STOP NOW SHOULD YOU KEEP GOING?
When to push through a tough workout – or not
EVEN LEGENDARY RUNNERS struggle to determine when to call a halt to a bad workout and when to press on. Former marathon world record holder Derek Clayton would run every repetition no matter what: ‘If I planned 15, I ran 15,’ he said. In contrast, John Walker, who became the first sub-3:50-miler, in 1975, would go home after one rep if he felt terrible.
Most of us lie somewhere in the middle. Follow these guidelines to help you decide which workouts to tough out, which to tweak and when to throw in the towel. If you feel an injury starting to develop, it’s time for you to back off. Being able to recognise midrun injuries (as opposed to passing twinges) isn’t always easy, but anything that forces you to alter your stride is a red flag. Acute, localised pain in a muscle, bone or joint is also a warning that should be heeded.
Fatigue or an inability to hit your goal times is a more ambiguous warning sign. We all have off days, and they’re not always a good excuse to give up. Look for patterns: if you’ve been struggling for a week or more, and especially if you’ve been feeling progressively worse, that could signal illness or overtraining. Take a complete training break until you feel fresher.
PROCEED WITH CARE
You start your workout and the times you log are slower than expected – you feel worse than you think you should. It could simply be accumulated fatigue from running high mileage. If you’ve generally been feeling OK, modify the workout. If it’s a long endurance workout, shorten it; if it’s a tough speed workout, simply dial back the pace.
FINISH THAT WORKOUT
The most common mistake for most runners is forcing themselves to continue when they shouldn’t. But there are also situations when you should not let yourself off the hook. One is when you consistently start workouts faster than you intend: for example, you want to run 10 × 400m at a speed of 90 seconds per rep, but you run the first three in 85 seconds, slow over the next three, then give up. Another is when your goal paces are unrealistically fast: you’re capable of averaging 90 seconds, but you tell yourself you should average 85 seconds.
South African sports scientist Ross Tucker argues that we make our pacing decisions in races by comparing how hard our current pace feels against an internal template of how hard we expect the effort to feel. Developing this template takes trial and error: if it feels this hard a quarter of the way through the workout, I can sustain my pace; if it’s a little harder, I can’t. But that learning process is short-circuited if you simply move the goalposts or abandon your workouts whenever they go badly.
Everyone flies a little too close to the sun now and then, but if you find that after a blazing start you’re cutting workouts short more than once or twice a month, you’re ingraining patterns that may start being repeated in races. The best way to learn how to set the right pace is to suffer the consequences when you don’t.
If you’re wiped out from starting too fast, sorry – you ought to finish your reps.