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. (Are your bad workouts something you can change? Learn how to Break the Worst Running Habits.)
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.)
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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. (Try these 5 Exercises That Make You Run Faster for a better workout.)
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. (Learn to clear your mind for better runs by avoiding the Top 4 Stress Traps for Runners.)
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.