Have you ever been crushing your training – every session you get better and better – then suddenly you do a session and it is a disaster? Your heart rate is too high, you can’t hit your pace or power numbers. You want to give up but limp through the session before admitting it was a failure. How does it make you feel? Have you panicked and thought ‘I just need to push harder!’ or ‘All my hard work has come undone!’ or ‘If I keep training like this there is no way I will finish/PB/qualify for Kona!’
Isn’t it amazing that despite what could be weeks of amazing training, that one single session can make you question yourself and undo all of the confidence you have built up? I get it all the time. One of my athletes sends me a message about why their session was a failure and how they know what they did wrong and why they will do it right next time.
Guess what... A bad session is actually a good thing!
There are a number of extremely technical ways in which someone can explain training adaptation, but lets keep it simple. When we train, we break down muscle fibres then allow them to repair stronger than before. Or even more simply, we punish ourselves then allow ourselves to recover so that we can take even more punishment than before. While both of these descriptions lack a certain level of panache, they do have something in common. Can you spot the similarity? In order to reap the benefits of our hard work we need to allow our body to repair or recover.
If you train hard and have an off day are you starting to see now why it is happening? It is because you have reached a point where you can no longer perform. Instead you need to recover to allow your body to absorb the work you have put in and come back stronger than before.
This is the classic fork in the road moment.
You can either continue to push through your training, ignoring the fact that you are not performing well. What could go wrong? More is always better right? You only need to listen to ‘fitness influencers’ on the internet who will yell at you to harden up! While your ability to perform drops, so does your ability to recover and you end up spending more and more time in the useless grey zone. You can call this stuff 'junk miles', or a dumb stupid idea.
Your other option is to take the session that didn't go well as a sign that it is time to allow your body to recover. This might be a rest day or a recovery session or whatever it is that will enable you to maximise your recovery and maximise your adaptation. It isn’t weak; it is smart.
(Now this is a very complex part of training that is being incredibly simplified in this discussion. Sometimes you want sessions done with fatigue, other times you will want a person to try and push when they are exhausted – but these are not weekly events or common occurrences and are usually best done when a coach has included them in your program with some long-term goals.)
But put simply, if you have been training well, it is inevitable that you have some bad sessions which indicate that you have pushed yourself to the point where recovery is needed so you can reap the rewards for your hard work.
This is where the art of coaching really does shine. Knowing how to push your athletes to the point of fatigue then backing it off properly so they can improve is one of the single biggest responsibilities for a coach. It is how a coach can avoid injury, sickness and maximise the improvements their athletes make. Dancing with that fine line becomes even more critical as you get closer to the big race because the edge of the knife you are balancing on becomes even thinner the more primed you are.
Honestly, understanding how far to push and when to back off is critical to improving your performance. Having a coach absolutely helps because the decision making is often out of your hands but if you don't have a coach, all you need to do is look out for that session that doesn't go according to plan. When it happens, don’t beat yourself up or convince yourself you are being weak and push through. Nothing good will come of that. Instead, pat yourself on the back for all the hard work you have put in and reward yourself with some high quality recovery.
Tim Ford is the CEO of MX Endurance and a member of our team of coaches. He has gone from being a complete novice weighing well over 120kg to a top athlete with a 4:06 PB for a 70.3. Through his time in the sport he has learned skills which help him to assist athletes of all levels and abilities.