The slow, steady march of stars and check-marks down the date boxes on my wall calendar gives me a sense of joy and accomplishment. I have nearly made it to the end of August and the first really comfortable days of outdoor running, in September, will not be far behind. It also means Suzanne will pull out the slow cooker; stew and soup season will begin soon. The first days and weeks of warm bowls of stew or soup, with either cheese bread or a sandwich, are a welcome reward for those hard run workouts. But, once Thanksgiving arrives, I will be jonesing for pizza.
We used to do pizza every Friday evening with my old coach and his wife. We did the same pizza joint for two years straight. Now I only go there if we’re in the neighborhood and we don’t want to drive closer to home. Price might have been one thing, but familiarity breeds tolerance.
Pizza often reminds me of many topics having to do with life, the universe around us…and running. I remember a lunch discussion with an old running friend of mine, Drake. He, his wife, Suzanne, and I sat down over pizza one Saturday after a local road race. Drake said he was disappointed with his race performance and asked what I would recommend for his training plan. I asked him what he was already doing in training. He told me he ran the same 5K circuit near his home, every day. At all-out race pace. I took a deep breath, prefaced my suggestions with “if I were your coach,” and told him what I felt to be true. He thanked me for my insights, but he never really took the advice to heart. He no longer runs races, in fact, he’s what John Parker, Jr. might call ‘once a runner.’
I still see him every Sunday morning when we go out for our “sort-of-long run.” He rides a bike. Full blast.
Monotony and unchanging routine can be a comfort to many persons. But the athlete who does the same run or workout day in and day out is most likely going to understand Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. There’s little chance for a different outcome or improvement in performance if an athlete is doing the same thing without variation for too long a period of time. When laying a training foundation there are periods where efforts appear “boring,” but the body is most likely adapting to the stress. But not varying the intensity of workout over the course of the training cycle or the year, especially if the intensity is high, is a certain way to eventually suffer physically and mentally from overtraining…and if not remedied, to suffer emotionally from burnout.
An over-trained (or under-recovered) athlete can show a constellation of symptoms which can be emotional, mental, or physiological in nature:
Runners who have a feeling as if their legs are heavy or wooden, or have muscles which are more sore than usual, or a sudden increase in thirst, especially at night, are most likely in an under-recovered state.
When it comes to change in heart rate, researchers have equated an overtraining state to a sudden increase in early morning heart rate. However, a decreased heart rate during exercise bouts is also a message to the athlete that the body is not completely recovered from a period of training.
It may seem beyond obvious that the treatment for overtraining is rest. The body needs time to recover. After the recovery period, which can be as short as one week and take as long as six weeks (sometimes much longer in the most chronic cases). The intensity of the workouts after the recovery needs to stay at a reduced level, and the athlete should look more closely at their training periods. Other treatments to combat overtraining include adjusting the diet to take in more calories or more nutrients, even adjusting the way they sleep.
There are programs, such as Matt Dixon’s Purplepatch Fitness, which utilize computer algorithms and spreadsheets to quantify training, recovery, nutrition and functional strength. Finnish heart rate monitor manufacturer Suunto uses a calculation of post-exercise oxygen consumption (calculated from changes in individual heartbeats) to determine how hard an athlete has trained, as well as how hard their next workout should be to eventually increase fitness. But any device or spreadsheet is of no use if the athlete does not have the courage (especially in a culture where a blank space on the calendar is seen as a personality flaw) to choose to rest.
An athlete can ignore their body for only so long. The body will eventually make the athlete listen for a period much longer than the initially-requested chat.