It’s a common dilemma for anyone on a training plan: You miss one workout and become awashed with guilt. To make up for it, you add those miles or sets to your next workout or try to sneak in an extra run on your rest day. But according to the professionals, this isn’t the right way to go about it—you can’t cram for athletic events like an exam.
When you miss a workout, “the temptation is to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do more tomorrow’,” says John Raglin, PhD, professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University Bloomington. He advises athletes to be careful not to overload to compensate. RRCA-certified running coach Ashley Mateo agrees: “If you miss a single run, don’t even make up that run. There’s no point, just let it go,” she says. “A single workout is not going to make or break a training plan. The key to training for any running race is consistency over time. You just want to be consistently showing up.”
Raglin and Mateo aren’t saying this just to rid you of your guilt. When you try to catch up on your workouts, you run a couple of risks: “Certainly an injury, but also becoming over-fatigued, which could ruin your training after that,” says Raglin. This is a phenomenon called ‘non-functional overreaching,’ where athletes are “training so hard they start to lose ground instead of gaining ground,” he says. Eventually, this could lead to overtraining syndrome, which, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, is characterized by a decrease in performance due to a long-term increase in training load without adequate recovery. Once you creep into the realm of overtraining, it can take weeks to months to recover. So “if you’re constantly tired or sore, you don’t have the motivation to run and you feel like you have to because your training plan says so, that’s probably your body telling you that you just need a minute,” says Mateo.
Even if you can write off a missed workout as rest and recovery, it’s still easy to get discouraged—and derailed—when it (inevitably) happens. “Fifty percent of people who start an exercise program eventually quit,” says Raglin, “And I think the issue of guilt and feeling like a failure is responsible for a fair amount of those dropouts.”
So how do you move forward if you skipped a run or five? Well first, you may want to change your mindset about your training program. “People download [generalized training plans] and they think that this thing is written in stone without understanding that they are meant to be adapted to your life,” says Mateo. The everyday athlete has a whole host of life stressors—job, kids, friendships, travel. And despite how good it makes you feel, exercise is just another type of stress: “You are putting your body under stress so that it can get stronger by adapting to that stress,” explains Mateo. So when things get chaotic in one part of your life, it may be necessary to dial back the exercise.
Next, if you missed a workout, you have to ask yourself why. “Was it just because your schedule got out of hand? Was it because you were feeling overly fatigued?” asks Mateo. Understanding why you missed the workout can shed some light on how to move forward, and help you tailor your program to suit your lifestyle and schedule.
If you’re the type of overachiever that just can’t shake the feeling like you need to make up for what you missed, Raglin recommends adding an extra 10 minutes of stretching or walking to feel like you’re doing something good for your body. But at the end of the day, a missed workout is just an extra day off for recovery, which Raglin says, is “very often more helpful than harmful.”