you simply not recovered and ready for a hard effort? Again, this is where our being a slave to the training plan can hurt us. Your training plan should be a flowing schedule, where you’re constantly moving things around to make sure the body’s stress/rest cycle is obeyed. Be open to the possibility that what you think is enough recovery isn’t. In those cases, spread the stress–allow another day or two of recovery after that type of workout.


Accept that the body has an ebb and flow that we don’t quite understand. Some days you just feel “off.” As hard as it is to accept a bad workout or race when there are valid reasons, it’s doubly challenging when there appears to be no reason at all. I used to worry about this, but now I just shrug it off as the quirkiness of the body and mind. Don’t invest in it or overthink it. Move on. By the way, being able to not dwell on bad days is also one of the 5 Traits of Successful Runners.


If you have several bad workouts and races in a row, something’s amiss. In these cases, you need to do a more thorough evaluation of your overall training plan and your life schedule. Usually, something’s out of balance. I often see runners who are trying to do too much training (either in quantity or quality or both). Or they have too much going on in their lives outside of running and are too fatigued (mentally and physically) to have consistent training and racing. If you’re having repeated bad workouts or races, you may need to back off a bit and lower your expectations. Reduce your volume and intensity by 10 to 30 percent. Do this until your workouts and races improve, then gradually work back up to your normal training.

And there are some days you should just go out and run for the simple joy of running. Knowing when it’s time to leave the electronics at home.

Next: Durability is the most underrated component of distance running talent. Read how you can improve your durability.

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.

Read Greg’s Bio




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