The 20 Minute Rule

Do you ever wake up in the morning questioning whether to train? Can’t even get out of bed? How about standing on the pool deck debating whether to dive in? Your body is tired and your brain is frazzled. What to do? On these days, I ask myself, am I really too tired (or sore) to train. If the answer is a resounding yes, then I skip the workout.

Usually, however, I prod myself to start the workout with this caveat: if I still don’t feel right after 20 minutes, then it is time to pull the pin. I have dubbed this “The 20 minute rule”.  It is a highly valuable motivator on days when motivation is lacking.

No workout can be judged before it begins or even during the first five minutes. I have found that twenty minutes is the optimal amount of time to give the mind and body a proper warm up. After the initial few minutes, the blood starts flowing loosening up the muscles. The legs start feeling better and the body awakens from its slumber. It is not enough time, though, to do damage if you are ailing in some manner.

The 20 minute rule is an extremely useful tool and has a number of applications. It is equally effective for swimming, biking and running.

Suppose you have an important bike workout with some tough intervals. You are dragging and no amount of caffeine is helping. My suggestion is to ride easy for 20 minutes and then assess your situation. If you feel better, do a few pickups and start your intervals. If after 20 minutes, you still feel shabby, go home and take a nap.

Right now, I am applying the 20 minute rule on a regular basis at the pool. My rib pain has flared up again, and swimming seemingly makes it worse. If my ribs hurt at the 20 minute mark, I hop out of the pool and sulk in the shower. If at 20 minutes I am pain-free, I complete the workout and smile in the shower.

I have used the 20 minute rule when recovering from illness and injury. It has proved useful when determining if my asthma will be an issue. The 20 minute rule has let me know whether my legs are ready for bike or run intervals. I have never had a successful workout if I don’t feel good within the first 20 minutes.

And then there are the days that the 20 minutes of warm up offer up a pleasant surprise: an outstanding workout.

How do you decide whether to work out on days you feel tired?

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6 Responses

  1. Christi says:

    My coach stresses the 20 min rule all the time. I am glad to hear I am not the only trying this out.


  2. Nicole says:

    I'm also a believer in the 20 minute rule for myself and my athletes. Since I do a lot of workouts in the morning before work, if I can't visualize myself doing the workout (and when the eyes just seem to close again…) I will stay in bed. Otherwise, even though I might feel tired, if my mind is willing to do the workout, my body usually follows along.

  3. Dianna on Maui says:

    I haven't thought of it in terms of 20 minutes (thanks for that!), but I always try to get started and see how I feel. This morning the first 400 w/u in the pool felt "hard" but then I felt great. Last week I bagged a swim workout after 1100 because I was done.

    For runs I just remind myself "the first mile is always the hardest!"

    Sorry to hear your ribs are barking again!

  4. Drew Giacobe says:

    Now I won't feel so bad when I get out 2 miles on some of those runs and stop to turn around and walk home!

  5. Rose says:

    Great blog you've got here! My training partner (and boyfriend) commit to getting up and out the door first thing in the morning. You're right – most of the issues go away in the first 20 min (I'm tired! I'm sore!). I remind myself that getting out the door is the hardest part of the workout!

  6. stewart says:

    once i'm out of bed there's usually no turning back..once and if i get out of bed. i have to jump right out of bed otherwise the excuses start immediately.:) I might, however start wanting to change the workout if it's a tough one. that's when i have to go through the warm up and wake my body up to see if i have anything in the tank. there have been times when i just decided to run and skip the intervals and then my body starts to feel good and I just turn it up.:)