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11 Reasons You Had a Lousy Workout (And Ways to Recover)

author image Linda Melone
Linda Melone is a seasoned writer and certified strength and conditioning specialist specializing in fitness and health. She also holds a B.S. in nutrition. Her work appears on WebMD, MSN Health,, AARP, Oxygen and in many other online and print publications.

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11 Reasons You Had a Lousy Workout (And Ways to Recover)
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If you’ve worked out for any length of time, some days are bound to have been better than others. Some days you may feel weak, sore, fatigued or simply unmotivated. But too many “off” days make it more likely you’ll throw in the towel. In fact, more than half of new exercisers quit within three to six months of starting an exercise program, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Reasons vary -- your emotional state, diet, sleep patterns or a host of other factors. But you can overcome a bad workout! Read on to help pinpoint exactly why you might have had a bad workout and what you can do to bounce back.

1. You Need an Attitude Adjustment
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1 You Need an Attitude Adjustment

How you talk to yourself can make or break your workout. If you ruminate over how much you hate to exercise, your horrible attitude can ruin your entire workout, says Tom Holland, M.S., CSCS, author of “Beat the Gym.” “Instead of thinking you’re tired, achy or just hating the whole workout, change every thought to a positive one. If you’re doing cardio, imagine a positive thought with every foot strike. Think, ‘I feel good, I’m doing really well,’ and you’ll start to feel better.” Focus on the quality of the movement with each footstep or rep and see your confidence -- and performance -- improve.

Related: 12 Ways to Get Your Mojo Back

2. You’re Not Completely Healed
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2 You’re Not Completely Healed

Whether you pulled a muscle in your back or twisted an ankle, trying to work out too soon can make you miserable and worsen the original injury. Plus, not allowing yourself adequate time to heal makes it more likely you’ll be out even longer -- exactly what you want to avoid. “If you normally run, but you’ve developed an injury like plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tendon that runs along the bottom of your foot), swap your running workouts for biking, swimming or another non-impact cardio workout instead,” says Tom Holland, M.S., CSCS. “You’re better off taking an extra day or two off than ending up being out a week or more because you’ve reinjured yourself.”

Related: 5 Tools to Help You Recover Like a Professional Athlete

3. You Worked Out on an Empty Stomach
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3 You Worked Out on an Empty Stomach

Trying to “save” calories by working out on an empty stomach can backfire on you, says Amy Goodson, M.S., RD, sports dietician for the Dallas Cowboys and co-author of “Swim, Bike, Run -- Eat: The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon.” “A pre-workout snack provides fuel and energy for your activity and improves how you feel during your workout.” Goodson recommends eating a snack with a combination of carbohydrates and lean protein about 45 minutes before you exercise. Good choices include almond butter and whole-grain crackers or Greek yogurt with berries and honey.

Related: 11 Easy Workout Snacks and the Science of Why They Work

4. You’re Eating the Wrong Pre-Workout Food
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4 You’re Eating the Wrong Pre-Workout Food

Eating the wrong thing before your workout can be even worse than eating nothing if your meal disagrees with you. “A meal too high in fat can cause a ‘heavy’ feeling in your stomach, which makes it uncomfortable to run, bike or otherwise exert yourself,” says registered dietician Amy Goodson. And eating too soon before you exercise can cause nausea or indigestion. “If you’re working out after a meal, give yourself two to four hours to digest before you exercise. For small snacks, allow 30 minutes to an hour, which will fuel you without making you feel lethargic,” Goodson says. For early workouts when you can’t stomach much solid food, a liquid snack before your workout digests quickly and also provides fluid for hydration. Goodson suggests a premade drink or one you blend yourself that includes whey protein, fruit and water or milk. If you need more calories or protein, add peanut or almond butter.

Related: What Should You Eat Before and After Your Workout?

5. You’re Sleep Deprived
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5 You’re Sleep Deprived

Lack of sleep is a workout killer, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. “If you are not getting enough sleep, your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural biological cycles) will be out of sync, making you feel weaker with less stamina in your workouts.” A 2011 Stanford University study showed that basketball players who increased their sleep time from six to nine hours to about 10 hours a night experienced a nine percent improvement in their free-throw percentage and faster sprint times. Adults, on average, need a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Related: 10 Yoga Moves to Remove Stress and Relax You at Bedtime

6. You Need a Break
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6 You Need a Break

Back-to-back workouts leave no time for recovery and can leave you sore and tired. “Rest and recovery are key variables in exercise and conditioning,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science. “In fact, they’re just as important as the appropriate intensity, frequency and duration. During recovery, muscle cells can refuel as well as repair themselves.” The amount of recovery time you need depends on the intensity of the workout; more intense workouts require more time off. Be sure to watch out for signs of overtraining, which include overall decreased performance and increased muscle soreness and resting heart rate.

Related: Spring Clean Your Workout Routine: 21 Bad Habits to Toss Today

7. You’re Dehydrated
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7 You’re Dehydrated

It only takes a slight level of dehydration to cause a major impact on exercise performance. “A two percent level of dehydration in the body equates to about a 10 percent decrease in performance,” says Amy Goodson, M.S., RD, sports dietician for the Dallas Cowboys. “As dehydration worsens, so does performance. You can feel tired, lethargic and dizzy or have a headache or a cramp when you exercise in a dehydrated state.” To tell if you’re dehydrated, check the color of your urine. Pale-yellow to clear means you’re well-hydrated, but if it’s the color of apple juice or darker, you need water. Ideally, drink 16 to 20 ounces of fluid two to four hours before your workout and another 10 ounces or so 10 to 30 minutes before you get started, says Goodson.

Related: 12 Ways to Make Water Taste Better

8. Your Workout is Too Tough
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8 Your Workout is Too Tough

Set goals that challenge you without being so unrealistic that you give up before you get there, says Tom Holland, M.S., CSCS. For example, pull-ups are a very tough exercise. So instead of trying to do them right out of the gate, start small with a single pull-up or even a half pull-up. Or try them in the privacy of your own home before you do them at the gym. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to fail, says Holland. “We tend to do what we’re good at, so put your ego aside and focus on your form, not the amount of weight or number of reps you can do.”

Related: 11 Simple Ways to Add Variety to Your Strength-Training Routine

9. You Don’t Have a Plan
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9 You Don’t Have a Plan

If your workout plan revolved around hopping on whatever machine is available at the gym without knowing why you’re doing it, you’re bound to get bored or frustrated. “A lot of people pick up this or that and don’t get the satisfaction of having a focus,” says Tom Holland, M.S., CSCS. “When you have a plan -- such as targeting a certain number of miles, for instance -- you get huge satisfaction out of achieving that goal when you’re done.” Set workout goals by striving to complete those offered online at LIVESTRONG.COM, where you need only about 30 minutes to get in a high-intensity workout. Or consult a qualified personal trainer to help you design a program based on your goals.

10. You Live on Junk Food
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10 You Live on Junk Food

Performing at your optimal level requires fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods, not fast food or junk. Whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats give your body energy to live and exercise, says registered dietician Amy Goodson, M.S. “Like a car, if you constantly put the wrong fuel in your body, it will not perform at the highest level. Processed food can make you feel tired and low in energy, especially during your workouts. In addition, a poor diet makes it less likely you’ll have the energy to even want to work out.” Fuel up properly and your workouts will reflect it.

Related: The Importance of Exercise & Nutrition

11. You’re Getting Sick
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11 You’re Getting Sick

Lack of energy and achy muscles could be a sign you’re coming down with a cold or worse. If your symptoms are mainly above your neck -- such as a scratchy throat, mild headache or runny nose -- you can go ahead with your workout with a few adjustments, says Kristine Arthur, M.D., internal medicine physician at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “Avoid strenuous activities like sprints or heavy lifting, which require quite a bit of energy.” But if you’re experiencing full-body symptoms, such as muscle aches, chills, nausea, GI issues or fever, it’s best to stay home and fully recover.

Related: Tips for Boosting Immune Health Year-Round

What Do YOU Think?
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What Do YOU Think?

How did you feel during your last workout? Was it good or only so-so? What are some reasons why you’ve had a less-than-stellar workout recently? How did you turn it around? Tell us about it in the comment section below, and let us know if any of these tips helped.

Related: 10 Ways to Get Back on the Fitness Wagon

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