How to bounce back from a bad workout

Bad workouts happen to everyone. No matter how dedicated you are, some days the stars just don’t align.

Sometimes you know right from the start that you’re not ready for your regular sweat-fest.

Other times, you get a little way through your workout and you swear someone turned on the gravity in the room.

The weight feels heavy. Your cardio is sluggish. Everything around you seems more interesting than your workout.

Maybe you’re too stressed to focus. Maybe your sleep or nutrition is lacking.

Maybe you’re still wasted from your last workout.

Woman sitting on the ground after a bad workout

Whatever the reason, don’t panic. Fitness is a lifelong journey, and everyone hits speed bumps along the way.

Here’s how to make sure the peaks outweigh the valleys — and what to do when a bad workout threatens to derail you.

1. Relax and reframe

Woman relaxing after workout

First and foremost, cut yourself a break. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and the fact that you feel bad about a less-than-perfect workout is proof enough 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 low-quality exercise 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 overstress yourself by overstressing your system.

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.

Change your program if necessary. And then get it back.

2. Adjust your fuel

“Strength and nutrition go hand in hand,” says NASM-certified personal trainer Katie Mumford. “If you’re feeling depleted during your workout, a great place to start is with your nutrition.”

You can get away with relatively low-intensity activities – such as walking or leisurely cycling – with minimal fuel in your system.

But if you’re running on empty, you shouldn’t try lifting weights, sprinting or HIIT, circuit training, or any other high-intensity workout.

These activities burn glycogen (stored carbohydrates), and exercising when your glycogen stores are low can lead to what athletes call “hitting the wall” (aka, “bonking”) — the feeling that you’re out of fuel and can’t go. Turn on.

If you plan to work more than three or four hours after a meal, eat a small snack with carbohydrates and some protein an hour or two before starting.

Some 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 like Energize about 30 minutes before you start exercising can help boost your performance.*

And remember, good nutrition is a daily habit.

Even the best pre-workout snack in the world won’t always save you from having a bad workout if you’re not carefully fueling around the clock with high-quality protein and healthy carbs and fats.

3. Prioritize recovery

Woman using foam roller at gym

If you run out of gas during a workout, one likely culprit is your exercise frequency. Make sure you give 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 than others by design in terms of intensity and load, allowing your body to recover,” says Mumford.

Respect these parameters and do not skip your recovery days, which should include some of the following activities:

If you’re looking ahead, here are a few changes to your routine that can help make recovery a priority:

  • 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, arms, back), and “leg days” (quads, hamstrings, glutes).
  • If you do a long strength session, save your cardio workout for the next day.

If you’re still feeling the burn, you’re doing too much for your current stress and fitness level.

Take a few days or even a week off, and then return to your program, reducing the amount of weight you lift and the number of sets you perform until your strength is back.

4. Get enough sleep

Shuteye is one of the most underappreciated – yet most essential – recovery ingredients.

If you’re not getting 7 to 9 hours a night, it’s unlikely that you’re fully recovering and making optimal progress from your workout.

Sooner or later, chronic lack of sleep will affect exercise and your progress will stall.

Good sleep habits can help you bounce back from a bad workout And Improve your overall health.

“Turn off electronics early,” advises Mumford. “Or swap the late-night show for a podcast or reading a book.”

Try going off 30 minutes earlier than usual every night for a week.

If you feel more energetic and your workouts improve, it may be worth changing your night-time habits for good.

5. De-stress

Woman relaxing outdoors at sunset

Sometimes, life is too packed with activities and pressures to give your workouts the meaningful attention that is conducive to great progress.

If you think stress may be affecting your workouts, try temporarily reducing the time and frequency of your workouts to a maintenance level.

Spend the time you gain on de-stressing activities — go for a walk, stretch, take some deep breaths, or take a nap.

Then resume a solid program once your life settles down.

This can help you reduce your risk of injury, avoid burnout, and reduce bad workouts in the future.

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