The honest and obvious truth of half marathon and marathon training is that it’s tiring, both mentally and physically.
When you’re at the height of training, with weeks full of track repeats, tempo runs, long runs, and many, many miles, inevitably there is going to be a run where you are feeling less than stellar. You know the runs I’m talking about: your legs are sluggish, you feel tired, you’re just not into the run, and your brain is telling you to just give up and stop.
If you read my weekly workout recap from last week, you’ll know I had one of those runs on Saturday, when my plan called for 12 miles with a 3 mile fast finish. The circumstances were not ideal for this run; since it was the usual temperatures below freezing with an even colder wind chill, I ran (yet another) long run on a treadmill. (Come on, weather, all I want is no ice and temperatures above ten degrees on my long run days! Is that too much to ask for?) I was feeling fatigued and my GI system was behaving less than stellar.
I wanted to quit so, so many times on this run. I usually enjoy my long runs, even if they’re on the treadmill, but I was simply just not feeling this one. Thankfully, Ryan sat with me most of the time (our treadmill is in our guest room) and encouraged each time I just wanted to stop and call it a day.
I started off this run at my usual long run/easy run pace of 8:35/mile (7.0 on the treadmill) on a 1% incline. At mile 3 I had to stop for a bathroom break and drank some water, and I thought after that the rest of the run would be smooth sailing. As I always do, I adjusted the incline frequently to mimic the changing terrain of the outdoors, but this wasn’t helping me much mentally or physically this time around. The run dragged on, and nothing worked to help improve it. My favorite music did not distract me, I could not disassociate my mind from the fatigue weighing down my legs. I stopped for water and some raisins at mile 6 and could not believe I was only halfway through the run. (In retrospect, I should have dropped my pace, and probably would have naturally if I was outside, but I just wanted to be done!) Once I started back up, I got a side stitch that just would not go away. I stopped for more water at mile 7, and then again at mile 9. I decided to pick up the pace, even if barely, and kept repeating to myself (and out loud to Ryan) that I could do anything for three miles.
When I completed the 12 miles, I nearly cried with relief. I spent 11 miles not thinking I could do it, even though I’ve run 12 miles plenty of times. Somehow, I salvaged my long run gone bad and hit my highest mileage week ever. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it!
While you should definitely stop running if you are experiencing pain, you can save a bad training run and still finish, even when you feel like even taking one more step is impossible! Here are 10 ways to salvage a bad training run:
1. Distract yourself and disassociate.
Sometimes during a tough run, you just need to distract your mind from thinking about your pace, how much further you gave to go, and how your muscles feel tired. Distraction does not always work best for speed work or tempo runs, since you want to stay tuned in to your pace. For long runs, when you should be keeping a comfortable pace, distraction can help take your mind off of things and help you keep going through a bad run. If you are outside, be sure to still be aware of your surroundings! Distract yourself with music (see below), let your mind wander, admire the nature around, or talk with friends if you’re running with a partner or group. If you’re on the treadmill, use this time to catch up on your favorite shows on Netflix and Hulu. Distraction works because it disassociates your mind from any discomfort you are experiencing and takes your thoughts away from the external factors that are causing you to have a bad run. This allows you to keep going and helps the miles pass faster.
2. Focus on your form.
When you’re fatigued and achy, one of the first things to go in a run is your form. Your posture begins to slump, you stop pushing off with your glutes, and you begin to overstride. As your form worsens, running becomes less efficient, more tiring, and just outright harder. When you begin to struggle during a run, evaluate your form. Are your leaning slightly forward, pushing out of your glutes, keeping your hips even, and striking your feet directly beneath you? Correct your form if you’re not doing these, and check in every 5-10 minutes throughout the rest of your run. This will make you feel more comfortable throughout your run and the frequent form check gives you something other than just running to think about.
3. Hydrate more frequently.
The basic advice for hydration is to drink to thirst. You don’t want to drink too much water, as this can cause that unpleasant sloshing feeling in your stomach and dilute your blood too much (hyponatremia). However, for many runners it’s easier to under-hydrate than overhydrate, especially when you are out on a run and are not carrying any water with you. Dehydration can affect athletic performances on runs over an hour, which is likely while you may feel the effects of not drinking any water during long runs or speed workouts. If you experience stomach cramps or are feeling dragged down by thirst, begin hydrating early on your run so you don’t hit the point of perceived dehydration. I like to mimic race day hydration on long runs and tempo runs, so I drink a sip or two water about every 20 minutes. Water really can make the difference between finishing a long run feeling strong or struggling to finish!
4. Slow down your pace.
Your long run isn’t a race. You should be running your long runs at an easy pace as it is (1-2 minutes slower than goal race pace), so if you’re struggling to keep going, slow down a bit. Your muscles may be tired from a hard training week and just not up to doing a certain pace that day. Pushing yourself too hard will only cause your muscles to fatigue even more quickly. It’s better to run 16 miles slower than usual than to cut your run short at 10 miles and miss the benefits of your long run. If you need to, throw in a couple walk breaks to help you slow down.
5. Take some fuel.
If you’re running longer than 90 minutes, chances are you will need to take some mid-run fuel. If you’re running for a shorter time but don’t eat anything beforehand, you may also need mid-run fuel to make up for going into a your run on an empty stomach. Why will taking a gel or other fuel help you salvage a training run gone bad? Your muscles convert mostly carbohydrates and some fats into the energy you need to run. When you feel like you just do not have the energy to keep running, especially on a long run, it is probably because your body does not have enough carbs to convert to energy. By taking a gel or other fuel, you are providing your body with easily digestible carbs (often in the form of sugar) so your body can quickly convert it to energy and keep you moving forward! Check out my tips on how to fuel for long runs here.
6. Change your self-talk.
I personally find that how I mentally frame a run and how I think about the it during the run affects the outcome of the run. If I dread a long run and think throughout the run “this is too hard, I can’t do this,” then I am more than likely to have a bad long run. If I tell myself beforehand that I’m going to have a good run, and tell myself during the run that I’m doing great and enjoying it (even if I’m not), the run goes much better. When you hit a rough spot in a run and don’t think you can keep going, don’t tell yourself that. Instead think, “I can do this. I can finish x amount of miles. This is possible.” Don’t berate yourself for going slow, for struggling, or for wanting to be done; doing so will only make the run even more difficult.
7. Play your favorite music.
I am definitely the type of person who runs with music almost all the time (although outside I don’t use headphones and just keep the volume on my phone low, so sometimes I forget the music is playing). Have a playlist you save just for run, and that way you get excited to listen to your favorite music and keep going even when running gets uncomfortable and difficult. During really hard portions of your run, especially during speed work or tempo runs, play your favorite song and focus on just keeping your pace until the end of that song. Focusing on the music will take your mind off of any discomfort or negative thoughts and will make the miles go by faster.
8. Take notes of what is going wrong.
While you are running, take mental notes on what is bothering you. It may seem counterintuitive to pay close attention to what is causing you discomfort, but pinpointing what is going wrong can give you a sense of control over the situation. If fatigued legs are causing you to struggle, then remind yourself that running comes from more than just your legs. Additionally, taking mental note of what makes a training run go bad can help you take preventative measures in the future, especially on race day when it really matters. If stomach cramps and an urge to use the bathroom is slowing you down, make note of this and consider taking imodium beforehand or changing what you eat the night before to prevent GI distress.
9. Divide your run into portions.
Whether you are struggling through a long run or shuffling through speed work, dividing your run into portions will keep it from becoming overwhelming and help you stay focused. If you’re just not sure how you can whip out five mile repeats, focus just on one repeat at a time. Don’t think about how many miles total you will run, but think just about completing that one repeat. With a long run, divide it into portions and separate each portion with a fuel and water break. I also use this to think about the remainder of my run in smaller portions or percentages. So if I’m out on a 12 mile run, I think “I’m a quarter of the way there, only 3 more sets of 3 miles to go” rather than “I’ve only gone 3 so far and still have 9 to go.” Breaking the run into chunks makes it much easier to handle mentally, and as I’ve discussed lots here already, it’s often our brains that cause us to struggle on runs!
10. Recite your mantra.
According to Runner’s World, “A good mantra diverts your mind from thoughts that reinforce the pain to thoughts that help you transcend it.” A mantra is a short phrase that will help you think positively during your run. Some running mantras include “You are faster/stronger/tougher than you think,” or the popular Oiselle motto “head up, wings out.” My current favorite running mantra comes from the poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate.” Whenever I really feel that I cannot keep running, I remind myself that it is ultimately myself, not external forces, that controls the outcome of a training run or a race. Running is called an endurance sport for a reason: you have to endure tough moments and persevere. Whenever that part of my brain starts trying to convince me to quit, I repeat to myself, “I am the master of my fate” until I can override that voice and keep pushing forward.
Ideally, you don’t want to have to use these tips, but every runner has a bad run (or two, or several!) during the many weeks of race training. While bad training runs are by no means desirables, they will only making you mentally tougher and more prepared for race day!