What Do Crappy Runs Mean

Last week was a rough one for me all around.  My legs felt heavy, my CrossFit WODs seemed like they were 40 minutes long, and my sleep was terrible.  Fortunately, this week has been much kinder to me, but being on the struggle bus for nearly seven days had me thinking long and hard about what crappy runs mean.  I often have running clients who send me a frantic text message immediately after a run that didn’t go the way they wanted.  They tell me they feel like they aren’t getting stronger, they worry about their goals and if they will reach them, full blown panic can ensue.  As a coach, it is my job and distinct pleasure to lovingly them tell the calm the hell down.  The run sucked, it happens, over the course of a training block we will all have at least one bad run.  But what do the crappy runs mean?  And what do we need to do about them?

Here’s the reality, if you’re running regularly, and you have one hard, defeating run, it probably doesn’t mean much of anything.  That’s just the way running goes, and it usually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Whenever I have a newer running client who goes into panic after one tough run, I enjoy telling them that about once a month I have a simple four mile run that takes everything inside of me to finish.  Now, I am a person who runs 40-60 miles a week, four miles is a blip on the radar for me at this point.  Yet, there have been plenty of times that I’ve set out for a short easy run that has felt harder than the 17 miler I ran two weeks before.  So, the first thing to keep in mind is that one bad run is no reason to freak out.  It doesn’t mean you’re not getting stronger.  It doesn’t mean you should give up.  But knowing all of this also doesn’t mean you can’t be cranky and have an extra glass of wine afterwards.  Now that we’ve ruled out what crappy runs DON’T mean, we can chat about what they can mean.

What Crappy Runs Mean
A hard run from last week

What Crappy Runs Mean

You’re a Runner
Congratulations!  You are now part of the wonderful and coveted club of runners.  You’ve actually been a member for a while now, and you’re delinquent on your membership dues.  Those dues are paid in the form of fatigue, blisters, and (you guessed it) sometimes soul crushing runs.  Being a runner means coming to terms with the fact that sometimes, no matter how fit or in shape or strong you are, some days are just hard.  I have clients call me, all sorts of upset that after weeks of what seems like steady progress, all of a sudden they had the worst run ever.  The ABSOLUTE worst.  The kind of run you have after you’ve spent three weekends in college back to back binge drinking and bumming cigarettes only to decide NOW is the time you get healthy and start running. I don’t speak from personal experience on that last point, but it sounds pretty challenging and miserable.  After this horrible run they wonder if all that progress was placebo effect, and think maybe they really aren’t actually runners after all.  But you know what, runners have crappy runs.  Guess who never, ever, ever has them?  Non-runners.  So if you’ve experienced your first or fifteenth terrible run, at least you can rest assured that you are in good company and paying your club fees.

There’s Something to Troubleshoot
I almost never explore this as a possibility after one shitty run.  This option is generally reserved after 2-3 bad runs, followed by 3-4 days of feeling like trash.  Even then, I tend to be a little suspicious.  But once you have crossed the threshold of the occasional harder than it should be run, and you find yourself in the territory of a week of frustrating runs, there are a couple of things to consider.  Are you fueling enough?  Look honestly at your habits and where you are in your running journey and assess.  Have you increased your weekly mileage for the last couple of months and kept your intake the same?  Have you somehow magically forgotten to eat (I’ve never understood this, but I’ve heard it’s a thing that happens to some people)?  Are you running long distances without taking anything in during your run?  If there’s even a chance that you’re underfueling, I really recommend increasing intake for a week or so just to see if there’s any positive impacts.  If so, you’ve found the culprit, so continue eating enough and go about your merry runner way.

breakfast sandwich
Never hurts to eat a little more

Are you resting enough?  Do you find yourself feeling tired earlier in the evening than usual?  Are you grouchy(er) than normal, and snapping more easily at work and home?  If so, you probably need a good nap and an early bed time for a couple of days.  This running business is no joke, and if you have a couple nights of less than wonderful sleep, it can really screw you up and slow your roll.  So put the excuses to bed, and climb in there as well.  Are you possibly getting sick?  Something like the flu will usually come on quickly and make itself rather known, but a cold, sinus infection, or upper respiratory infection might come on slower and sneakier.  If you’ve been feeling run down, achy, had a sore throat, or felt flush, it might be time to take a day or three off and dive into a Netflix binge and your remedy of choice.

You’re Learning Perseverance
Look, contrary to popular belief, while running is natural and primal, we’re humans that have evolved to conserve as much energy as possible.  Its counter-intuitive to your body to just wake up, have some coffee, and set out for a nice jog.  There’s no lion chasing you, you’re not running down dinner, and the serial killers probably aren’t even up yet when you get started.  Your body has no clue why you’ve suddenly decided to run for no real reason, and it will fight to get you to stop.  But you’re smarter than that, you’ve read the inspirational Pinterest quotes, and you know your mind will quit 15 times before your body actually needs you to stop.  So if you are experiencing a challenging run, it’s a good opportunity to remind yourself that you are learning how to keep pushing beyond the arbitrary limits that your mind is setting for you.  Perseverance is one of the greatest lessons and skills that running has allowed me to learn, but the truth is, it’s a lesson that only comes from enduring the hard, painful, uncomfortable runs.  The beautiful, relaxing, easy runs are great, but they don’t teach you much of anything other than how lovely running can be, and you already knew that.

You’re Getting Stronger
Now, this one may come as sort of a surprise.  As logical human beings, we usually expect that progress will be linear, and improvement will happen in an uninterrupted manner.  But that’s just false. It’s false when it comes to learning to play an instrument.  It’s false when it comes to learning advanced calculus (so I hear).  It’s false when it comes to progressing in your career.  And it’s completely false in running.  Progress isn’t linear, and moving forward usually requires a step back every now and then.  In my experience, when the easy runs feel hard, it often means that my body is working to rebuild from all the work I have done previously.  The process of rebuilding takes energy, and just might leave you feeling like you have none.  And that’s ok.  Remembering that growth happens in the uncomfortable places can give you the motivation to keep moving, and to experience the gains later on.  After a good nap.

So, next time you have a run (or week) that leaves you feeling like pile of poop, just remember you’re always a runner if you’re a person a who runs and progress isn’t linear.  You’re also in good company; if you’d like to read about my week full of “bad” runs, please feel free to check out this post.  And if you’re still not feeling great, try some snacks and sleeps, they almost always work for me.

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