October 22, 2008

Dealing With Workout Ups & Downs

Photo: left-hand

When the Numbers Don't Add Up

Sometimes the "Ups and Downs" of working out are purely about motivation. And other times the might be about injuries, or busy schedules, or whatever.

But there's also a form of "Up and Down" that I find really mysterious: when out of the blue your level of performance changes.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps you go to the gym or the running trail with no particular ambitions, or even a vague sense of dread. Yet you have an awesome workout where you are bursting with energy! You run faster, lift heavier things, bend further, balance longer, bounce higher, smile more enthusiastically--even your hair is shinier! You kick ass the entire time and revel in what an awesome physical specimen you are.

Other days? You don your workout wear innocently enough, get your ass out the door like you're supposed to, and proceed to have a totally wretched time of it. You're tired, draggy, weak, slow, tight, clumsy. Your times go up; your reps go down; your normal weights are suddenly too heavy. You're trying, but you just can't do what you normally would and every minute of workout miserableness seems to last an eternity.

There are two things about this kind of workout variability that make no sense to me.

1. There is often NO REASON IN THE WORLD for either the good or the crappy workout. If fact, often there's almost an inverse relationship between how I expect I'll feel exercising and how it actually goes.

2. After many decades of regular physical activity, with the same unpredictable results, every single time I have a terrible workout or two I'm still totally shocked by the phenomenon.

What difference does it make? At least for me, I've discovered there are smart ways and not-so-smart ways to handle these strange workouts so they don't turn in to sneaky motivation killers.

Do You Let it Get To You?

Some people are psychologically well-balanced and evolved. They try hard every time, but remain cheerfully unaffected by their performance ups and downs because they don't judge themselves. They're just really happy to have the opportunity to exercise at all!

Others of us are not so evolved. We care what we lift and how fast we go--even slackers like me who are not willing to put enormous amounts of effort into getting better. Thus these little ups and downs can really be demotivating unless handled properly.

One Important Thing I've Learned About Awesome Workouts

An awesome workout can actually be more demotivating than a lousy one. How can this be? Well, it sort of depends on how you react to it.

Smart way to think about it: "Wow, did someone slip crack in my water bottle? Where the hell did that come from?! That was amazing, but WTF?"

Looking for trouble: "Gosh, I must be working out harder and more consistently than I'd realized! I'm really getting in great shape. Next time, I'll try for even heavier weights and a longer run and a faster time!"

That second approach, in which you decide your most amazing day ever is the "real" you? That's a recipe for days or even weeks of feeling ripped off and frustrated because you can't replicate your amazingness again.

Bottom Line: attribute good workouts to astrological events, fairy dust, voodoo spells, whatever--just not your own physical prowess. Wait until you get a bunch of great workouts in a row, then celebrate your achievements.

Handling awful workouts is a bit more complicated though:

Five Steps to Mastering the Craptastic Workout

1. First Line of Defense: Shrug it Off.

It can feel like a slap in the face to have a totally wretched workout when you're not expecting one. After the initial swearing, pouting, and disbelief, the first impulse may be to troubleshoot and analyze the hell out of the experience.

Eh... I'd say hold off a bit. There may be no use running around changing everything about your exercise program or your diet or whatever based on just one or two lousy workouts. Give it a week. Chances are, whatever was wrong will mysteriously right itself.

2. If it doesn't get better after a week or so: look for clues

Are you over-training? Eating too much crap? Not hydrated enough? Depressed? Not sleeping enough? Fighting off a bug everyone else has gotten? Going through a funky part of your hormonal cycle? Pretending you've been going "regularly" to the gym when you went once in the last 3 weeks? Are you depressed? Is it time for a medical check-up?

If there's something that will go away on it's own; be patient. But if there's an obvious problem to correct, then now perhaps you might want to get serious about fixing it.

3. In particular, if you've been over-training, CHILL.

Sometimes less really is more. Rest days and knowing when to back the hell off can be really helpful to long term progress.

4. If there's nothing obvious to correct: do what you CAN.

Then give yourself tremendous credit for it. Don't measure your workouts by conventional standards; try a more subjective workout measurement tool.

Lots of currently slothful people "used to" work out. The difference between the slugs and the lifelong fit people is that the slugs gave up when they couldn't be perfect. Go ahead and do less than your full workout; take more rest days; whatever it takes to feel like you're still at least kind of on track. Even a half-assed workout is an incredible accomplishment when you're feeling discouraged. In the long haul, it "counts" even more than a great workout done when you're feeling all fit and perky.

6.Don't Quit; Shake Things Up.

If performance issues are tempting you to bail entirely from exercising, maybe it's time to focus your energy into remotivating yourself. This may involve making major changes to your routine or perhaps switching to an entirely different kind of exercise.

(Note: if your performance slump drags on for months with no obvious cause, it really may be time to get your ass into the doctor's office.)

7. Eventually, it will get better.

Often, as suddenly and mysteriously as it got worse in the first place. That is, if you don't give up.

Struggling Myself a Bit Lately

So the reason I decided to post about the topic in the first place is that after making steady progress over the last few months on some recent workout goals, suddenly I've been backsliding. I go to the gym in a semi-consistent manner like I always have, but instead of doing more than my previous accomplishments, the last few workouts I've been doing less.

I haven't been over-training or under-training or doing anything out of the ordinary... So what gives? It seems so unfair!

Am I just getting too old for this? Why should I go to the gym at all if it makes no difference!!??

Er... it might be time to remind myself that the same thing has happened before... about a zillion times. Even as recently as a few months ago. And after a draggy week or two I came back even stronger than before.

So. I'm gonna hang in there, and keep trying, and just hope for a generous sprinkling of magic fairy dust sometime soon.

Anyone else ever struggle with a Sudden Onslaught of Workout Crapitude?


  1. Yep, I've experienced that phenomenon. Which is a good reason to drag yourself out of bed to the gym, no matter how you feel.

    If you're still dragging even after you start? Just scale back and do what you can; maybe practice a couple of new things with body-weight only.

    A half-assed workout is better than no workout at all.

  2. Crabby, I may have found a way to beat the workout blahs: I take an intentional week off every couple of months, & don't even wallow in guilt.
    Now I can't say I'm Ms Perfect Fitness anyway, but for my age & goals I'm ok, running faster instead of slower & so on. When I get back to the gym & the trails I'm rarin' to go! And wierd but true, my appetite actually drops during my week off so I tend to drop a pound or two. Which is huge because hello, it's a vacation!
    Nancy in NC

  3. Hooray for half-assedness!

    And Nancy, I think an intentional break is a really smart idea! I take "accidental" ones all the time, but you're right, the guilt makes them less fun than deciding ahead of time there will be no trips to the gym.

  4. I always feel sluggish about my workout and would love some of this magical fairy dust sprinkled on me.

  5. Slugitude may just be your body's way of saying it needs a bit of a break. I say roll with it and see where it takes you.

  6. I love this post, agree on all points. I always know when I'm about to go thru this phenonmenon: I start skipping classes (spin/pilates, etc) in favor of the treadmill, then just do 20 or so minutes, lift a weight or two, and before I know it, I'm in the car headed home. If I was smart, I'd just take a few days off instead of getting grumpy. Thanks for letting me know it's not just me.

  7. one mans halfassed is another womans IM STUCK IN SUCH A FRIGGIN RUT BUT IT IS BETTER THAN NOTHING.


  8. I always have problems pushing myself through slumps and not giving up. I will keep the tips into consideration.

  9. After years of watching my energy levels fluctuate with no cause that can't be assigned to allergies (like everything else in my life) I'm cool with this. Instead of thinking "I walked this distance in five minutes less yesterday _without_ feeling as if I had a four year old on my back. What's wrong with me?" I just go "Uh-oh. Time to keep a hawk eye on what I'm breathing and take it easy." Forty years of this have taught me that it will get better, and then worse, and then...

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  10. I'll feel it today: I was sick two weeks ago, got better, got on a plane, caught some germs and was sick again.

    Nothing too bad, just a lot of coughing and blowing my nose, but my Gym Etiquette stopped me from working out.

  11. Love this post! It's so true. I've totally had those fantastic workouts that come out of nowhere. And of course I've had plenty of crappy workouts. Thanks for the reminder that it's normal! (And thanks for the reminder about over training!!)

  12. OMG YES!!! For a couple of weeks in the spring and fall, I get EXHAUSTED and barely have the energy to even attempt to workout. I know it's allergies, and I'm on medicine, but then the medicine makes me tired. Vicious cycle. And what's worst is that these times of year are beautiful out, and my mind really wants to go out jogging with the leaves falling down. Sigh. You can't win 'em all.


    Been through all of this and am slowly learinig to accept that sometimes it is what it is. I recently went through a three week period where I couldn't get up to speed no matter what I tried. And then one day it was over and I was back to normal. Never did figure out what happened, but I was truly miserable during those three weeks. In hindsight I just kept plugging and it all worked out.


  14. I usually approach my workout with a just do it attitude. On days when it goes really well, I just over do it, and then pay the next day :-(

  15. I am SO in the middle of Workout Crapitude right now. But I'm looking forward to my days of awesomeness, because they've got to be coming back soon....right?

  16. Thanks for this.

    Finished the marathon two weeks ago and have been in sluggish workout hell since...

    I'm sure I'll snap out of it.

  17. Thank you for this post. I have definitely experienced the ups & downs, and the downs can be very hard to take. I also tend to look for reasons, and sometimes there just aren't any. Makes me feel better to know that I'm not alone! :)

  18. My problem is that I always think it would be so much better if I worked out in the AM and got it out of the way, but I am crap in the morning, weak and tired. My good workouts always come after work. Obsessing about not doing it in the AM leaves me feeling like a failure, and then I fall off the wagon completely.

    Yet another way I psych myself out!

  19. Between allergies and the sun going up and down at absurdly late times I have a helluva time getting up to workout this time of year.
    Like, um, this morning for instance...snooze buttons are the evil enemy of workouts...
    It's good to know other struggle with this too.

  20. This happens to me all the time while I'm teaching. Some days I feel like I could jump up to the ceiling practically, and the metaphors practically roll of my tongue (for instance, when they're doing reverse flies, I tell them to pretend they're cracking a nut between their shoulder blades), and on other days jumping an inch seems so so so hard and the metaphors just don't come easily (uh...bring your shoulder blades together).

  21. yeah, sometimes I can just tell I'm gonna have a ton of energy, and those workouts rock. Other times I'll think I'm good to go, thanks to an americano at starbucks, and I wind up dragging. If I'm totally tired to begin with, I usually try and hang back.

  22. This is exactly how I have been feeling. I need to read this and the re-motivating post more often. It is so easy to talk yourself out of excercising, especially when your not seeing the results you want...either in pounds or body fat. It also makes me feel more human to read about other people struggling with this. Thanks Crabby!

  23. I so have those days! And I hate it too. But on the awesome days, I'm out there going at it like no other!

  24. I always feel this way right before my period every month. Then I am fine a couple of days later. It is related to a drop in my hormones. So I always give myself a couple of days off without any guilt. But after 2 days, I must do something, usually low impact such as going for a walk or Pilates.

  25. Unfortunately, this phenomena happened to me about halfway through my marathon training this year. Added to some sudden tenonitis and a shin splint believe me "Craptitude" might not even adequately desribe how I felt. While I've powered through, I am running my fifth marathon on Sunday with NO IDEA how it will go. I'm just hoping it's the fantastic, bursting with energy kind of day :-)

  26. Um, Leah? Can you pass the magic fairy dust?

  27. One of the things they taught us in my marathon training program eight years ago was that even elite Olympic athletes have good days and bad days, peak periods and slumps. I figure if even the pros have ups and downs, who am I to stress out over mine? I just ain't that special.

    If a particular "down" persists, though, I try to find a cause for it or I look for something different to try, just to shake things up a bit. Even a "favorite" workout can become a boring slog-fest if done often enough.

  28. I tend to shrug off crappy workouts... usually I'm just glad I did something, even if my heart wasn't in it. I do tend to overdo it if I'm feeling extra++ good. The result? Shin splints and a stress fracture. There is healthy. And there is broken. Who ever thought the balance would be so hard?

  29. For me, this was one of those things you read and think, "DUH! Why didn't I think of that before??" (Not in a sarcastic way - in a serious way.)

    I used to dance. I was a really good turner and a really good jumper. But some days were just "bad turn days" and/or "bad jump days" (and we called them exactly that). I shrugged it off, and went about my business, secure in the knowlege that 15 years of training hadn't magically left my body overnight, and that tomorrow or the next day I'd be able to do it all again.

    But. Um. It never occurred to me to apply the same thought process to a "normal" workout. *grins sheepishly*

  30. Ooh, I've had loads of this. I like your advice! Good stuff.

  31. "Sometimes the "Ups and Downs" of working out are purely about motivation. And other times the might be about injuries, or busy schedules, or whatever." That sums it up pretty good!

  32. My motivation for running wanes like this. I need the occassional "amazing" days to look forward to.

  33. I have had to push myself more the last couple weeks too. Maybe less sunlight?

    Shaking things up sounds like a good idea. I'm ready for the rest of the leaves to fall so I can get my workout in the yard with the leaves and kiddos :)

  34. I actually see more difference in my cycling (for transportation purposes) than in my workouts - sure, I have good days and less good days at the gym, but there are some days where I just CAN'T seem to get up any speed to where I'm going! It's really frustrating, especially when I'm running late :P

  35. Oh, yeah, I go through these cycles constantly. The ups are called taking a antihistamine to breath an hour before a run (like legal speed in my system) and the downs are when I don't get enough sleep.

  36. Just knowing I'm not the only one dealing with the "phenomenon" is motivation to keep fighting...or in my case- working out :-)

    Thanx Crabby! Good Stuff!


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