A bad workout is still a workout

I had a crappy workout this morning. Not my first, and it won’t be my last. The workout was in two parts. Part A was no problem. About one minute into Part B and I immediately knew something was off. And I just couldn’t do anything about it. Willing your body to do what you need it to do isn’t always possible. And it’s maddening when you think you’re not asking that much of it to begin with – at least not compared to what you usually do. I don’t remember feeling that deflated during a workout since I started Crossfit 9 months ago.

Everybody in Crossfit (or any other type of workout for that matter), young and old, newbie and veteran, has experienced a bad workout. And you can’t help but ask “what the hell happened”? Maybe you felt great yesterday. Maybe you felt great even at the beginning of the workout. But at some point along the way, your workout came off the rails. Strength, speed, endurance – they can’t all be with you consistently throughout a workout every time you try. But once you’ve been working out for a while, you do kind of expect them to be there when you need them, and when one or more drops off unexpectedly, it’s hard not to get in your head about it.

So what do you do when you have a bad workout?

Look at it as an opportunity. Remember that you record your results not just to give you some stable benchmarks for performance, but to make you easier to coach, to move a class along, to make it easier to work in partners, etc.

Look for what conditions may be related to it. Be an analytical and objective as you can be. Look at factors such as:

How was your nutrition in the days leading up to the workout?

What you ate on the day of the workout plays a small role, but more on the hydration and electrolytes side of things. The REAL fuel in the tank is what you ate over the couple of days before. That’s why the competitive and dedicated Crossfit athletes are so focused on meal planning – there’s a science in controlling the balance of proteins, carbs and fats to fuel your workout.

Are you overtraining?

If you don’t give your body enough rest and recovery time – and that means legitimate time off of training, not just moving on to another body part – your recovery time gets longer and longer and bleeds into your workout time, meaning your body will deliberately take away from your energy reserves that you would be using for your workout. Recovery is the period your body uses to build muscle and repair injury in response to your workout activity. That takes time, along with energy and nutrition, even when at rest. So a bad workout can be a result of too much of your energy being tied up in those processes that you’re already demanding of your body from your last couple of workouts.

Are you injured or ill?

Like the recovery needed in response to training, we all know intuitively that our bodies need energy to repair injury or recover from illness. And sometimes one or both of these things can be going on even when we don’t know it. I’m sure we’ve all felt drained in the day or two prior to our being consciously aware of having a cold, for example. Or if you have an injury that you don’t quite feel yet, your body may already have set its sights on repairing that injury.

How has your sleep been for the last while?

Like nutrition, this isn’t likely to be related only to a single occurrence, though it could be, but it’s more likely to be related to the last few days (or rather, nights). Have you gotten a recommended amount of sleep? Has your sleep been any different than usual leading up to the bad workout? Was it “good” sleep with a long enough period of deep sleep that your body needs to recover physically and mentally from your waking hours?

How is your stress level?

Stress plays an important part in working out too, at least in terms of the energy and focus we have available for the workout. Some of us workout specifically to relieve stress, and that’s a very positive thing. But stress can rewire us a little bit – that’s why it has a relationship to heart health, blood pressure, and more. So it can actually impede a good workout.

Is it a just a random occurrence?

While an unusually poor workout is likely to come from factors like nutrition, recovery, illness or injury, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to be a fluke – but it’s much more likely to be something above, or some subtle combination of the factors above – which can make it harder to pinpoint what’s “off” but at the same time slightly easier to correct when you do.

So what was off for me?

The one thing I zeroed in on was nutrition, because it didn’t seem like any of the other factors were at play – at least no more day to day than they were in the preceding workout days. And it just so happens that I had a less-than-wholesome lunch at McDonalds the day before – and I had one other draining performance in the WOD on the day after a McDonalds meal as well. Is it conclusive? No. But it’s my best guess after all but eliminating other factors. Since I rarely have two bad days in a row – it’s been months since I had one truly awful workout – I won’t see tomorrow as evidence of much. But I’m not eating a burger at McDonald’s today either. Progress!

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