When It All Seems Bad

By Michael Krueger

It doesn’t matter if you have been training for many years or just a few months; occasionally, the wheels just fall off and nothing seems to be going right. A run that used to be pleasurable is now pure torture, and a lifting session that normally leaves you pumped now has you lying on the bench staring at the ceiling wondering why you bother.

Sooner or later it happens to everyone, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.


Identify the Problem

The first thing to do is to get out your logs (you are still keeping a log, right?) and find the wisdom contain within those sweat-spattered pages. So start paging back and look for key words like “awful, injury, pain, frustration, lousy, crappy”–in other words, anything negative. Then keep going back further, looking for any positive comments. What you will probably find is a few weeks’ worth of negative stuff, then a fairly long period of hardly any comments at all, and then finally something positive.

During this seemingly quiet time, when there weren’t any comments to speak of, is where the problem actually was brewing. You weren’t being mindful in your training; you were on autopilot, so to speak. Complacency will kill a program almost as quickly as a physical injury.

Now you need to find out how you “lost the calling” and figure out how something you once found to be a source of positive feelings in your life has become a drag physically and emotionally. This is where a little detective work and a lot of honest self-appraisal come in.

The usual suspects when training goes downhill include, but are not limited to, the workout itself, work pressures, family problems, injuries, stresses, exercise longevity, boredom, and any number of other things unique to your life. Sometimes it involves over or under training or the achievement of a goal or lack thereof. It might be the predictability or nonprogressiveness of your workout or the banality of the route you run or bike that is contributing to your flagging enthusiasm. If you are fairly new to training, it might be that the newness has worn off and now it just feels like hard work. It may be nutrition-related or be a symptom of an undiagnosed health problem. The fact of the matter is that it’s usually a combination of two, three, or more of these stressors. The most serious of these and one not to be ignored is the hidden health problem. If you have noticed severe fatigue, chronic coughs, frequent headaches, sleep disruptions, bleeding, vomiting, or other “red flag” symptoms, get checked out by your doctor.

Occasionally, it seems impossible to pin down the source no matter how hard you might try. The best advice when that happens is to start the process over again; this time, be more honest in your appraisal of what your log has to tell you.


Sometimes the Cure Is Simple…

It you are lucky, the solution to the problem is as simple as tweaking your workout; oddly enough, sometimes that is all it takes. When the problem is the workout itself, then a change of routine is the proper prescription. A new focus on strength when you had been working on hypertrophy can energize a program. Using free weights if you had been focusing on machines can take your training in a whole new direction. Taking a class or introducing some band, ball, or kettle bell moves can also put some fun back in the mix and give your body and mind something new and challenging to work on. Getting into a pool or on a bike when you had been running is another way to throw some positive change into a program. Check out Claire Diab and Dennis Boyle’s Fire Life yoga column for ideas on relaxation, focus, and mindfulness. A new goal, some new equipment, or even new shoes or workout clothes can inject some fun back into a dull routine.


…and Sometimes It’s Not

It gets complicated when the problem affecting your workout is coming from factors outside the gym. If work pressures are putting a larger demand on your time and you feel there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all that is required of you, then of course your enthusiasm is going to take a hit.

If you are making yourself crazy over your relationship with your spouse, significant other, children, dog, cat, or parents, it is difficult to focus on training. If you are having financial or emotional/psychological issues, it saps your emotional as well as physical energy and can cause you to spend way too much time staring blankly into space rather than taking action.

If through your honest assessment you find that your training problems are just the “canary in the coal mine” of larger issues, you will need to take action sooner rather than later.

If your issues are with the people in your life, finding good advice is as easy as backing up a page or two on Fire Life and checking out the column “What Every Firefighter’s Spouse Should Know” by Anne Gagliano. I know far too many firefighters whose marriage, family, and fitness have taken a hit from the pressures of a career in the fire service. Do yourself and your relationships a favor, and check out her column.

Using exercise as a temporary stress reducer can be a life saver. Taking a little time out and going for a walk or a run can drain off negative energy that might have just made a situation worse. But, using exercise on a chronic basis so you don’t have to face problems is no more effective than crawling in a bottle of liquor; it doesn’t really address the issues and it soon becomes ineffective and just makes the problems worse.


Usually It’s Not Serious

The good news is that nine times out of ten the malaise that has affected your training is just a temporary thing and not the harbinger of deep and dark problems either mental or physical. Most of the time, it goes away with only the smallest effort and some positive action by you.

If you really love to train and you have incorporated it into your life in a positive way, then time will heal what ails you. You’ll find a new muse, a new focus, and next thing you know, you will be back training with enthusiasm.

Once you have been training for 10, 20, 30, or more years, you will accept the ups and downs of the process. A “bad” workout can be like a “bad” pizza; it can still be pretty good.

So if you have found your enthusiasm to be a bit on the short side lately, it is time for a little introspection. Be honest, be thorough, and soon you will be back on the path to health and fitness.



Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com. 


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