No matter if you’re new to running or you’re someone who has been running for years, no doubt you’ve had a few hellacious and frustrating runs. We’re talking about a run that really sucked. It happens to all of us.
I’ve had many runs that have sucked something awful, and as a coach, I’ve had countless runners come to me in near-hysterics because of a disastrous run. It is all doom and gloom. The end is nigh.
In that moment, we feel those abysmal runs are an indication that our training is totally screwed or that there is something completely wrong with what we’re doing. And in some cases, that can be true. But the vast majority of the time that’s not the case at all.
Why do runs suck sometimes? Why is it that you can feel great for several days and then every once in a while you feel so bad you want to stop mid-run? There are a lot of reasons, some obvious, some not to much. But you can’t prevent these runs from happening if you don’t know what is causing them. And the reality is you can’t eliminate these bad runs entirely. All you can do is minimize the likelihood of them recurring.
Contemplate some of the key stressors below and some of the cues to avoid them and you might find yourself with far fewer runs that suck. (If you do experience a week or more of runs that suck, that’s something to take a closer look at and, perhaps, be concerned about, as it might be a lack of fitness, injury or illness that is at the root of the problem.)
1. You were pregnant with a food baby.
Stressor(s): Life happens. A job, a meeting, a child, or some other unpleasant obstacle gets in the way of lunch. Next thing you know, you’re ravenous. The unthinkable happens.
You inhale a burrito less than an hour before your run. Burrito bliss washes over you. Sadly, this bliss is short lived.
Neck deep in your warmup routine a few minutes later, it’s clear something is awry. Ignoring the burrito you crammed into your maw earlier is impossible. It’s become a bloated food fetus in your stomach.
There’s little point in trying to run, but futilely you try. You manage a few strides before said food baby threatens to emerge via the gullet you crammed it in. Your feeble attempts at running grind to an abrupt halt.
Solution: I think you likely already know how to remedy this debacle. Try a quesadilla (or just a handful of tortilla chips) next time. Have a bar or an apple. If you’ve only got an hour to work with, keep it light.
2. You’re a wreck.
Stressor(s): You’re working 12- to 16-hour days. You’re on the board of directors for 17 non-profits. You don’t sleep. You barely eat. You can’t remember your mom’s name.
OK, that might be exaggerating, even if slightly. But when you’re working a lot, barely sleeping, eating poorly and trying to train for a half marathon, marathon or triathlon, there’s no question that your running will take the brunt of it. In those cases, there’s a chance that every run sucks. The runner’s high—not to mention just the idea of feeling good during and after a run—is a distant, vague memory.
Does the above sound familiar? If so, you need to adjust your expectations. You’re burning the candle at both ends and in the middle. It’s not a sustainable approach. Don’t discount personal and professional stressors. They take a toll on you and can disrupt your running in a variety of ways.
Solution: Dial things back. Take a breather. Get a massage. Do some self-care. Call your mom. Take care of yourself, and the running will take care of itself.
3. You’re pipe dreaming.
Stressor: Many of us dream. That’s part of being a runner (or a human). But, dreams differ from reality. You may dream of conquering 26.2 miles. This is a great dream. It’s one of my favorites.
But, if the longest distance you can currently run is two miles, doing 26.2 miles next week (or next month) is much more than a dream, it’s a pipe dream.
So is expecting to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials at your first marathon. There are a handful of people on the planet who ‘might’ be able to do this. You could be one of them, but probably not.
Solution: Be realistic! I’m not saying let your dream(s) die. Dream on, but do it in a pragmatic way. Reality needs to be part of your expectations. If your expectations are grossly misaligned with reality, a bad run is nearly inevitable.
READ MORE: Why Most Days I Suck at Running
4. You just felt flat.
Stressor: Sometimes when you go out for a run, you just don’t feel like running. Instead of feeling like you’re floating, every step is a struggle from the start and things only get worse throughout the run or workout. It’s one of those runs where you just have no pep, no spring in your step.
There’s a good chance that means you’re dehydrated and lacking energy (perhaps from a lack of blood sugar). If you got up early to run, ran on your lunch break or ran in the evening without eating or drinking for hours, there’s no question that you’re depleted.
Solution: Take it easy on a run when you feel like that or even cut it short. But learn you lesson and make sure you eat and drink properly next time you run at that time of the day.
READ MORE: How to Dial In Your Daily Hydration
5. Because you fell short.
Stressor: You came close. You were seconds away from your race goal. Only a few strides came between you and your goal.
Now there’s a nagging ache at the back of your head. It won’t go away until you finish the job. Falling short is tough to swallow.
The self-interrogation begins. What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me? Did I do too much? Did I do too little?
These voices rattle around in your head. They keep you up at night. They haunt you.
Solution: Falling short isn’t all bad. It can light a fire under you to train harder (or smarter). Sometimes, a sucky run is just what you need for a PR.
READ MORE: How to Turn Running Setbacks into Strengths
6. You had a bad day.
Stressor: In the immortal words of Daniel Powder, “you had a bad day.” There is no smoking gun. The mystery can’t be solved. Sometimes, nothing materializes. You’re left with uncertainty. But, that’s OK.
Solution: Hydrate. Relax. Refuel with the foods you love. Have a beer or glass of wine if that pleases you. For dessert, get a good night’s sleep and let go of the egg you laid today. I am not promising the next run won’t suck, but it is pretty unlikely in my experience. If it does happen again, blame me. I suck.
READ MORE: Running with Mindfulness
7. Because you didn’t do it.
Stressor(s): You slept in. You were hungover. It is too windy (or rainy or hot or cold). So you didn’t run and now you feel worse because of it.
To be clear, you should totally listen to the messages your body sends you. There are valid reasons for skipping a run. But, there aren’t many.
Rationalizing a bogus reason for skipping a run is a dangerous thing. It can snowball. Next thing you know, you’re rationalizing not lacing up because you need new socks.
When race day arrives, things (likely) won’t be perfect. The weather may not comply. Your shoes might come untied. Whatever unfolds, there will almost undoubtedly be some kind of adversity.
Solution: You need to train for this adversity. Embracing at least some degree of it is part of becoming a better runner. If you want to get better, minimize reasons to skip runs. The run left undone because you made up a bogus reason to skip it is decidedly sucky. Make up for it tomorrow.
READ MORE: Why the Mind is a Runner’s Strongest Muscle
8. Because you couldn’t do it.
Stressor: These are perhaps the suckiest runs of all. The wheels won’t turn. Your body can’t deliver because you’re hurt, fatigued or temporarily burnt out.
You can watch it. You can read about it. You can talk about it. But, you can’t do it. And being unable to do something you love doesn’t just suck, it breaks your heart. Losing love hurts in a particularly profound and intense way. Dark questions bubble to the surface.
Will this ever heal? Will I be able to do it the way I did before? Will this happen again?
Solution: The answer to all of these questions, in all likelihood, is YES! It’s very likely you will heal. It’s likely you will be able to do it the way you did before if you put the rehab time and a lot of work into it. It’s also likely that you may find yourself in this spot again. But, injuries often come with lessons. If you learn from them, you may be able to avoid them down the road. Thus, avoiding the suckiest run(s) of all.