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Trail Tips

Try Not To Judge Yourself On Your Bad Days

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You can’t fake your good days. The day that things click and you float effortlessly? It’s never a fluke, or luck. Those moments of effortless transcendence are a product of all of your work over the years. Good days are truth and love and grit all rolled up and folded into a special flavor Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Savor the good days.

But the bad days? Bad days can be Dirty. Rotten. LIARS.

Bad days may be spurred by more clear factors. It’s hot. It’s cold. Hormonal shifts due to the menstrual cycle. Altitude. Bad shrimp. You found out that Christopher Nolan doesn’t allow chairs on sets because “if they’re sitting, they’re not working” and now you’re all caught up in thinking about that.

Maybe the cause is internal and mostly unpredictable. Cortisol is slightly elevated due to a stressful work day. Some muscle fibers are just a bit fatigued from a workout last week. Hydration hasn’t been ideal for an hour or two. Someone brewed watery coffee and should be tried in the People’s Court, Judge Judy’s court and possibly The Hague.

Or maybe it’s just random chance. These articles often distill running into neat equations and science questions, but it’s much more often like art that can’t really be explained. I wish Instagram runner photos came with an honest caption of how they felt on that run. Next to a man jumping over a rock field: “Fell four times and hated every second.” A woman striding on a beach: “Had nothing from the start and desperately want to quit the sport.” A dog fetching passionately: “MY BARKS ARE A CRY FOR HELP.”

Training can make those bad days more predictable.

I still remember my first run after quitting football in college, already dreaming of the future that was in front of me. I’d be fast and maybe walk onto the track team! Anything would be possible! Reality roundhouse kicked that dream in the face. I got a few times around the block before wheezing to a stop.

Over time, it got better. But even now, I’ll have bad days when every step is through fiery quicksand. And with athletes I coach, bad days are ubiquitous. Pros have them, people starting out have them. They may happen on race day, on workout day or perhaps most tragically, on Taco Tuesday.

In the face of the inevitable bad days, it’s not about trying to set up a magical system to avoid them altogether. I imagine that would require some powerful crystals and an evil amulet and a cavalier approach to the destiny of your eternal soul. What matters is trying to understand the context of the bad days, acting on the information when necessary, but usually laughing it off and moving on.

In the face of the inevitable bad days, it’s not about trying to set up a magical system to avoid them altogether. I imagine that would require some powerful crystals and an evil amulet and a cavalier approach to the destiny of your eternal soul.

Even though you usually shouldn’t read too much into them, don’t brush off every bad day. Note when they happen and do some pattern recognition in your training log or with a coach. If they happen too often, or on every race day/workout, or are part of some other underlying pattern related to mental or physical health, you must act. Make sure you take your rest days, always eat enough, and don’t run too hard too often. It’s key not to run full speed into a brick wall over and over, and most training should feel good.

But even if you do everything right, sometimes you will feel all wrong. The key is not to let the bad days infect your self-image as a runner.

It all gets back to what we actually mean by “fitness.”

Your best days cannot be luck. On those days, the efficient musculoskeletal outputs fueled by powerful aerobic processes and smooth biomechanical/neuromuscular signals are integrated together into the runner you currently are. That fitness is a product of your training, incrementally building to that point with time.

And that fitness is still the runner you are on the bad days. That is the hardest part to realize for runners that find themselves constantly taking a bath in a steaming pool of self-judgment. In fact, bad days are often a product of underlying adaptation processes taking you to new levels.

Think of serious marathon training. During a marathon taper, most athletes will feel horrible for a good portion of it. What’s wrong with my body? If I’m tired walking up the stairs, how will I ever race that far? Has anyone seen my evil amulet?!

But on race day, they fly.

Everything comes together in a push of fitness that resets what’s possible. The tough thing to realize in the moment is race-day fitness was there all along, like one of those cartoon characters hiding behind a narrow shrub. The marathon taper harnesses a universal truth of running training: bad days aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

The marathon taper harnesses a universal truth of running training: bad days aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

A tough day is often a sign that you’re stepping into the arena and betting on yourself. You’re going for it, day after day, building up some fatigue and learning as you go. From that short-term fatigue, you’ll grow. That growth may be more simple, like learning how to handle the weather and life stresses, adapting to the signals and ignoring the noise. But the coolest growth is best seen from a zoomed-out perspective.

Zoom out a few years, and you’ll still be having bad days. Everyone does. If you can resist the temptation to judge yourself day-to-day along the way, responding with love whenever you can, you might have that magical realization.

Your best day a few years ago is your bad day now. Just imagine where self-belief through those bad days might take you a few years from now.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts a weekly, 30-minute podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.