Unfortunately, the answer is not necessarily black-n-white. Rather, it depends. In the example above, are your watts still within range or are you dropping out of L5 and into L4? How do your legs feel – are they dead or do they feel like you would expect them to?
Here are some things to consider when you feel you are at a crossroads in a workout, so you can better determine whether to continue forging ahead or tapping out is the better course of action.
Purpose of the workout
Regardless of whether you are a single-sport or multi-sport athlete, and regardless of which sport’s workout you might be completing, the first step is understanding the purpose of the workout. Simply saying, “I need to go hard today” is not enough. Is the goal to hit a certain pace or watts or HR range? Are you trying to complete a certain volume of intervals? And, what is the purpose of doing the workout at that given intensity?
When you understand what the workout is meant to accomplish and why, you can then start determining whether or not the workout is going as planned or hoped.
Back to the example workout above. If the goal is to hit a specific wattage (or, say, pace with respect to a track workout or repeat 100s in the pool) then continuing is probably not the best call. However, if you are within the L5 range and simply might be having a sub-par day, you’re still creating the appropriate stimulus so you should keep going.
Make sure the goal is realistic
If you struggle to hit the targets in a single workout, not a big deal. However, if you find yourself falling short more often than not, the “sub-par” performance is probably more a function of your ambition outpacing your current ability. You might be setting your goals too high compared to where your fitness and/or abilities currently reside. In the case of “goal pace” workouts, remember that you are striving to complete intervals at a pace or wattage for when you are fully fit, tapered and ready to race faster than at any other point in you season. So, if your key race is 9 months away, hitting goal pace now is unrealistic.
Pick something in between that allows for a realistic challenge now and serves as a way to bridge the gap between where you are at today and where you want to get to before your key race. Maybe there are several baby steps you can take rather than one giant one.
Appropriate interval duration
Maybe the pacing and wattage are spot on. Maybe the issue is with how long you hope to hold the effort. For example, if you’re trying to complete 45 minutes of VO2max-effort intervals, chances are you’re going to implode. Or, maybe you’re trying to complete VO2max intervals of 6 minutes in duration. The overload you would experience in the first 1-2 reps would be massive and the rest of the workout would be a failure.
If you find you cannot hold the pace for the prescribed interval duration, shorten it up and over several weeks work on extending its length.
Switch to a different type of workout
If you start an interval workout too ambitiously, sure, you’ll crater. We’ve all done it. We put too much emphasis on that first rep that we overload our bodies with lactate, our workout muscles feel like bloated balloons and we fall apart. This is a lesson we all learn (over and over again usually).
Instead, you might just be having too hard a time hitting the desired effort or speed. If you simply can’t get there, your body’s telling you that you’re not ready to provide the proper stimulus for the target energy system. Calling an audible mid-workout and shifting its focus to a different energy system is what disciplined athletes do. “I can’t hit my target pace/watts today and I’m dying trying, so I’m going to pull the plug and instead ride aerobically for another hour because I actually feel good at mid-L2.” Then communicating back to your coach so that the two of you can better alter the program moving forward is the final critical step here.
Outside factors impact workouts
As much as we like to believe we are bulletproof, we are not. We are human. There are 3 buckets of stress that we continually need to work to balance – physical, mental and emotional. When one or more of the buckets overflows, we have to dial down the other bucket(s) in order to create balance. If we continually burn the candle at both ends, we will burn ourselves out all the more quickly.
If you just started a new job, or are getting married or divorced, or moving into a new home, and so on, you are piling on the mental and emotional stressors. You probably feel exhausted when you wake up if you slept at all, and instead of thinking about your morning Masters swim workout, your first thought is about that unfinished “to do” list from work.
Completing key workouts in these situations is a crap shoot at best. It’s OK to be mortal. It’s OK to take a step back and dial down the physical stress until such time as you reach stasis again among the three stressor buckets. You will know when you are out of whack if you pay attention, and you’ll know when you’re back in stasis.
Discomfort versus pain
When athletes tell me a workout “hurt” I immediately ask them to explain. Athletes need to better characterize what it is they are feeling. If a workout is hard and you’re pushing your limits, this is discomfort. It is not pain.
Pain is associated with an injury. If you’re feeling pain in your knee, for instance, and bending your leg makes you wince, then stop. Immediately. Discomfort is good, pain is bad.
Training the next day(s)
Regardless of whether you finished the original workout, altered it, or cut it short, a sub-par session is a sign you need to be careful in the following day(s). The last thing you want to do is dig a deeper hole, from which it will only take longer to climb out. Unless you are clearly getting sick or just not feeling good at all, sub-par workouts are usually based on a lack of adequate recovery between key sessions.
Contrary to popular belief, inserting another recovery day will not turn you into an out of shape blob. Rather, it will allow you to better perform your next key workout and, thus, make more progress faster.
Developing poor mental habits
Again, we all have sub-par workouts for various reasons. We work out way too much to think we will never experience poor workout performances.
First, we need to accept this as fact. Second, we need to be OK with bailing on a prescribed workout when we know it is the best course of action – we need to give ourselves permission to do this. Third, and most importantly, we cannot beat ourselves up when we stop a sub-par workout or skip one altogether. If it is best to do so, then have the confidence in your decision.
It is much easier to screw things up by continuing workouts you should not have than by stopping short and living to fight another day.
Keep this checklist handy and revisit it every few months as a refresher. As you better learn when it is OK to continue pressing and when it is better to back off (and be OK with that decision), the more you will be getting out of your own way. And the quicker you will progress.