1.What is the purpose of the session (for you)?
Every run should have a purpose. It might be a long run to build endurance. It might be a tempo in which you are developing speed endurance, it might be an effort session to increase your VO2max (you ability to use oxygen), it might be a session where you are practicing running at race pace or it might be a recovery run where you are just wanting to loosen off.
Lets say the session was 800s at Low Stobhill. Your goal might be to run them at a good and consistent pace, practicing target race pace for a hilly 5K race. Alternatively you might be using the session to improve your VO2max prior to a target 10K or half-marathon in 6 or 7 weeks time.
If you are struggling to maintain target pace, then there is little point struggling on if your goal was practicing race pace. However, if the goal was to improve VO2max, it won't be a waste of time if you grit your teeth and keep going.
2. Is your session goal realistic?
This is a question that is particularly important if you are looking to run at race pace. Obviously, the longer you aim to run at race pace the harder it will be. Surprisingly if you run two laps of Lancaster Park (2.8 miles) at 5K race pace, it is almost as hard as racing a 5K!!
However, there is also another important factor. Training and racing are not the same (or they should not be). When I'm thinking of a half or full marathon, I work on being able to run the race 10-15 secs a mile faster than for the same effort in training since prior to the race I will (hopefully) be rested (compared with a mid week run after a busy day at work), I will be very focused on the race having worked towards it for weeks/months, there will be crowds cheering (hopefully) and people alongside me who are racing to feed off. So be realistic when setting your goals for a training session.
3. Would it be better to break efforts down into shorter chunks?
OK, so you are tired and really struggling in the efforts. This is dispiriting and keeping positive is as important in training as in racing. So what about taking the first lap of Low Stobhill easier than normal and then try to pick the pace up for the second lap finishing strongly up the hill. This can lead to a real sense that you have managed a decent session after all.
This strategy can be particularly useful for tempo sessions. Run one lap of Lancaster Park nice and easy, not pushing at all. Then do the next a little bit faster. Same for the next and then you may be able to push on for a fourth if you have managed to find your lost energy.
4. Switch your goal
What about if you set off on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you are full of intent to do a longish run at a good pace and you find you are really struggling (its happened to me many times!). Consider adjusting your goal. Try doping your target pace to a nice easy long run pace for the first 2/3 of the run and then look to pick the pace up in the last 1/3. If after you have changed your goal and slowed your pace you are still struggling, then it may be your body is telling you that you are too tired to train whatever your goal. This has also happened to me not infrequently. It is what happens if you try to live a busy life and run!!
5. Are outside factors affecting the session?
This happens all of the time. We have had sessions affected by ice and snow, but one of the commonest issues for us is strong wind. Thursday night this week, track pyramid session. There was a strong bitter wind that you had to run into down the back straight. It added anything from 2-5+ seconds per lap. Don't try to fight these situations - you can't ever win! Fighting it (i.e. trying to run the same pace you would in perfect conditions) will only lead you to get knackered and not finish the session. Rather accept that you need to adjust your pace and that this does not reflect your ability to run quickly in perfect conditions.
There are also plenty of other outside factors that can adversely affect your performance as well - a busy day at work, lots of travelling (tell me about it - this contributed to my problems on Monday), stress at home or work, eating a meal with the family before coming out to train....... Again, there is no point fighting these situations. You have to live with them. If they mean that you can't manage to do the session meeting your (possibly revised) goal then it may be best to consider stopping, or at least taking it very easy.
6. Do you have pain that is affecting your performance?
If you’re having any biomechanical issues, stop the session. That includes not only something like sharp pain in your knee or a lower-back spasm, but also a “twinge that affects your ability to maintain your stride,” (quote from Runners World article - which goes onto say.......)
Soldiering through pain, particularly if this is affecting your gait or stride in any way, will only increase the chances of the issue becoming a full-blown injury that will cost you a lot more fitness than doing three fewer efforts in this particular session. This is particularly the situation the older you get, since older runners tend to take longer to recover from any injuries.
7. How should you train on subsequent days?
This will depend on what has led the session to not go to plan. If there is a clear reason (you eat a roast beef dinner an hour before) then you may well be back on track the next day. However, if the poor session is telling you that you have accumulated exhaustion, then you may need to take a few days to really recover before getting back to hard training.
If you need some time off (maybe the poor session was the first sign of going down with the flu), it is really important that you try to make up for lost time by going back to where you would have been if you had not missed a number of training sessions. This is particularly important with regards to long runs. If you are building distance, generally only increase by 10% from the last long run you have completed, not the one you missed!
8. Is this bad session part of a pattern?
Most people have off days. If these are happening one every 2-3 weeks then this is probably no big deal but simply reflecting that we are not professional athletes with the luxury of not having to do a job as well.
However, if a pattern is emerging then you need to think about this. Are you struggling every time you try to run at race pace? Perhaps your goal race pace is too fast. If it is a more persistent issue - you are struggling on every training session over 1-2 weeks, then you need to ask the question as to whether this is over-training syndrome. Have you recently increased the volume or intensity of your training? If so, then you might need a easier week, or even a week off, to recover before returning to training at an intensity/volume slightly less that you are doing and then building more gradually.
If the problem is coming from some other stress in your life rather than training volume/intensity, the same applies. Back off a little and try to find a more sustainable level of training. Try to avoid letting the running go though since this might well be an important mechanism to help you manage stress.
9. Are you at risk of getting into bad habits?
This can be in either direction. If you too readily drop out of sessions, then this can lead to a lack of mental toughness needed for races. However, continuing to push hard when you are stress, over-trained, in bad weather or when in pain can all lead to longer term problems that could destroy your running. Probably more problems arise through pushing too hard when you shouldn't than through dropping out or modifying your goals for the session. Modifying your gaols, or 'adaptive running', is what pros do all the time. It is all about listening to, and understanding, your body. This is how you get the best out of it.
So there you have it - some advise for when you are having a tough session.