Why Trainers Say “Slow Down”

by Matt on September 12, 2010

My dad emailed me this article and I thought it was really interesting, so I thought I would share it. It’s a little long, but it’s a great read.

When his running coach implored him to take rest days, Bill Carr didn’t listen. Slated to run a 100-mile ultramarathon this month, the 36-year-old cranked up his workouts over the summer, running more and harder miles than his coach recommended.

ENOUGH

Running coach Julie Fingar guides Bill Carr, who ran too much and injured his ankle, in drills at a Twin Rocks trail near Folsom Lake in Granite Bay, Calif.

“I wanted to make sure that I got to the event fully prepared,” he says. But Mr. Carr won’t get to the 100-miler at all. Last month, his ankle sustained an over-use injury during a workout, sidelining the Rancho Cordova, Calif., project manager for a vision-benefits company.

“Type A personalities will increase their training load until something backfires,” says Julie Fingar, Mr. Carr’s running coach, who says her biggest challenge is convincing her clients to take an adequate amount of rest. “In their minds, taking rest means they’re not working hard enough.”

Today, says Mr. Carr: “I’m taking Julie’s advice and starting to cross train.”

Roughly 10% of athletes preparing for an endurance event are training too hard, estimates Jack Raglin, director of graduate studies at the Indiana University’s department of kinesiology. Research in the field has shown that injury rates rise as runners increase their weekly mileage. Besides injury, excessive training can contribute to or cause major depression, loss of sleep, anorexia and sometimes death.

“The overtrained athlete is so fried by race time that he either performs very poorly or can’t perform at all,” says Dr. Raglin, who specializes in overtraining problems.

A more-is-better mentality permeates the endurance-exercise culture. Novice runners in particular tend to think that finishing a marathon requires no end of training. In fact, however, under-training is rare. After all, more than 95% of marathon starters reach the finish line.

Statistically, the harder line to reach is the start line. Of the tens of thousands of Americans who pay as much as $180 to register for marathons, as many as 25% fail to make it to the race. Injury, illness and loss of motivation as a result of overtraining are major reasons for this.

ENOUGHjp

Coach Julie Fingar guides Bill Carr on abdominal exercises to break up the pounding intensity of running.

But moderation is a hard message to promote among runners determined to reach extremes. For such athletes, no matter how conclusively science may prove the value of rest and recovery, the culture of endurance sports lionizes those who seemingly never rest.

“In running circles, there is huge pressure to do big mileage, to do the big training, to do the biggest races,” says Sandra Ross, a 47-year-old runner in Auburn, Calif.

It also can be difficult for runners to know when they are training too hard. One red flag, sports-medicine specialists say, is an intensifying obsession with performance. Exercise, after all, is supposed to be stress-reducing, and amateur competitions by definition are recreational. Yet marathon fields are populated with runners who are visibly stressed out about whether they’ll set a personal record or win their age group.

To head off overtraining, some coaches urge athletes to remain alert for the point at which greater doses of exercise cease to produce improvement.

“The body responds beautifully to the right schedule of training stresses,” Lynn Bjorklund, who in 1981 set the still-standing female course record for the Pikes Peak Marathon, wrote in an email. “However, too much stress and not enough nutrition or recovery pushes your body toward injury and illness. You need to stay in that zone of just enough, and that takes a very high tuned and honest appraisal of yourself.”

Ms. Ross, the California runner, says that for years she would suffer injuries while training for marathons. To help pace herself, Ms. Ross hired Ms. Fingar, the running coach, who enforced rest days, cross-training and trail-running as a lower-impact alternative to pavement.

The discipline paid off, and this summer Ms. Ross completed a 100-mile race. That accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t resisted the impulse to match the weekly mileage of her younger running partners, she says. “If I ran as much as they do I’d be faster. But as an older runner I need more rest, and I also have a child, a husband and a career,” says Ms. Ross, who works as an environmental consultant.

Overtraining can contribute to exercise-related anorexia, a potentially fatal syndrome that strikes nearly half of all women in so-called lean sports such as running, according to a book published this year, “Eating Disorders in Sport.”

“I was diligent about cutting down the calories and increasing my workout schedule. The pounds fell away and it seemed to result in better racing,” recalls Ms. Bjorklund, who says that soon after setting a Pikes Peak Marathon record she entered a hospital near death from anorexia.

“It is easy to think that if a little is good, more should be better. After a period of time, however, I would always crash and be forced to cut back,” the 53-year-old wrote in an email.

Ms. Fingar, the running coach, says that early in her athletic career she was prone to overtraining and exercise-related anorexia. As a result she says she studies her clients and friends for signs of chronic fatigue, depression, compulsive training or privation. “It can be really destructive,” the 35-year-old says. “When someone becomes addicted in a non-healthy manner, all other things suffer—work, family, friends and of course their performance.”

Ms. Fingar says she tries to set an example for her clients. She refrains from aerobic exercise one day a week. Often, if she listens to her body instead of her mind, “I’ll realize that I’m tired and I’ll take another day,” she says.

When training for an ultramarathon, Ms. Fingar runs about 70 miles a week, far fewer than the 100 miles that many other ultramarathoners log weekly. But unlike some other runners she is rigorous about cross-training weekly in the pool, on a bicycle and in yoga and Pilates studios. She says this training offers a break from the monotony and physical pounding of running, and provides flexibility, enhanced aerobic fitness and a strengthening of core muscles.

“Especially with trail running and endurance events, you need upper-body and core strength to ascend and descend the hills,” she says.

This article is something I can really relate too. I always get caught up in the idea that “less is more”, but I know that is not always the case. When you love running as much as I do and you are seeing improvement at the same time, it is mentally hard to think “I need some rest” or “Maybe I should take it easy today”. Sometimes when you are in the midst of training, your competitive side can take over and just push you over the edge. Sometimes you don’t realize you are full blown overtrained until it is too late.

Too much training can lead to a multitude of problems, including injury, overtraining syndrome, and mental burnout, all of which I have experienced. What might be too much training for one person, might be perfectly acceptable for another person. You have to experiment with how much training your body can handle, but once you find that happy medium, it makes training a heck of a lot easier.

If I can preach one thing that relates to this article, it’s this:

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! When you are tired, take a day off. It has taken me over a year to figure this out, but recovery is the only way to become the best you can be.

Overtraining is very serious. It can really wipe you out both mentally and physically. I hate to admit it, but I have been there and it’s not pretty. It really takes a toll on your body and it takes some serious time to recover from.

To sum things up: Pushing yourself too hard does not make you a better runner.

What are your thoughts on this article? Have you ever fallen into the trap of too much training?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

September 12, 2010 at 1:39 PM

AMEN for listening to your body and not overdoing it.

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September 12, 2010 at 2:00 PM

Thanks to your dad (and you!) for sharing this article. Very salient for a sport like distance running, where compulsive thinking and behaviors — (I have to run THIS much! I have to eat THIS way! I can’t compromise by taking a day off!) — seem to be prevalent.
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September 12, 2010 at 2:44 PM

I can see the anorixia happening very easily. IT’s like a trap and once you get comfortable with it and then you add 70 – 100 miles per week of running is a disater.

It’s about quality training not just training.
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September 12, 2010 at 2:55 PM

That is a really interesting article, thank you for sharing. I like the moral of the story, several times I’ve been tempted to do more than a teacher has told me, I guess the moral is to do what the professional says and they’re most likely to be right!
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September 12, 2010 at 3:05 PM

very good article! i’m learning now that by not overdoing it on the miles and training i can get really fast results! harder to let go of the “more is better” mentality but the proof is in what happens on race day
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September 12, 2010 at 3:28 PM

Thanks for the great article!!
I was overtraining a bit too much last month and ended up hurting my knees a bit. I rested for a few days (almost a week) and then went to my doctor. He said resting was the smartest thing I could have done or else my knees could have been much worse. Thankfully it was just a bit of inflammation, which has since gone away with proper cross training and lots of ice. :-)
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September 12, 2010 at 4:24 PM

I LOVED reading this! It was so interesting and I could totally relate! I think it is so very important to listen to our bodies!
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September 12, 2010 at 4:30 PM

Wow – thanks for this article! Being a ‘competitive’ person I can totally relate. In saying that – today is my scheduled ‘rest’ day – and I was going to ‘sneak’ in a run. However, after reading this I know that the next 6 days are going to involve lots of training sessions so taking today as a rest day is EXACTLY what I need to do!
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September 12, 2010 at 4:52 PM

I think people often don’t realize just how SLOWLY they should run on easy/recovery days. Once I slowed down, my race times dropped. Now my easy days are 2 1/2 to even 3 1/2 minutes slower than 5k pace (8:00-9:00 miles, compared to 5:33 5k pace), and I am improving consistently.

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September 12, 2010 at 8:33 PM

Agreed. Nice post. And well timed.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what “too much” is. To think that I got hurt again on less miles than before my injury in the Spring is frustrating. But I think another good point to be made is doing too much TOO SOON. Not even necessarily miles, but a combination of too many miles, too much intensity, and not enough time to let the body adapt to these changes.

But when I am healthy I love a good, slow recovery run. It’s about being intense when it matters, and slow (not when it doesn’t matter) also when it matters!
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MattNo Gravatar September 12, 2010 at 9:05 PM

I agree 100%!

How long is the injury suppose to take to heal?

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September 13, 2010 at 7:35 PM

I have a Type A personality and love training and improving, but I definitely try to follow the plan, stick to pacing appropriately and taking rest whenever necessary.

I love eating more, too!
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