When to Push and When to Stop

Last week I wrote about the importance of resilience and perseverance in running. Pushing through physically and mentally tough moments is what brings you success as a runner; beginners and elites alike all have moments when they want to quit but instead keep moving forward. 

However, my run yesterday reminded me that while we should keep pushing forward when we fight mental doubt or physical discomfort, there are other times were we need to stop or adjust our workout in order to prevent injury or overtraining. 

Overtraining is when running has put too much stress on your body and your body can’t fully recover. Mommy Runs Fast explained it so well in her post this week: it’s when your body just refuses to do the workouts. You feel constantly tired, your legs feel heavy for several days in a row, you lose motivation, and even your easy runs become difficult. If you don’t cut back in time, overtraining can actually negate the gains you have made in training and be a one-way ticket to injury. 

I’m thankfully nowhere near the point of overtraining, but I definitely had a rough tempo run yesterday. Since I’m tapering for the Go! St. Louis Half, I only had 7 miles with 4 miles at goal pace on my schedule. After a couple warm-up miles, I started to pick up my pace and within one mile realized it wasn’t feeling right. I hit a 7:40 minutes for my first tempo mile, which is about 10 seconds slower than my normal pace for a goal pace run. My next mile was a 7:53, and so I decided to stop trying to run at goal pace and just finish off my seven miles at an easy pace. This wasn’t an issue of pushing through discomfort later in a run or overcoming doubt that I could complete the workout; my legs felt heavy and not matter what I did struggled to run faster. If I wasn’t so close to a race, I probably would have altered the workout (say, 2 x 2 mile at goal pace with recover in between); but when a goal race is so close, I err on the side of being slightly undertrained than overtrained.

Instead of beating myself up about it, I just adjusted my run and moved on with my day. Bad workouts happen, and I’ve been fortunate so far this training cycle that I haven’t had a run before this that I had to cut short or seriously alter. There’s a fine line between resilience and stubbornness, and that line is when it could cause injury or push my body into a deep state of fatigue when I’ve supposed to be recovering and resting for a race. Workouts aren’t races; there’s no medal or PR at the end of your everyday workout, so you shouldn’t push yourself until you have nothing left in a workout.

Knowing when to push and when to stop is a valuable lesson in training for all runners, whether you are a beginner trying to run for 30 minutes straight or a marathoner trying to smash your PR. While when to push and when to stop is extremely personal and based on your own fitness, external stressors, goals, and state of mind that day, there are some general guidelines for deciding when to keep going and when to stop or alter your workout.

(Since I am not your running coach or fitness professional, please always put the advice of your coach and other health professionals before anything you read on this blog! Most of all, listen to your own body!)

 When to Stop

Discomfort versus fatigue and pain.

That burning sensation in your quads or glutes is normal during the last few miles of a tempo run or the last couple intervals of a track workout. That heavy leg sensation, where you feel like you are dragging your feet from the start, is not normal and, as mentioned above, can be a sign of overtraining if experienced for several runs in a run along with other symptoms of overtraining. If your legs are feeling heavy and fatigued and you aren’t hitting your pace, consider adjusting the workout by adding more recovery or running the rest of the run at an easy pace. If you experience pain during the run, especially in areas where you have had previous injuries, either switch to an easy run or, if that doesn’t stop the pain, end your run. One missed run is far better than several weeks off due to injury. 

Finish feeling like you could have done more. 

Training is like baking: you want the finished product to be just right, not burnt and overcooked. You should train to feel just right on race day, rather than get to the starting line feeling exhausted. Even if you don’t race, you still don’t want to push yourself to your absolute limit with each run, as this will exhaust you and diminish the enjoyment of running. Whether you are going on an easy run or doing 400 meter repeats at the track, you should finish feeling that you could have done another mile or another interval. If you continually push yourself too hard, you only going to burn out, both mentally and physically.

Watch out for the time slide.

There will be days where your easy runs or recovery runs are slower than usual, and that’s ok. In fact, it’s probably good to run slower if you feel like your body needs it on those days. However, when you are doing a tempo run or a speed workout with very specific prescribed paces, it’s important for your training to hit as close to those paces as possible. Although the paces will be hard, you should be able to hit them based on your training plan so far. If you start out fast but quickly see your actual paces get slower and slower, consider adjusting the workout to have more recovery. If you can’t even hit the paces from the beginning and it’s not your mind getting in the way, do an easy run instead or call it a day instead of pushing yourself too hard. Not being able to hit the paces could be a sign your body is not recovered enough to complete the workout. If the time slide occurs not because you are physically struggling but because your brain is working against you, keep pushing and work on some strategies to better train your brain. 

Check out this article from Runner’s World and this one from Running Times for more great tips on when to push and when to stop! 

Question of the Day:
What do you do when you’re struggling to complete a run?

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6 Responses

  1. This can be very tricky, especially when you are in the middle of training. Sometimes it can be hard to determine why your workouts feel hard- sometimes its both physical and mental! It sounds like you made a smart choice about your workout, especially this close to your race. You have already put in the work and now you need to rest and recover!

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