Cutting a Workout Short: Is it ever okay?
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Have you ever been tempted to quit mid-workout? Were your reasons valid? Was it your mind getting to you? How can you tell the difference? Is it ever okay to cut a workout short? Here's a coach's perspective.
Every athlete who’s been at this for a while has encountered a training session during which they wondered if they should stop or keep going. It may have been because of a nagging pain or fatigue, it may have been that you overdid it on the breakfast buffet that morning and your gut feels like boiling lava, or it may just be that the 8th repeat of your speed intervals feels damn near impossible. Athletes as a whole are a pretty stubborn bunch. Most of us don’t like to quit, and many of us have been guilty of trying to power through even when there are valid reasons to call it a day. On the other hand, we also have times when the little devil on our shoulder – our mind – can feed us reason after reason to stop and deftly persuade us that we shouldn’t push on even though we are physically capable of continuing. If we stop, we often feel guilty and second guess our decision. If we keep going, we may wonder if we pushed ourselves too hard and if it will negatively affect other workouts during the week. In more serious circumstances, it may even aggravate an injury or sickness, causing us to miss more training.
To minimize the back-and-forth and uncertainty, it’s helpful to have an objective system you can use to evaluate your situation. This can help both to eliminate excuses and to eliminate any potential guilt you feel from making the decision to cut a workout short.
The method I use and recommend for my athletes is a quick systems check. The times when you will need to do this are generally times when you’re going to be feeling like crap, so I’ve tried to keep it simple so that even the most fatigue-addled brain can use it effectively. The idea is to determine whether continuing will cause any physical damage or whether you are just mentally tempted to stop. When you reach a moment in your workout where your whole being is crying out to stop and you’re on the edge of quitting, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is my breathing okay?
2. Is my heart okay?
3. Are my muscles and joints okay?
4. Am I dizzy or nauseated enough that it may be unsafe for me to continue?
If the answer to all four things is “yes” then you know that the thing getting in your way is your mind rather than your body, and it’s okay to continue How do you evaluate each of these things? Here are some easy guidelines.
For your breathing: Are you gasping for air and can’t catch your breath? Does your chest feel tight or constricted? If yes, if you slow down significantly for a minute or two does it get better? What about if you stop briefly and then restart at a slower pace? If you can get it under control by slowing down or walking, then keep going with your workout. Finish at a little slower pace if needed. If it is staying out of control even when you walk or take a break, STOP. If it doesn’t improve after stopping your workout or if this happens frequently, it may also be a good idea to check in with a doctor. If you are swimming and you’re experiencing anything unusual with your breathing, stop swimming immediately.
For your heart rate: Does your heart rate make sense relative to what you’re doing? Obviously with exercise you’re going to see an increase in beats per minute, but if you’re doing moderate-level effort and your heart rate is skyrocketing and beating so hard you can feel it in your ears, that would be considered excessive. Follow the same procedures as for breathing. Try slowing down or taking a brief break. If your heart rate will not come down, you may need to cut the workout short. Again, if this happens frequently or you notice any arrhythmias, flutters, or abnormal patterns in your heartbeat you should see a doctor to make sure everything’s okay.
There is one more situation that may arise with your heart rate, and that is if your heart rate is higher than usual at rest (you may notice this as an increased BPM when you first start your workout) but you are unable to get it to reach it’s normal BPM as your effort level increases. For example, if you are doing speed work but your heart rate won’t go above 70% of max, this is a red flag. This pattern is often indicative of overtraining or illness. In this case, it won’t hurt you to keep going with your workout (wouldn’t hurt to stop, either), but it’s a solid message from your body that it would be valuable to take an extra rest day within the next couple of days. If you do continue with your workout, you should decrease your intensity to recovery-level effort (this should feel EASY) to avoid further stressing your body. Make sure you eat nutrient-dense food, get some extra sleep, and take a day off from training to get your body back on track.
For your muscles and joints: Is there any localized, acute pain in my muscles or joints? Tired is fine. Normal fatigue-type achiness or exertion-type burning sensation is fine. Even some minor aches and pains are fine. But if there is a new pain occurring, particularly one that localized and severe or one that is getting progressively worse during your workout, that is reason for concern and it’s best to stop.
The last one is fairly self-explanatory. If you are feeling dizzy enough or so nauseated that you are unstable on your bike or on your feet, it is not safe to continue. You can try stopping for a few minutes and/or adjusting your fueling (have you had enough calories and electrolytes? Are you dehydrated?) but if you can’t regain your bearings to a point where it’s safe, you should stop.
So there they are – the four key questions: Is my breathing okay? Is my heart okay? Are my muscles and joints okay? Am I safe to continue if I’m having dizziness or nausea?
If the answer to one or more of these is no according to the explanations above, call it a day and don’t feel guilty about it. If the answers are all “yes, it’s okay” (and 9 out of 10 times you do this they will be all okay), then you’ve just identified that what’s holding you back is your mind. As long as there’s no risk of physical injury from continuing you should eliminate the excuses and second-guessing, reset in your head, and take this as an opportunity to dig deep, gain mental strength, and fight through.