bad workout

What to Do After a Bad Workout

Some workouts just don’t go like you planned. Maybe you visualized pushing the pace at the front of the group ride, or crushing that set of intervals, or spinning along smoothly for hours on end. Instead, you felt sluggish, like you were pedaling squares, or like you couldn’t get out of your own way. Crappy rides and workouts happen to everyone, and the most important thing you can do is take steps to prevent one bad day from spreading into two, or more.

Here’s what to do when you get home from that bad workout:

Pout

You have 5 minutes. Seriously, it’s perfectly normal to be frustrated, especially when you don’t have much time to train in the first place. But process those feelings, acknowledge them, and then put them in the past. Don’t let a bad workout ruin the rest of your day. It may not have been great, but you still took the opportunity and initiative to work out, and any workout is better than none at all.

Hydrate

In my experience, dehydration is the most common reason athletes fail to achieve their workout goals. Often, it’s not necessarily because you didn’t drink enough during the workout, but rather that you haven’t been consuming enough fluids throughout the previous 1-2 days.

It takes longer to improve your hydration status than it does to replenish depleted energy stores. Guzzling large volumes of fluid at once helps hydration status a bit, but it mostly increases urine volume, which athletes then misread as a sign they are rehydrated. A better strategy is to replenish fluids gradually over the course of hours. If you weigh yourself before and after training to determine the amount of water weight you’ve lost, aim to replenish 150% of that amount in the four to six hours after the ride. To manage hydration better from day-to-day, use the WUT method.

Eat

Give your body the nutrients it needs to optimize recovery. First and foremost that means sufficient total energy. You don’t need to gorge yourself; but if you have been training hard or have been trying to lose weight while training, an unexpectedly poor workout performance can be a sign you’re just running on empty. To remedy the situation, focus on plenty of carbohydrate and protein. You most likely already consume enough fat, so I prefer to focus on carbohydrate and protein and let fat take care of itself.

Whether you are a carnivore, vegan, or anything in between, many endurance athletes struggle to consume enough protein. The standard recommendation is 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight for an adult endurance athlete. Grand Masters (60+ yrs) and athletes in high-volume and/or high-intensity training plans should aim for 1.7-2.0 grams/kg/day. For a 75-kilogram (165lb) athlete, 1.2-1.8g/kg/d is 90-135 grams of protein, preferably in 40-ish gram portions throughout the day. That can represent a lot of food, particularly when you are also consuming 4-7 g/kg/d of carbohydrate.

During periods of higher training intensity or volume, cyclists sometimes fail to increase carbohydrate intake. Ironically, sometimes it’s because athletes have shifted to consuming more fruit and vegetables while reducing intake of concentrated carbohydrate sources like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. Now would be a good time to use those concentrated carbohydrate sources to your advantage.

Once you have started the acute steps above (hydrate & eat), it’s time to look at your training and lifestyle to determine if it’s just a bad day or a sign you need to make adjustments.

Look at Perceived Exertion vs. Actual Performance

First of all, you have to see whether the workout you thought was terrible actually was. If you are in the middle or end of a substantial training block, perceived exertion may increase and you may feel fatigued even though you’re hitting your prescribed intensities and time-at-intensity. Often, we use 2-3 consecutive days of diminished workout performance as a signal that it’s time to conclude a training block. Read more on learning when to take rest.

This is why, “How do you feel?” is the first question we ask athletes. If we just went off training data, we’d miss the fact there’s a mismatch between how an athlete feels and how they performed. Sometimes that bad day is normal and expected, and sometimes it’s not.

Look at Training Load

You also have to look at your overall training load. If you’re using TrainingPeaks, take a look at your Performance Management Chart, particularly at the three measures of Acute Training Load (ATL), Chronic Training Load (CTL), and Training Stress Balance (TSB). Without getting into the minutia of power analysis, ATL is typically thought of as your level of fatigue, CTL is thought of as your ‘fitness’ or at least the workload you’ve been sustaining, and TSB is equal to yesterday’s CTL minus yesterday’s ATL, which is indicative of your ‘form’. Form is a way of thinking about your readiness to perform.


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The trends in these values are more important than the absolute numbers. Overall you raise fitness through focused training and recovery. As you train, ATL goes up and TSB goes down. Then you rest and ATL goes down and TSB goes up. When you execute training well, CTL gradually steps upward over time.

If you don’t look at this chart often, after a bad workout you may be surprised to find your ATL is high and your TSB is particularly low and/or trending downward. For example, let’s say that during focused and productive training you typically maintain TSB in the -10 to -15 range. If you look and your training has been harder than you thought, you might see a TSB of -30 or lower, which would indicate fatigue may be getting in the way of productive training. Your better ride and race performances will typically occur when you rest or taper so your form TSB is trending upward and near zero or modestly positive (0 to + 15, for instance).

Consider your lifestyle stresses

Training data like ATL and TSB don’t take your lifestyle stresses into account. For instance, if your Performance Management Chart says your form should be good (higher than -15 if you’re in a focused training block), but you only got 4 hours of sleep last night because of a work project, sick child, or a Netflix binge, you might have a bad workout anyway. Stresses off the bike affect performance on the bike.

Similarly, athletes like to use Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and sleep trackers to evaluate readiness to train. As you can learn in this article about HRV and this one, there are factors that can make it difficult to use data from wearable sensors effectively.

Athletes often use training as a relief valve for lifestyle stress, but if your lifestyle is negatively affecting your training, it is important to acknowledge it. If possible, reduce lifestyle stress by getting more sleep, taking better care of yourself, or resolving conflicts at work or in your personal life. Realistically, you may not be able to reduce lifestyle stress right away. If that’s the case, it may be wise to adjust your training so you’re not digging an even deeper hole.

Consider Recovery Modalities

Recovery modalities are mentioned last on purpose, because the steps above address more fundamental aspects of your training. Recovery modalities like massage, foam rolling, stretching, compression, and supplements can all play a role in promoting recovery, but it’s important to add them once the bigger issues are taken care of.

Summary

To keep this simple, when you get back from a bad workout:

  • Grab a bottle of water while you spend a few minutes feeling frustrated.
  • Take a shower and prepare a hearty meal with protein and a concentrated carbohydrate source (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes).
  • Ask the following questions:
    • Have I been getting enough sleep and high quality sleep?
    • Have I been eating enough to support my training?
    • Have I been particularly stressed at work or at home?
  • Check your training data to see if your fatigue level can be explained. Make sure to write in subjective feedback and comments on your workouts. They provide essential context for the data, either for you or your coach.
  • Continue consuming fluids and sufficient protein and carbohydrate.
  • Take a nap or go to bed early.

By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning


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Comments 5

  1. In my experience, some of my “worst” rides ended up being the most helpful in the long run. Patience and perspective!

  2. I used myfitnesspal to track my food intake. I was surprised at how little protein I was taking in. After that, I started supplementing with powdered Whey.

  3. Perfect timing on this article! I came home from a failed attempt at intervals just the other day and while I just continued on and decided to just make it a fun ride, I did feel a little depressed about missing my training objective. You have to accept that there will be a few days a year that just won’t go as planned. If you’re lucky it will be on a training day and not race day. As the article said, acknowledge it and then move on. Step back and see if it was just a bad day or if you need to change something.

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