It's Not Overuse; It's Under-Recovery

It's a common refrain among endurance athletes.  Training is going great!  I'm killing my workouts!  PR's are inevitable!  And then the dreaded injury derails us, mid-euphoria.  Why can so many of us identify with this?  As goal-oriented people, we are wired to push ourselves.  We aim for that North Star goal and keep pushing forward come hell or high water.  We are not only willing to endure pain and discomfort, but look at them as the price of admission.  Because of that, the cause of our injuries are often diagnosed as over training.  I prefer to look at it from another point of view.  I like to think of it as under-recovery.  Our full-on embrace of the "go hard or go home" mantra leads us to neglect listening to our bodies and not properly consider the supplemental work we should be doing to help us bounce back from our tough training. 

So, how do we avoid under-recovering?  Let's look at several of the most common issues that lead us down the path to injury and illness and consider how we could take a smarter road.

  • Hammer Time - Races are hard.  We huff and puff and push.  Many of us think training should be like this as well.  "If I'm going to go hard on race day, then I need to go hard in training."  The problem is that we tend to go hard all of the time.  We never allow our bodies to adapt to the stimuli we place upon them.  We need to work multiple heart rate zones in training to truly develop our cardiovascular system.  Think of each zone as a different lift at the gym.  Every lift has a specific adaptation.  By working each muscle group, we develop a strong, balanced body.  By hitting each heart rate zone, we develop as strong, balanced cardiovascular system.  Too much in one area and it never recovers and adapts.  The result is injury, illness, and poor performance.
  • Stone Tablets - Remember when you found that awesome training program online that was guaranteed to shave 5 minutes off your 5k in a few short weeks?  It was all there in black and white, so you had to follow it exactly as written...right?  Nope.  And that may be why it didn't work for you.  The problem is that no training program is entirely black and white.  We must learn to play in the gray.  Training is always fluid.  It must take into account life, weather, goals, experience, and countless other factors.  You cannot become a slave to what the program says.  If it calls for mile repeats, today, but you're sick and it's sleeting out, what good will that workout do for you?  You must be able to be flexible while still staying within the framework of the program. 
  • Rest is for Wimps - "I've got to get my run in."  "I haven't had a day off since I was 2."  "Rest days are for those that aren't serious about getting better."  I've heard all the reasons, but running everyday isn't always the best medicine.  Rest is on the opposite side of hard work work on the training coin.  Your body goes through a period of overcompensation after being stressed.  If you continue to stress the system without allowing it to adapt, then you are not getting all of the rewards for your work.  You must learn let go of your prideful self and listen to your body rather than bludgeon it into submission.  A day off can often be the best medicine to help you optimize your training.
  • In-N-Out - We come screaming into the parking lot on two wheels as we drive up to meet our running partners.  And as soon as we're done, we're done.  It's back in the car and on with the rest of the day.  We are busy people that have mastered the quick entrance and exit.  Who needs a warm up and a cool down and stretching and foam rolling?  That's all extra stuff, right?  Ignoring these training segments may play the largest role in our under-recovery.  Warming up allows our body to prep for the rigors ahead.  Cooling down helps flush our system and let's our blood pressure gradually return to normal.  Stretching and foam rolling help alleviate the muscle tightness that inhibits performance and leads to injury.  Plan to spend a bit of extra time on your supplementals and get the most out of your training.
  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Sometimes life gets busy and we just don't have the time to eat properly or get a good night's sleep.  Food, fluids, and sleep are the foundations of survival, and therefore, the most important things we need.  Why, then, do these seem to be the first things we kick to curb or limit when we are short on time.  Let's consider how each of our basic needs pertain to running performance and staying healthy.  Food: We are a catch as catch can society that typically looks at convenience above all else.  Because of that, we often neglect to fuel/refuel properly.  With all of our running, we're trying to build a better race car (so to speak).  If we're not putting enough gas in the tank, though, we can't expect to really torch the roads.  Think of it this way: Even the worlds fastest race car won't go very fast if it's out of gas.  Similarly, bad gas ain't gonna help you set the track record, either.  Fluids:  A thirsty muscle is a tight muscle.  We want our muscles to help propel us; not to hold us back because they're tight.  Also, proper hydration allows our body to work more efficiently.  The less water you have in your system, the thicker your blood and the worse it does to keep you cool, transport nutrients, clear cellular waste, etc.  Sleep:  Too many of us get too little sleep.  We've learned to compensate and utilize caffeine to help us get by.  As runners though, we're not just looking to get by... we're gunning for goals.  It is during deep sleep that our body produces HGH (human growth hormone) to help our body's cells repair themselves.  There's a reason pro athlete's sleep so much and take advantage of naps.  It is this release of HGH that helps our body recover so we can tackle the stresses we continue to place upon ourselves.

The next time you hear about over training, objectively think of what you're doing and consider whether you really may be under-recovering.  It may not be that you're doing too much.  It may be that you are doing too little of the things you need to do to allow you to train that hard.  Utilize some of these helpful tips to keep you from under recovering. 

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