How Do You Deal With Bad Training Days?

What do you do when you have a bad training day? 

It's a question that gets asked over and over again and cycles through the mind of every athlete.

Last week I was feeling pretty beat up and let down by my training not being as great as I had planned it to be. 

To travel 2 hours each way for training on the previous weekend and feel beaten by nagging injuries impacting overall energy and motivation is a huge disappointment. 

Despite one important day leave a sour taste in my mouth, progress for the previous week was overall pretty good - this is most important to keep in mind as we explore the concept of the normal distribution today in regards to training today.

I’m willing to bet that most people reading this who place their training in the top five priorities of their day-to-day life feels somewhat the same way after a shitty training day. 

I see it all the time. A lifter comes into the gym fired up and seemingly ready to go, but something is off with them on this day in particular. It’s like that jacked up feeling of caffeine when you guzzle it down a pot at a time, so you buzz with no real fire behind your eyes.

You start your prescribed training for the day and quickly realize there’s no jam in your donut.

The bar moves slowly, creeping to a lockout. What are supposed to be explosive reps are all a grind. 

You may make it up with some other training to not feel totally useless, or you pack your bags and leave the gym feeling like a complete failure. Gutting through the same weight, same reps, and same sets week after week should not be happening but does happens surprisingly often even for lifters following a somewhat logical routine. 

By being in tune with our bodies and intelligently structuring our training so that every day isn’t full steam ahead, we can make our average day better than ‘average’ and start to see the progress we truly want. 


Shifting the normal distribution of training.

It’s been a minute since I’ve really had to do any serious stats work but I think this may help to bring light to an area of many people’s training that is lacking. 

The normal distribution or "bell curve"

The normal distribution or "bell curve"

If you’ve been training for at least a year or two, you’ll start to find that your training follows a normal distribution, also commonly called a bell curve. This bell curve trend shows that 68% of your training will fall within one standard deviation of your average training session. Now if you do any type of tracking of progress in your training journal like an RPE scale, HRV, or overall readiness for training you can look back through your own data to see where your average sits and what your standard deviation is (oh wait, you aren’t keeping track of your training? I suggest you run down to your closest dollar store now to buy a notebook). 

I’m willing to bet that most people give themselves 7s on most training days. This is part of the reason why the incredible force of human willpower, Kyle Maynard, recommends you never use seven on a 1-10 scale for anything. 7 is like the average “sort of good but not great” answer - your training day was not terrible but you also weren’t setting PRs or doing anything Earth shattering.

It is very good to know this though. If you average 7, you probably have some bad days where everything is slow, your knees hurt, you’re fighting through injuries, and there’s a creeping pain growing behind your eyes. You also have a few rare days where all engines are go and you train like a savage, set PRs, the bars are bending from both the weight you are hoisting and the sheer power surrounding your physical presence. These days are great. This is often what we live and breath training for but they come all too seldom for the average lifter. 

By definition, half of your training sessions are going to be your average, or worse. By training smarter and following your trends, you can shift your average training day higher on the scale. This is because there’s a limit to your own potential, it’s not like by improving your training the ceiling indefinitely continues to rise with it; no, instead you start to get closer to maximizing your potential in each training session, each training block, and each year that you relentlessly pursue greater strength and size and athleticism. We know there is a genetic limit programmed into how far people can go and what their full potential really is but whether anyone can or has actually reached that point is so difficult to assess that you might as well continue to refine your training to perfection for as long as you possibly can to continue to progress. 


Rotate Your Progress

It has been said by Joel Jamieson, trainer of top UFC athletes and HRV training advocate that we are only able to consistently give up our utmost to two training sessions per week. Pushing beyond that will begin to negatively impact your recovery over time which can ultimately lead to diminishing returns and lacklustre training. 

To avoid reaching this state and to continue to make progress, consider structuring your training to maximize only two sessions per week, with the other sessions being “greasing the wheel” training where you just do what you have to without over-fatiguing yourself. 

You might find that with two great days per week, some lift is not being prioritized as much as another. This might be why many strength coaches notice that past the “Newb Gainz” stage you can only progress on one to two main lifts at a time. This doesn’t mean that the other lifts don’t progress at all. You may still continue to make forward progress on all lifts if you look at your training on a two-week to month-long frame and see progress in all your lifts over that longer time frame. Reframing this journey of training from shorter-term goals to a longer term will keep you making progress and leave you feeling more fulfilled. As Matt Vincent says “the way you get better at squatting is by going in an squatting consistently every week for 10 years." 


Enjoy the Journey

Enjoy the process not the end goal. Often feeling disappointed by training is a result of setting unrealistic short-term goals and looking too far into the future and not enjoying training in the present. Training for a bigger goal helps to make progress but you still have to get enjoyment out of training in the present often enough to make it feel worthwhile. 


One Final Thought

If you find that you’re feeling down frequently about your training and the progress you are making I would suggest limiting your exposure to social media for a while and just performing for your own satisfaction. Most of what you see on social media is people having their best days, whether training or otherwise, so maybe you’re comparing yourself to the wrong ideal. I’ve noticed that this can be especially problematic for athletes driven by competition, as they are far too regularly looking at what other athletes are showcasing and not focused enough on looking at the comparison to their past self. If you need help with tackling this obstacle, I would suggest you check out my book 21 Mindset Challenges on Amazon which addresses this challenge of freeing your mind from the need to constantly check your social media feeds.

Don't get down on yourself for having an occasional bad day. If they come far too often, reevaluate how you are training to capitalize on two days per week and focus your efforts on one to two lifts at a time within those days. Remember that training is a lifelong journey and the Road goes ever on and on.