Recovering From A Bad Run

When I first started running, every mile felt like a Herculean effort.  It took months, but once my runs started to feel less like I was dying, and more like I was moving, I really enjoyed my training.  Mostly.  So, I was really surprised when a few weeks later, I had what I thought was the worst run of my life.  Each step felt like I was carrying cinderblocks, my stomach hurt, and I almost cried when I looked at my watch after what I thought was almost a mile to see I’d only covered a third.  I’d been making such great progress!  I never saw that bad run coming.

And honestly, it rented so much space in my little running brain for way longer than it should have. That hard run tormented me. I started off every run afterwards silently praying that this run wouldn’t feel like that one. I worried about whether I was really making the progress I had thought I was. That one shitty run ate at my confidence and stole a lot of my running joy, for at least the better part of a month.

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But surprisingly, I learned a lot of lessons from that one bad run.  Which is a really good thing, because it was 100% not my last bad run.  And while I don’t ever love having a run that feels 95% harder than it should, I’ve learned how to recover and bounce back a whole lot quicker.  So here’s a few of my favorite Do’s and Don’ts for recovering from a bad run.

  • Do recognize that every runner has bad runs. Elites and back of the pack weekend warriors alike. If you run long enough, you will experience bad runs on more than occasion.
  • So Don’t be surprised when a bad run rears it’s ugly head. If you haven’t felt like death warmed over after a run in recent history, know that one of those soul sucking death marches is bound to appear at some point in the future. Toddlers have tantrums. Actors have crap auditions. Runners have bad runs. It’s just a thing that happens sometimes.
  • Don’t question your progress. One bad run does not a shitty training cycle make. There’s so many things that can factor into a crappy run. Having less than stellar sleep the night before, having more stress at work, eating something that just doesn’t agree with you. Suffering through a bad run does not mean that you’re not getting stronger.
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  • In fact, do realize that surviving a bad run means you’ve gained mental strength! It takes a lot more grit and determination to get through a crap run that makes you almost willing to pay for the most expensive Uber to get back to your car, than it does to get through an easy, breezy life-affirming trot. So celebrate that.
  • Don’t ever let the first mile dictate how your run is going to go. Seasoned runners everywhere know that the first mile is the liar mile. It’s absolutely possible to have the shittiest first mile turn into a glorious run three steps later. So if you’re going to call it on a run (totes acceptable!), wait until after that first mile to make a decision.
  • Do be ok with cutting it short if things don’t get better. Now there’s a huge difference between a run that just feels like more of an effort than it should, and a run that is an absolute struggle with every single step. In the grand scheme of things, slashing a few miles off your run is not going to make any sort of meaningful impact on your training. If you’re pushing through an important long run (say your 10 miler in your half-marathon training plan), give it your best shot to finish. But if you only get through 8 miles, those last 2 are not going to make or break your race performance.
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  • Don’t reduce your calories. I know a lot of runners might be tempted to reduce their intake, especially if they only got half of their run done. But don’t! There’s a very good chance your body is slightly under-fueled, and reducing calories even more might just screw up tomorrow’s run.

Related Post: Diet Culture & Athletes

  • Do focus on recovery.  Make sure to prioritize some stretching, foam rolling, eating, and getting a good nights sleep.  I’ve had some of my best runs 24 hours after some of my worst, and I honestly attribute it to making recovery the most important part of my day.
  • Don’t perseverate on the bad run.  Part of having a background in behavioral health means that I get to use big, annoying words like perseverate.  It’s a fancy way of saying fixating.  So don’t fixate on the bad run.  Don’t let it mentally mind screw you into worrying about having another bad run.  The more often you think about bad runs, the more often you will have them.  It’s the law of running attraction (it’s also why I try not to think about skunks on my runs).
  • Do stay focused on your overall goal and consistency.  When it comes to training, most of the magic is in the consistency.  So if you can keep showing up every day, you’re golden.
  • Don’t try to “make up” for it.  See the point above.  As long as you keep showing up, there’s no real reason to try to run harder or longer tomorrow.  It all comes out in the wash eventually.
  • Do consider whether you might need a recovery week or a day off.  In order to grow, you have to give your body the opportunity to recover.  So if you’ve been pushing for weeks without any real rest, and you suddenly have a crap run, consider programming a cutback week.

I know it can be easier said than done to just move on past a bad run like Beyonce walks away from anything that doesn’t serve her.  But running is something that should add joy and happiness to your life, and if you’re letting those bad runs hang out in your head, running stops being a good time.  If you keep moving, and find that bad runs are happening consistently, it might be a good idea to reach out to a coach to see if something in your programming should be tweaked.

But overall, remember that bad runs happen to all of us.  The best runners can’t avoid them all together, but strong runners do know the secrets for recovering from a bad run.  If you’ve got extra tips for moving past a crappy run, make sure to share them with the rest of us!

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