We need to talk about bad days. At various times during the season I hear athlete and coaches chalk up a poorly executed training session or unexpected poor result to nothing more than a bad day. Then they drop it and move on, and that’s the mistake.
Bad Day Syndrome is the knee-jerk reaction to automatically chalk up poor training or racing performances to a nondescript “bad day” and not investigate the causes. There’s a reason your performance tanked, that you couldn’t get out of your own way, that your legs felt like bricks, or that you couldn’t keep up. Dismissing it as just a bad day is lazy, and just means you are perfectly okay with it happening again, and again.
The causes of a bad day are not limited to the five scenarios below, but in my experience I’ve found these to be the most common.
Bad Day Cause #1: Poor Sleep
Following a poor workout or race, one of the first things I look at is an athlete’s sleep pattern over the preceding week. It’s not just the night before that matters. Plenty of athletes can perform well following a single night of disturbed sleep; reduced sleep hours or quality in the nights prior to that are typically more problematic.
A common scenario around events is that athletes are busy preparing for travel, trying to get ahead on work and family commitments, get their bike packed, and then actually travel. This leads to late nights or stress that disturbs sleep and erodes your ability to perform at your best.
What to do: Prioritize your sleep routines, not just before a big event, but all the time. The better you sleep on a regular basis, the better you can cope with small disturbances and get back to sleeping well. If your sleep is erratic to begin with, there’s no norm to return to.
Bad Day Cause #2: Hydration/Nutrition Errors
Fitness doesn’t appear or disappear from one day to the next, so when a person who has been performing well for weeks suddenly falters, it’s not because their fitness suddenly evaporated. Hydration and nutrition status, however, can change significantly from one day to the next, and nutrition/hydration mistakes can absolutely derail performance.
What to do: Make sure your hydration habits are in tune with your environment and activity level. If you are heading out for a hard training session on a hot day, plan ahead for increased hydration needs. If you are heading into a competition, determine how much food and fluid you’re going to need, when, and how you’re going to get it. Test all your hydration and nutrition choices in training before competition, and have backup choices you know will work if your top choices aren’t available.
Bad Day Cause #3: Over Testing
I’m not talking about formalized performance tests, but rather, the constant self-testing that comes from a lack of confidence. When I look at power files – even from structured workouts – it’s not uncommon to see a rider going full gas at some point for no other reason than to test themselves and see how they’re doing on that segment.
Over testing is most damaging – and most common – during a taper. The whole point of a taper is to maintain high-intensity work while reducing overall training load so fatigue drops and optimal form emerges. The easiest way to mess up a taper is to do too much work, but athletes who lack confidence in their preparation get antsy and turn every bump in the road into a test to confirm they really are fast and ready. A taper is meant to sharpen the edge of the knife, and the constant tests blunt that edge and send you into battle with a butter knife.
What to do: If you can’t trust yourself to stop making every ride into a fitness test, try creating more structure in those rides so you have a plan to follow.
Bad Day Cause #4: Overcooking the Sauce
Even athletes with limited time available for training can overdo it by adding too many elements and activities to their training. I see this sometimes when athlete are preparing for a big weekend of training. Instead of just resting and eating normally, they add elements. They increase caloric intake, start stretching or doing self massage when they normally don’t, change their hydration routines, etc. Then their gut or legs feel awful and they can’t track it back to the source because they changed so many variables.
Similarly, athletes often have the urge to do too much as they approach a goal event. Even before getting to the taper process, some athletes want to add more volume, more intensity, or some new training element in order to just “do a little more”. This is a sign you lack confidence in the bigger picture of your preparation.
What to do: When you have the urge to do more, don’t. Of course, to do this you have to have a plan to start with, so you can define what “more” means. Stick with the plan, have confidence in the work you’ve already done, and go in to your event or training block rested.
Bad Day Cause #5: Self-Defeating Thoughts
Some athletes falter when there’s a disconnect between the sensations they expect and the reality they encounter. For instance, you may be completely prepared for a criterium race but it starts really fast and you think, “I feel terrible, this is harder than it should be. I’m dying.” Or you’re in a long road race or even longer gravel event and you experience a low point where you feel like quitting. The same thing happens in training. You might start a workout and your body doesn’t respond the way you expect. It’s at these times when some athletes decide it’s “a bad day” and give up.
What to do: In training, I encourage athletes to extend their warmup (if time allows) to see if they can ride themselves in to feeling better. In events, the key is to remember it’s not over until it’s over. There are countless examples of riders winning after nearly quitting. With World Championships last weekend, I’m reminded of a conversation with Greg LeMond shortly after his World Championship victory in 1983. He recalled feeling so terrible in the first three laps that he all he wanted to do was quit. He figured there was no way he would finish, let alone win. But he stuck with it, and by the final three laps he felt like he could win even if the race added another three laps! Then he soloed away for his first professional World Championship.
The biggest lesson is that bad days don’t just happen. There’s a reason you went from feeling strong yesterday or for the past few weeks to suddenly feeling terrible. Do the work to figure out what happened so you can keep it from happening again.