Lessons most runners learn too late (even doctors)

DMacA_3Domhnall MacAuley is a CMAJ Associate Editor and a professor of primary care in Northern Ireland, UK

 

Couch potatoes say that you never see a happy jogger, and they might be right. Too many runners train too hard, think “no-pain-no-gain” and don’t take time to step back.  Intelligent middle aged high achievers (like us doctors) often make the same mistakes.  Forget the Sports Guru nonsense. Your body is not a highly tuned Grand Prix racing machine.  Most of us just chug along like a four-door family saloon. So, here are a few suggestions to help you avoid injury, burn out, and boredom. Basic, simple and obvious, they won’t sell many running magazines but they might be of some use to middle of the road athletes expecting miracles, underachievers who mismatch training loads and life circumstance, and obsessives who feel rest and relaxation should be avoided at all costs.

  1. Don’t beat yourself up. Unless you are Olympic champion, there will always be someone faster than you so, do your best but don’t fret about it. Some races will go well, some less so. If you run well yet someone is faster, the world won’t end. Enjoy sharing others’ achievements. There are limits to everyone’s ability and while you can reach your potential by training optimally, you cannot exceed it. Training even harder doesn’t always mean you go even faster so don’t expect constant improvement– we all reach a ceiling. And, by the way, your performance will inevitably decline in middle age and your times will slow year on year. We all get old; enjoy this piece from the New York Times and follow the link to the useful formula!
  2. Recover and refuel. Avoid the cycle of over-training/under-recovery and chronic undernourishment. You cannot train hard every day. You need rest and to replace your glycogen stores. If you are aiming for a performance where the smallest margins matter, a suboptimal body fat percentage may offer some minimal advantage but, if you are not aiming for Rio, then relax. You should radiate well being, and not the misery of an overtired and underfed grumpy obsessive.
  3. Plan your training sensibly. Don’t just follow a gold-medalists’ blueprint published in last week’s running magazine. That’s not you. The old adages apply even if conceived long before our current understanding of physiology. “Train, don’t strain”. “Hard day - Easy day”. “Never increase intensity or duration by more than 10% per week”. Yes, these do apply - even to you. And, what does training “easy” mean... it doesn’t mean a steady state tempo run, it means what it says. Easy. Listen to the birds, chat to your companions, smell the roses. Feel good.
  4. There are no magic supplements. No new diet or drink or secret potion will make any substantial difference to an average club runner.  Don’t waste your money on some over-hyped, athlete-endorsed, wonderfuel - just buy and eat healthy, fresh food. It’s unlikely that you have an undiscovered micronutrient deficiency. In the real word, there are usually more fundamental limitations like not getting enough sleep or lifestyle imbalance.
  5. Leave your watch at home. Modern runners seem trapped in a tyranny of timing. While you may need a stopwatch for a specific interval session and a GPS can help with a tempo run, you don’t need to time each kilometre in everyday training. Some days you will be flying- enjoy these days. Few pleasures match the feeling of your body clicking into gear and running effortlessly, feeling unlimited by speed or distance. You don’t need a watch to tell you it feels good. On the days you are running badly it feels like hard work, hills seem like mountains and time drags. You don’t need a watch to tell you it feels bad. Why make yourself feel even worse.
  6. Your brain and body are connected. Don’t stick rigidly to a plan or programme. You are not clockwork.  Few of us have the luxury of full time training. We have to earn a living, bring up a family and balance the stresses of normal life.  You need to factor in work, study, or a broken night of sleep. Anticipate problems and make adjustments during particularly stressful periods at work, studying for exams, changing jobs or difficult family issues. Don’t try to maintain the same running workload - if in doubt, halve your mileage. If you have built the base of a training pyramid, you can afford to alter your schedule. Don’t be inflexible. Training plans are guidelines not rules. Some days you just need a break and, every so often, allow yourself a duvet day.
  7. Find some friends. It can be hard to drag yourself out to train.  Join a group or club; it’s much easier to go out in a bunch. Don’t get bothered if the pace is not quite right. Why suffer the “loneliness of the long distance runner” when you chat with friends, share a joke, and watch the miles slip by effortlessly.  What does it matter if it doesn’t quite fit your training plan? Grab the opportunity to share the experience.
  8. Listen to your body. An injury is your body’s way of telling you something. Don’t ignore it- even doctors cannot speed up the healing process. You know how long a fracture takes to heal and what happens at cellular level with a soft tissue injury.  An overuse injury is exactly what the name says. Get advice (and take it). Allow sufficient time for recovery and build up gradually. Don’t go back to the same training schedule - that’s what caused the problem. Something needs to change (e.g. training load, frequency, duration, distance, speed, surface etc.). If you shop around you will almost certainly find someone who will tell you what you want to hear....that you don’t need to rest. But tissue physiology hasn’t changed that much - you will not cheat nature.

Finally. Remember why you do it. Step back and think about why you run... it’s for fun.

Enjoy your running. Eat normally, rest sufficiently, and be flexible in your training. Look happy and healthy, not hollow and haunted.  A day off is not a disaster. Your training goal is not next week’s training session, next month’s race, nor the cumulative miles recorded in your diary. You aim is to enjoy running this time next year and for many years to come.

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