When to push through a tough work­out – or not

Runner's World (UK) - - Training - BY ALEX HUTCHIN­SON Alex Hutchin­son is a for­mer elite ath­lete and the author of Which­comes­first, Car­dioor­weights? ( Wil­liam Mor­row)

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.


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.


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.

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