More often than not, runners are stubborn people. They will log their miles in downpours, snowstorms, or heat waves. But even the most stubborn and resilient of runners inevitably will want to quit a run at some point. How do you know if you should quit a run, especially a hard workout, and when you should stick it out?
This is meant to guide you through the thought process of determining if you should quit a run. This is not intended to be a comprehensive or definitive guide. Ultimately, you should use your body’s feedback and common sense to guide you. When in doubt, it is more prudent to quit a run.
What Feels Wrong?
If you are tempted to bail a workout, take a moment to assess why. Why do you want to quit? Is it mental or physical? If it is physical, is it pain or discomfort?
- Pain: If you are experiencing sharp pain, pain that alters your stride, are unable to bear weight on foot or leg, or hear a “pop” followed by muscle pain, stop running. No injury is worth running through. If anything, running through pain can worsen an injury.
- Physical illness: Dizziness, vomiting, lightheadedness, chills, overheating, and other alarming symptoms are not worth running through. This especially applies if you are running in high heat or humidity.
- Inability to sustain appropriate intensity: This does not mean pace (see below). If you feel so winded that you cannot run for more than a few minutes at anything harder than a slow jog, your body needs more rest.
- Mental discomfort: If it’s a case of the voice in your head saying “you can’t do this,” that is no reason to bail and quit. You can do this. Racing is not comfortable. Most workouts are not about hitting x pace exactly, but rather cultivating the ability to tolerate a certain degree of physical discomfort.
- Paces aren’t “on target”: Prescribed paces are merely an objective way of communicating the goal intensity of a workout. There are situations where you can’t hit the target pace, but you can sustain the intended effort. For example, an interval workout in the heat or a tempo run after a lackluster night’s sleep can still be completed, even if you aren’t hitting your goal pace. Focus on your effort, including cues such as ventilatory rate, and don’t stress over pace. You will still achieve the intended purposes of the workout – and that is what your body responds to.
However, there are several scenarios where the answer is not as clear as these. You may not have physical pain, but something doesn’t feel right. What do you in those scenarios?
Are You Over-Reaching?
A workout should present a challenge. However, some recreational runners undertake workouts that are inappropriately hard for their training or fitness level. Others do too many hard workouts per week, without adequate recovery in between. In this scenario, a workout may go poorly because you are under-recovered and over-reaching. You will have a pattern of workouts that go poorly without clear reason and your workouts will worsen over time.
If this is the scenario, try scaling the workout (see below) or substituting an easy run instead. Your body needs a break; otherwise, you risk overtraining or even injury from inadequate recovery.
The closer you get to your race, the more prudent it can be to bail on a workout. Generally speaking, you adapt to a workout in 10-14 days. The purpose of a workout within two weeks of a race is not to improve your fitness but to mentally prepare you for the race and keep your legs feeling sharp. The taper is not the ideal time to dip into the well. You do not want to leave your race in your training when so close to race day. So if a workout feels really bad close to a race, quitting it can be beneficial.
Can You Scale the Workout?
Before you quit a workout, try scaling it while maintaining the same purpose. This will work if you are struggling in a workout due to weather conditions, poor sleep or nutrition, or having an “off” day.
For example, instead of a continuous 5-mile tempo run, you could do a tempo interval workout. You can insert short recovery jogs and run 5 x 1 mile at tempo pace with 30-60 seconds recovery. The short recovery jogs make it easier on the body, while you are still training at your lactate threshold for the same volume.
For a speed workout, you could try reducing the number of intervals (ie. from 6 x 800m to 4 x 800m) or lengthen the recovery (ie. 400m recovery jog instead of 200m recovery jog after 400m repeats).
If it’s an easy run or long run, simply shorten the mileage or duration.
If scaling the workout does not help, then it is time to quit the workout and either stop running or just run easy for the remaining duration.
Should You Attempt the Run Again?
Even if you didn’t complete the workout as planned, give your body the appropriate recovery – especially if you completed part of the workout or scaled it. Attempting the workout again could only dig you deeper into an under-recovery hole, which might have been the reason why the workout didn’t go well in the first place. Continue with your training plan as is. One missed workout will not derail your progress or goals.
The exception is if you bailed on the workout within the first couple minutes due to external conditions (such as a thunderstorm rolling in or encountering ice within the first few meters).
Is the Bad Workout Part of a Pattern?
Have you had multiple workouts recently where you need to quit? If your workouts are progressively getting worse, the problem may be recovery. Examine your sleep, nutrition, training load, and other factors, and talk to your coach if you have one. If in doubt, opt for a few days of easy running or cross-training and hit reset.
Sudden changes in weather – such as the onset of summer heat and humidity before you acclimate- can set you up for a few rough workouts in a row. While it may be tempting to quit, sticking out these workouts or scaling them back will help you adapt to the hotter weather. (If, however, you experience any signs of heat exhaustion, stop running.)
Alternatively, if you find yourself quitting every time a run feels hard, you might need to work on your mental toughness. Workouts are hard – just like racing is hard. If you quit when workout feels hard, you are more likely to back off when a race inevitably becomes tough. Find techniques to cope with physical discomfort, such as overcoming negative thoughts, and learn to embrace the area outside of your comfort zone.
How do you decide whether or not to quit a run?