Knowing When To Cut A Run Short

As avid runners, we have a large range of structure that we each apply to our running. Some of us have all of our runs planned several days (or weeks) in advance, while others may rarely know what run we are going to do until we get out the door and start running. No matter how unstructured we are in our running, though, we all have at least occasional times when we have a specific agenda or intention for a given run or a sequence of runs.

I’m about as unstructured as any runner I know, but every so often even I plan specific runs a few days in advance. This can often be brought on by things like the weather or my schedule with other aspects of my life. Wednesday this past week, for example, I planned a long run on Friday because the weather was supposed to be nice and I would have the entire day free.

Friday came around and I headed out the door only to find that I felt horrible. I headed up the trail that essentially leaves from my front door and found that I didn’t have the energy to run any of it. Even the totally flat parts felt shockingly hard. I continued hiking up the mountain for an hour or so before turning back down, but there was no way I was going to continue on with the longer loop that I originally had in mind. Countless other times in my life, though, I have headed out for a specific run and stuck with it even if I was not feeling well.

Why is it then that sometimes we choose to push through our bodies telling us to cut a run short and other times we choose to stop short and save it for another day? Is this a random thing or can we learn how to know when it is best to cut a run short and when to keep pushing on? I’ve written about this same topic with regard to racing and to longer, more general time frames of training, but when applied to individual, single-day training runs, I think there are a different set of factors to consider.

The first thing to consider is just how weak and tired you actually feel. This is certainly not something we can quantify, but there are some days when fatigue runs so deep that continuing on is not even really an option. There are other days when it’s such a small amount of fatigue that it’s obvious that you are going to benefit from continuing with your planned run. The toughest decisions come when it’s somewhere in the middle. When you could continue on but your body is telling you that maybe you don’t want to or that you shouldn’t. In these cases, there are many other things to think about as you are deciding to turn back early or not.

One of these things is to take into account what you have planned for the remainder of that day and the days to follow. If you have ample free time in the next 24 to 48 hours to devote to replenishment, rest, and recovery it might not be a bad idea to stick to your planned run. However, if you have numerous other plans in this upcoming time frame it might be wise to cut short.

Another thing I always consider in these cases is how well have I slept recently, and how much certainty I have that I will be able to get adequate sleep in the coming days? It makes a lot more sense to grind through a run in which you aren’t feeling well if you slept well the night before. It also makes a lot more sense to stick with it when you are confident you will be able to get a good, full night of sleep each of the next few nights than if you are certain you won’t be able to for any reason.

Often it can make a lot more sense to cut a run short because you have another day coming up soon in which you can do this run instead. This was the case for me this past week. When I felt as bad as I did on Friday, it made a lot of sense for me to cut that day short because I knew I was also going to be free all day on Sunday and could change my Friday run plan to that day. On the other hand, if your next several days are going to be impossible to ‘make up’ that run, you might decide to grind it out that day, knowing that you will have little flexibility to make it up in the coming days.

The one last thing I always consider is the mental factor. Have I been generally feeling strong and confident in my running such that I might not suffer mentally for cutting a run short? Or have I been struggling to stay motivated and focused and might it do me some good to finish what I started on that particular day? This can be the hardest factor to understand because often it can cut both ways. Sometimes it can do our psyche so much good to grind out a run when we aren’t feeling well, and other times it can just make us feel even weaker and more mentally ‘out of shape’. I think the best way to understand which way this will go is to see how our mind responds to either option in the moment. Sometimes when you decide you are going to cut a run short, your mind immediately begins to beg your body to keep going. Other times your mind feels totally relieved as soon as you make this decision. Don’t minimize the significance of these ‘gut’ reactions in these moments, and don’t be afraid to change your mind based on these reactions.

It can take time and experience to understand all of these factors, and there is certainly more to consider that I haven’t touched on here, but over time, with enough focus, attention, and practice, any avid runner should be able to know when to stick with a planned run, and when to cut it short. There is never a definitively right or wrong answer to this question, and what might make sense in one situation might not in the next. Over time, though, with enough experience, it does all start to make a little more sense, and you will come to a place in which you will rarely second guess whether you made the right choice or not.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How do you decide to cut a run or race short?
  • What are the factors that most significantly influence you into changing your plans if things aren’t going well?
  • Has your decision-making process for modifying a run when you feel poorly evolved over the years?

There are 3 comments

  1. mountainmarkus

    I think with a little common sense everybody can figure that out yourself. Sometimes I just don't want to run when I am lazy and sometimes I need a little kick into the bud to get out the door but it something entirely different I feel tired from to much running. In rare cases once in a decade, I needed to cut a run short. For the most part I try to structure my training around the other stuff which is going on in my life. So I keep my training flexible. I think that is a huge part of not getting fatigue.

    What I think the main problem is that a lot of these top runners are training way too much. Karl Meltzer is a rare exception. If they would train less miles and structure there races schedule better (less races for the most part ) we wouldn't see so many top runners come and go. Too many top ultrarunners these days have there one or two awesome seasons and then they are pretty much done. That is quite different from the Ann Trasons and Scott Jureks in the good old times ;-)

  2. Hillrunner50

    I totally agree with mountainmarkus regarding the amount of training and racing that knocks out most top ultra runners within a few years. Many non-professionals don't last long either. I want to add that if you combine a good training philosophy such as Lydiard or Maffetone with your day to day common sense, you should be able to avoid those terrible runs for the most part and be able to run well for many years.

  3. dgsum

    Great topic Geoff!
    You say: "The first thing to consider is just how weak and tired you actually feel."
    How do you take soreness into account? Being sore, even very sore, does not always lead to feelings of weakness or exhaustion. In fact, I think it feels great to run gently on sore muscles, it makes one more cognizant of running mechanics and what it truly means to run efficiently.
    Your thoughts?

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