Can You Have a Perfect Workout? (And What to Do When Things Go Sideways.)

by | Dec 2, 2021 | Training

Are your Workouts Perfect?

It is sadly very common that cyclists get frustrated because they ‘had’ to quit a workout or couldn’t follow their training plan 100% as laid out. The dirty secret is that the best athletes don’t do 100% of their training, they adjust daily based on their context. What is context? It is things like how they feel, weather, training partners, terrain etc. If it is really hot out they will do less or reduce their output even if their multiple gadgets say that 250 watts are the best watts, the perfect watts! They adjust the load based on their feeling.

An athlete might have a set of 3 x 10-minute intervals at 250 watts, but quit because they did 245 watts on the 2nd interval. This is not a failure that’s just a goal for next week. 

How you feel today is important. If you are training hard and doing important things like working a full-time job or raising kids then it is certain that not every day is going to be the perfect day. I am not sure what the perfect day really is but it seems like the expectation is often a personal best every time a pedal is turned or a workout that results in such deep fatigue (and happiness?) that we must lay on the floor while our soigneurs clean our legs and present us to the podium for our interviews and medals. That is not training, that is a couple of days in the life of the best athletes of the world. For all athletes, it is certain that most days are ‘normal’ that means no applause, no medals, few Strava QOM/KOMs, and certainly no need for victorious collapse at the finish line.


There is no failure, especially when we are looking at small differences (remember no device is 100% accurate, nor can output metrics, like wattage, account for daily changes in your body and environment (heat/altitude/gradient/indoors vs. outdoors). It is more practical (and fun) to focus on the goal for the day and how you can best achieve it in your context today. The goal may be a certain time around threshold, a few hard hill repetitions, or just an easy (EASY) endurance ride. If the workout or the plan gets too far from your context then that is a great time to talk with your coach or consult with one.

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80% is a passing Grade

Let go of perfect. Most workouts do not account for your own personal context (weather, gear, recovery etc) it is certain that what you are thinking is 100% perfect is not perfect for you today. Get the main idea of your workout, get close to the target, do as much of the laid-out week as you can. Adjust for obvious times you can do more because you slept well or got the day off work. If you don’t sleep, have a giant saddle sore, or you just feel off then you will want to reduce the amount of work you do and what you are expecting from your body on that day.

To adjust try intervals at the low end of the zone, reduce the number of intervals or shorten the ride slightly. The 3 x 10 example in the introduction is a good example because 245watts is definitely in the zone, but I see athletes frustrated by this lack of ‘perfection’ often. If you have 5 x 4-minute hill intervals 4 x 4 is still in the Vo2 target range, as is 5 x 3.  Do a bit less and come back tomorrow with a smile. This daily adjustment is the advantage of coaching versus a stock training plan, but at all levels, there are decisions that athletes need to make to complete their workouts.

Listen to me talk 80% is a passing grade on Consummate Athlete Podcast

90% of life is showing up (and finishing)

I think it is important to finish things we start. Not just races, but also workouts because they are what make for race day success. Implicit in finishing things is that you have to start them. And before you start something there should be some reflection on whether it is something you want to do and something that you can do. By setting appropriate goals and weekly plans you are setting yourself up to start and to finish.

To show up daily you can plan out your day, your week, and your season. I use Training peaks for planning seasons and weeks and logging workouts. Google Calendar or similar apps can help to integrate that training time (e.g. I have a 90-minute ride today) with family time (E.g. we have dinner here or an appointment there) and work time (e.g. you have to work 9-5 pm). This helps set realistic goals and plans and flag issues days if not weeks before they happen (e.g. you can’t train on the 2nd Thursday due to the things you have to do that day).

Finishing today still leaves an option to adjust tomorrow. If we find that today was a big load then this is another data point in the *FUN* experiment that is your training. If you think you SHOULD quit it can be helpful to slow down for a moment and look at the things you are saying you ‘should’ do or not do. Common things are ‘I should do X wattage’ or ‘I should not fade’ or ‘this shouldn’t be this hard’. Sometimes you can just reduce the load or take an extra break and finish. By finishing you can learn something and feel good about what you did. You can come back next week and do better (this is the training process).

Read a post about finding your WHY and Post Event Burnout 

Whatever your goal is and whatever plan you are following make sure you are showing up each day to train. Remember that training is not racing or testing and that there is a large range of acceptable ways to complete the workout. The key is that you complete the workout.



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