Monday, January 6, 2014

Coach's Corner: Bad Workouts

Bad workouts, bad races--we all have them and we always will. If you have had any serious block of training you know them well. I remember one bad day in particular that was scheduled as mile repeats, turn into 1k’s turn into 400’s that ultimately turned into just going for a run. I’ve even had at least one day where I drove to Rancho San Antonio, a local park here in the South Bay only to sit in my car with motivation so low I eventually just drove home. It happens.

In a 2007 research article, “Bad Days Don't End When the School Bell Rings: The Lingering Effects of Negative School Events on Children's Mood, Self-esteem, and Perceptions of Parent–Child Interaction” (Lehman & Repetti), children reported on events that occurred at school and they and their parents described their interactions with each other each evening. Consistent with previous research, it was found that on days when children reported more academic or peer problems during the day at school, they later described more aversive interactions with their parents. Increases in anxiety and drops in children's self-esteem partially mediated this link. However, parents did not report any differences in their interactions with the target child on days when the child experienced problems at school.

This study seems to suggests that negative events experienced by children while at school lead to short-term changes in mood and self-esteem, which influence their perceptions of subsequent interactions at home with parents. Or is it that parents are clueless, immune to their children’s mood swings?

Are coaches guilty of the same? Do we as coaches plow through our workouts carelessly unaware? Outside factors are going to have an effect on adolescents training. For high school athletes it is no surprise the day of PSAT testing performances lag. Exams, looming projects and academic commitments can weigh heavy on the mind. When the training plan says to do mile repeats the athlete tries wholeheartedly to stay committed but their mind is elsewhere. The mind and spirit is not engaged; then if the workout goes poorly the athlete loses confidence. We tend to separate life stress from training stress but the reality is our body cannot discriminate environmental from emotional or physical stress. Our body can only tolerate only so much of it, no matter how tough and determined you are.

Adapting to Training

Recovery often plays a role in bad workouts and races. When a workout goes wrong it is important to look at the few days preceding it. Coaches and athletes should never feel as if they are a slave to the training, your training plan should be a flowing schedule where you are constantly moving things around to make sure the body is recovered and adapted for the next workout. While there are times to put your head down and push through, an extra day of aerobic running to further recover may be all that is missing. Be open to the possibility that what you think is enough recovery isn't. It is not “going to the well” that causes burnout, rather the lack of recovery following it. The training plan is the science; the ability to read your team and be flexible is the art.

When training becomes labored and it is more difficult to hit your goal paces, or if you have several bad workouts and races in a row, something is amiss. Ebbs and flows happen all throughout sports: in baseball players slump; hockey players refer to it as “the schnide;” my team calls it “the suck.” Whatever the terminology it is important to understand that throughout the season things are going to happen. But when the daily joy of running becomes a grind over an extended period it is time to step back and look at the big picture. If you find yourself here it is important to evaluate your training and your life schedule. Usually, something's out of balance. In the high school world it is no coincidence that the end of the season illness begins to make its way through the team. The stress of school and athletics begins to take over and the body’s immune system is overwhelmed, breaking down from the stress.

This is often a result from runners who are over doing it. They push the training either in quantity or quality or both. Or they have too much going on in their lives outside of running and are too fatigued (mentally and physically) to have consistent training and racing. If you're having repeated bad workouts or races, you may need to back off a bit and reevaluate your goals and expectations. Reduce your volume and intensity in training. Go to bed early and get more sleep than you think you need. Do this until your workouts and races improve, and then gradually work back up to your normal training. Too often the response is to push through and work harder when the answer is to back off and rest.

What does this mean for the athlete:

  • Don’t Stress. Take the good with the bad. 
  • As a distance runner you are going to have aches and pains, embrace them. 
  • To be our best on one specific day means thinking long term. 
  • One bad day, or even a few strung together will likely not have an impact months later. It is consistency that leads to improvement, not one workout. 
  • If a day off promotes that consistency it is always the right choice! If a series of bad workouts are having an effect on your confidence talk to your coach. Communication is key here.

What does this mean for the coach:

  • What are the perceived interactions and stress levels of our athletes compared to the perception of the coach? Is the bad day a result of training or something at home, school or other outside factors? 
  • Build a good base. It won’t prevent the ups and downs but it makes for smaller peaks and valleys. 
  • Plan recovery first. When making up your training plan plug in recovery just as you would a hard workout or race. It should be one of the primary sessions of your training plan.

We have a saying on our team that the little things add up to a lot; to be great involves sacrificing some things that you love. But even when everything is done right things can go wrong. All runners are different and respond to different stimuli. Some runners respond to high quality, others to increased mileage. This is where the coach-athlete relationship plays such a vital role in the development of the high school distance runner.

How you respond to a bad workout or race is just as important as how you respond to a good one. Bad workouts happen. Bad races happen. So why dwell on them? It is said that in sports you need to have a short memory, none truer than when working with volatile teenagers where a bad test or break-up can seem like the end of the world. I no longer fret about the occasional bad workout or race. It in turn is an opportunity. It is a chance to learn, and more often than not accumulated fatigue just hasn’t been adapted to and better things are to come.


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