Bad workouts happen to everyone. No matter how dedicated you are, some days the stars just don’t align.
Sometimes you know from the outset you’re not up for your regular sweat-fest.
Other times, you get part way through your workout and you’d swear someone turned up the gravity in the room.
The weights feel heavier. Your cardio is sluggish. Everything around you seems more interesting than your workout.
Maybe you’re too stressed out to focus. Maybe your sleep or nutrition has been off-kilter.
Maybe you’re still wrecked from your last workout.
Whatever the reason, don’t panic. Fitness is a lifelong journey, and everyone hits speed bumps along the way.
Here’s how to be sure the peaks outnumber the valleys — and what to do when a lousy workout threatens to throw off your momentum.
1. Relax and Reframe
First and foremost, cut yourself a break. You’ve put in a lot of work to get where you are, and the fact that you feel bad about a less-than-perfect workout is ample proof of your progress.
You may be tempted to attack your next session with wild-eyed intensity, but resist the urge.
Exercise is a form of stress, and a substandard workout usually indicates that you don’t have the time or energy to fully recover from that stress right now.
The last thing you want to do is stress your system even more by pushing yourself too hard.
Instead, put the brakes on hard workouts for a day or two — or longer if necessary — and reflect on how far you’ve already come on your fitness journey.
Tweak your program if necessary. And then get back to it.
2. Adjust Your Fuel
“Energy and nutrition go hand in hand,” says Katie Mumford, a NASM-certified personal trainer. “If you’re feeling depleted during your workout, a great place to start is your nutrition.”
You can get away with doing relatively low-intensity activities — like taking a walk or leisurely bike ride — with minimal fuel in your system.
But you shouldn’t try to lift weights, sprint, or perform HIIT, circuit training, or any other high-intensity workout if you’re running on empty.
These activities burn glycogen (stored carbohydrates), and exercising when your glycogen stores are low can result in what athletes call “hitting the wall” (a.k.a., “bonking”) — the sensation that you’re out of fuel and can’t go on.
If you plan to work out more than three or four hours after a meal, have a small snack with carbs and some protein an hour or two before you begin.
A few good options include:
An apple and a glass of milk
A banana and some yogurt
A small protein shake and some strawberries
Taking a pre-workout supplement such as Energize about 30 minutes before you start exercising can also help boost your performance.*
And remember, good nutrition is an all-day habit.
If you don’t fuel up carefully around-the-clock with high-quality protein and healthy carbs and fats, even the best pre-workout snack in the world won’t always save you from having a lousy workout.
3. Prioritize Recovery
If you run out of gas during a workout, one possible culprit is your exercise frequency. Make sure you’re giving your body enough time to recover between workouts.
“If you’re following a program, especially one that’s more than two days a week, some days are lighter in intensity and load than others by design, to allow your body to recover,” says Mumford.
Respect those parameters and don’t skip your recovery days, which should include some of the following activities:
If you’re looking to up the ante, here are a few tweaks to your routine that can help prioritize recovery:
Allow at least one full day of rest between workouts that affect the same body part or muscle group. If you do an upper-body workout one day, focus on your lower body the next.
Try alternating between “push days” (chest, shoulders, triceps), “pull days” (biceps, forearms, back), and “leg days” (quads, hamstrings, glutes).
If you do a longer strength session, save your cardio workout for the next day.
If you still feel burned out, you may simply be doing too much for your current stress and fitness levels.
Take a few days or even a week off, and then ease back into your program, cutting back on the amount of weight you lift and how many sets you perform until you feel your energy come roaring back.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Shuteye is one of the least appreciated — yet most essential — components of recovery.
If you’re not getting 7 to 9 hours a night, it’s unlikely that you’re recovering fully and making optimal progress from your workouts.
Sooner or later, chronic lack of sleep will affect exercise, and your progress will stall.
Better sleep habits can help you bounce back from a bad workout and improve your overall health.
“Turn off electronics early,” Mumford advises. “Or swap the late-night show for a podcast or reading a book.”
Try shutting down 30 minutes earlier than usual every night for a week.
If you feel more energetic and your workouts improve, it might be worth changing your night-owl habits for good.
Sometimes, life is just too crammed with activity and pressure to give your workouts the kind of meaningful attention that’s conducive to great progress.
If you think stress may be affecting your workouts, try temporarily reducing your workout time and frequency to a maintenance level.
Spend the time you gain engaging in de-stressing activities — go for a walk, stretch, do some deep breathing, or catch up on sleep.
Then resume a tougher program when your life settles down.
This can help you reduce your injury risk, avoid burnout, and minimize bad workouts in the future.