Ask the Experts: When to Skip a Workout

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It happens to all of us: we wake up feeling under the weather or perhaps we had a terrible night of sleep, BUT you have a workout on the schedule for today: so what do you do? If you work with a coach it can be reassuring to hear the words, “it’s okay to skip the session.” You walk away from this conversation feeling good about your decision because you trust your coach and what they have to say. Well, what if you don’t have a coach to bounce this idea off of? Do you feel confident to make your own decision to know it is ok and more importantly you are making the right call to skip today’s session?

First things first, take a step back and assess the reasons why you may have to skip your workout. Your why will lead to a more informed solution as to how you should incorporate (or not) your missed session back into your training.


Defining Stress


When training is stripped down to its basics it is the process of repeating stress on your body, and then allowing time to recover from this stress. From this point, your body becomes more robust and is able to handle greater stress placed upon it.
When talking of stress, there are two types of stress that can affect our bodies: physical and mental stress. A lot of us may only take into account physical stress, but mental stress can wear on us the same if not more. Both physical and mental stress make up our total stress.
Our body can only handle a certain stress load, and this is important to remember when you do miss a workout. While many endurance athletes can be overly critical of themselves in these scenarios, rarely is a missed workout a case of being “lazy.” There are typically two different scenarios that are occurring when you miss a workout:

  • External Factors
  • Internal Factors

External Factors are situations such as family, work, and life emergencies that occur out of our control. Do not beat yourself up over these factors and instead focus this energy on nailing your next session on your training plan. Stressing out about a missed workout over these circumstances will only lead to further issues down the road such as loss of sleep or increased tension in your body that can affect your next workout. Instead, try to take some time prior to bed to relax and unwind from the days’ events.

Internal Factors are situations where you are either sick, overly tired/fatigued, or feel extremely unmotivated. While some of us may chalk these reasons up as a lack of willpower, remember that your body is smarter than you think. Unconsciously your body is telling you it needs extra rest or sleep to overcome previous fatigue that was placed upon it. Even the most dedicated athletes will go through periods of feeling extremely unmotivated due to rising fatigue levels. These are times where you must listen to your body and try to get an extra hour or two of sleep if you are able.


So What Now?


We can’t always rely on someone to tell us what is the right call. As athletes, we should feel empowered to make these calls ourselves. There will never be a cookie-cutter formula that we can use to help us make these decisions, but knowing that certain scenarios do in fact call for us to take a step back and a day off, then we can feel better about the decisions we have made for ourselves.

I feel exhausted and barely slept the last few nights….
What is your training for the following day? An easy day? A workout? Whatever it is, getting more sleep is always the solution. Catching up on an extra 30 minutes of sleep is more beneficial than getting in a 30-minute easy spin, and especially if you are gearing up for a big session. Your sleep patterns will affect your energy levels and if you’re looking to hit key sessions you want to make sure you are primed and ready to go physically and mentally!

My resting heart rate is trending higher than normal….
Have you been keeping track of your RHR (resting heart rate)? Keeping a journal or using a device that tracks this metric can be a very useful tool that can help you as an athlete make better-informed decisions on skipping a workout. Most of us know that a low resting heart rate generally points towards increased aerobic fitness. Fatigue can be finicky on your heart rate and cause it to either increase or decrease your resting heart rate. (If only it was as simple as one or the other!) So how does this information help you? Well, pairing how you physically feel (do you feel extremely tired, have trouble falling asleep, or find yourself excessively hungry?) pairing these clues with a noticeable change in your RHR trend can help you make your own informed decision, that skipping your training for the day is the right call.

Your body feels excessively sore from a previous workout….
Some of us have heard of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and it is real. This muscle soreness occurs after a workout (especially lifting!) and typically subsides after (approximately) 72 hours. What you are really suffering from is a heavy helping of eccentric loading and tissue damage (for example you’ve run downhill hard for a long period of time, your quads would most likely experience a heavy dose of DOMS.) Easy rides and gentle movement would be advised to help you improve circulation if you are experiencing continued soreness. When you experience DOMS your body essentially has mini tears in your tissue and it takes time to repair these! Key takeaway: don’t push the recovery! Making the call to sit today’s session out will benefit you in the long run as you can further damage your tissue by pushing it too hard too fast. This continued damage will only extend the recovery time needed to get your body back to feeling normal again.

I am extremely stressed and feel overwhelmed mentally….
A lot of us do not feel that our mental health constitutes a good reason to skip a physical workout, but as we discussed above, stress is stress. Our body is not filing our mental stress into a separate cabinet from our physical. Your body has a limiting cap on just how much stress it can handle. Taking your daily stress levels into account is critical when evaluating your fatigue levels. So not only will you feel more exhausted from a mentally draining day, but your body is in fact actually tired from processing these mentally stressful days. So what should you do? If feeling exhausted from mental stress, treat this the same as if you were exhausted from physical strain. Take the day off to decompress and get back into a positive mental space. If exercise is your happy place to decompress, then do some light recovery exercises. The last thing you’ll want to do is a tough session that taxes/stresses your body more!


How Should I Make Up a Skipped Session?


If you’re in the midst of a training plan that is building up for your A race, you may be wanting to understand where you can “make up” your missed session. The answer to this not only will rely on the reason as to why you missed your session, but also will be dependent upon where you are currently in your training plan.
Depending upon your age, ability, and time availability most training plans are built off of weekly structures called blocks. While not all are, for this scenario we will use the assumption that most plans use a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio when it comes to a training block. These ratios refer to weeks on versus weeks off. Therefore some athletes can be “on” for two weeks and then have an “off” recovery week. The same logic will apply to the 3:1 ratio.
Next, it is important to look ahead in your week’s training schedule to see where your upcoming rest and workout days fall.

First ⅔ of Training Block

Last ⅓ of Training Block

Next-Day on Schedule:
Rest Day,
Workout,
Rest Day,
Workout

External Factor:
Do the session tomorrow OR Add on 10-15 minutes of ride time to your next few training sessions (Until you hit 100% of missed ride time)
Add on 10-15 minutes of ride time to your next few training sessions (Until you hit 80% of missed ride time)
Do 80% of the session tomorrow OR Add on 10-15 minutes of ride time to your next few training sessions (Until you hit 90% of missed ride time)
Add on enough ride time to the remaining training sessions to make up for 75% of missed time.

Internal Factor:
Get some extra sleep, try and get in a 10-20 minute recovery spin.
Get some extra sleep, start with a 15-minute recovery spin. Feeling better? Give the planned session a try. Not feeling better? Another 5-10 minutes of recovery spinning then call it day.
Get more sleep!!
Extra sleep followed by a 10-20 minute recovery spin.

When in doubt, always feel confident in knowing that sleep is key. If you are worried about sleeping 30-60 minutes more or getting in an extra 30-60 minutes of training, always always always choose sleep!


Learn more from Ian Boswell and Wahoo Sports Science coach Neal Henderson.

 

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