Modifying workouts is tricky business—so much so that a question around it comes up almost monthly on the podcast. Should you skip, swap, shift, substitute or shorten your workout? Or forget about the workout altogether and just do something? We chatted about this on the Consummate Athlete Podcast, but we wanted to break it down for those of you who need to see your options laid out. If you often have to modify workouts around your busy life, maybe even consider bookmarking this post so you can revisit it the next time you need to make a change!
When you are a busy, hard charging athlete (and even when you aren’t) there will come a time when there isn’t more time in the day to fit that workout in and (OFTEN) even if you can fit it in the plan may very well need adjusting to fit into your life. Remember the old training saying, “The Plan is Written in Pencil.”
If we think of the long-term training plan not as an ideal plan but as our rough plan that goes from HERE to THERE, then we can be more flexible knowing that the plan from yesterday’s HERE didn’t know what you know TODAY (HERE). And that means we can maneuver and modify it. Sometimes just that simple reminder that your training plan isn’t perfect is helpful, especially if you’re a ‘turn every workout green or all is lost’ person.
HOW TO ADJUST A PLAN WHEN YOU CAN’T FIT THE WORKOUT IN
You have 6 options if you can’t complete a workout as planned. Let’s talk about the 6 S’s – SWAP, SHIFT, SKIP, SUBSTITUTE or SHORTEN, and when in doubt, DO SOMETHING.
We should really just start and finish with our favorite, DO SOMETHING. I think this solves most issues. If you can get on and spin, or go for a run, or do a quick strength workout (like this one) then you should do that today so that you have that training DONE. You can then debate (perhaps with your coach) what makes sense for the next days to weeks given what you actually did today.
For almost everyone we work with, the DO SOMETHING approach is imperative. For the athletes who struggle with consistency (e.g. don’t train 5+ days a week) this means you might get 5 minutes alternating pushups and squats between zoom meetings and then a walk around the hockey arena … but you did something and that is a wise investment in your training.
Let’s say you are feeling crappy today and the intervals you had planned aren’t going well, or when you warm up you aren’t feeling peppy. This is very (very!) normal and is OK. Rather than shifting the week (and going home in tears), it is worth considering if you could shorten the workout set, the intervals, or decrease the intensity. This is related to ‘doing something’. For the hardest charging athletes (i.e. the ones most prone to overdoing it), this means that if you are tired and intervals are going poorly, you consider the shortening the workout, then head home and use your extra time to do some yoga and invest in a nap.
Similarly, you might use shortening a workout when your window for training is less than the day’s workout prescribes. Often this happens on your Sunday long ride. You had three hours on the schedule, but you need to be back in two hours for a family thing. Rather than shifting the workouts or swapping them, is often better to shorten and stick to your general plan.
Lengthening is also an option here, though be careful that you’re not *always* lengthening every workout. For instance, in the case we just mentioned, you might also lengthen your Saturday workout if you have more time that day, so long as you are able to complete the intervals that were on the plan. If you don’t have the time, you don’t have the time. If you lost the time because you procrastinated or made another decision, then that is something to reflect on and prepare for next week differently. If every Sunday’s ride ends up like this, consider changing the plan for upcoming weeks if it is a recurring day where you just don’t have time!
If you can’t shorten the workout, consider skipping. The option to miss today’s workout can certainly be overused, but it is valuable and normal to do. If sticking to the plan is your goal and you are focused long-term, then following the plan is often better accomplished by taking today a miss and getting ready for tomorrow. There is likely a bit of regret when you skip a workout, but that can also be powerful in the long term. Be ready for tomorrow, and adjust your strategy to enhance consistency in the long-term.
Most of the time, the reason for skipping the workout is stressful or takes energy. I rarely get an email that someone is missing a workout because of an all-day meditation retreat or spa day. And unfortunately, our body isn’t great at determining good stress from bad, so stacking a workout on top of an already rough day can make matters go from bad to worse.
This is what many people try to do, but it is very tricky because time goes on and race day is coming. The next workout, the next week and the next race is coming. If you shift today to tomorrow, then you are devaluing a rest day, an endurance day or another intensity day. You are not ‘fitting it all in,’ you are diluting it. Abuse of this option looks like shifting the Sunday long ride to Monday and then trying to start the next week on Tuesday. You have possibly skipped an off day on Sunday, devalued the rest day and made the Tuesday workout (which is often intense!) much less solid.
There are exceptions, of course. You might shift the week forward entirely: say you take a rest day Sunday and skip the long ride, then you might train Monday and Tuesday and take a rest day Wednesday or Thursday. This requires a flexible weekly schedule so not many people can use this regularly. If this is your go -o option, watch for poor feeling on workouts, skipped interval sessions, illness/injury as signs that you might need to reduce your ‘shifts’ and consider one of the other S’s.
Swapping is very similar to shifting but can be more useful because it moves a future workout back, so you might avoid the cramming effect that shifting creates. A good use of swapping would be if you can do an intense workout from later in the week better today and then do today’s interval workout better later in the week (e.g. Swap Tuesday with Saturday). That’s the best use of swapping, swapping similar workouts.
If you are indoors today and outdoors tomorrow, you might swap the workouts if you can do a better job on today’s intervals outside tomorrow.
The most common swap is Saturday intensity with Sunday long ride. This is OK sometimes, but many times the intensity becomes poorer quality (e.g. often missed) because of fatigue from the long ride. This Saturday/Sunday swap is generally better done by shortening Sunday and lengthening Sunday after the intervals or considering the next option, Substitute!
Substituting is generally doing something else that is similar to the workout or provides a contextual benefit. Said simply, you are going to do a hard group ride instead of intervals, you are getting to ride with people and do something that looks similar to your race. Like all things, this can be overdone and may miss a chance to train specifically what you need. But sometimes, it’s a great option!
It is always a balance of getting social time and the key environmental elements of the sport that are overlooked by coaches and plans. Many fit people burn themselves out by group riding and racing too much but many more never train with people and then under-perform due to nerves, poor group-riding skills, or lack of tactics. This is a good option, but consider what stimulus you need in each situation!
ASSESS YOUR DEFAULT
One thing to note now that we’ve explained all 6 modifications: There is probably one of these options that you tend to do often, and one that you never do. Weird as this might sound, you’re probably better off leaning into the one that feels more uncomfortable—that’s likely the right choice for you. Take these 2 examples:
#1: A busy executive who has Leadville as her goal for this summer tends to skip workouts frequently because her workday gets too hectic. She would be better served shortening a workout, or simply doing something—a short run, a quick strength routine—rather than skipping it altogether.
#2: A Type A mom with young twins and a big presentation coming up at work who tends to substitute in longer or harder group rides whenever she can, and shifts her training forward a day, skipping rest days to make up those missed workouts. She would be better off skipping or, at minimum, shortening workouts rather than pushing herself into overtrained, burned-out territory.
Think about how this applies to you: Which style of modification feels most natural, and which feels more difficult? Set a goal of doing the option that feels foreign to you, and see how your training progresses!