Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts on Healthy Running

Considering that I am now training for the Leadville 100 trail run, I thought this would be a good time to discuss some of the things I've come to believe over the years about distance running.  Let's get right to it shall we?

#1 - You should run in a way that makes you healthier and happier.

I believe that the benefits of competition and performance are the least of the benefits a person can get from learning to run pain-free.  Running pain-free is a joy.  It's fun.  It's playful.  I ran with pain for years and it wasn't a pretty thing.  It began to feel obligatory.  It was work.

For runners, if you go back to my aerobic development post, you'll see the scheme I generally use to build my training for a running event.  The true gift of aerobic training is that you can build health and performance together with less risk of over-training.

Running should help you get happy, happy.

#2 - You can have too much of a good thing.

How much is too much?  There will be an obvious difference between people but there's no denying the science that running really far and really fast for years and years isn't healthy.  Endurance athletes have a higher incidence of cardiovascular abnormalities than the general population and I think this is because of the too far, too fast culture of endurance running.  We know that a certain amount of physical activity is important for the body to function normally.  Some exercise boosts your immune system while exercising to exhaustion temporarily makes you more susceptible to illness.  Do this chronically and you may find yourself sick often.  Some activity strengthens your body tissues, your heart, and physiologically and enzymatically makes you more efficient.  Too much activity has the opposite effect, you'll become weaker, slower, mentally drained, and physiologically overtaxed.

We all know about the professional athlete who has to perform well enough to make a living.  I don't really argue with their lifestyle too much because they're trying to pay bills and sometimes that can be a very stressful thing.  By the time athletes get to a high-level, they usually have a first-hand understanding of what's going to happen to their bodies and their health over time if they wish to stay competitive.  The key however is that the professional-level athletes tend to be privy to reality.  You can expect that if you're an NFL player or a professional dancer, major injuries and surgeries are likely part of earning your paycheck.  In order to be a top distance runner, you can expect that you will need to put in serious mileage and work the intensity to a significant degree.  There is of course no crystal ball to the question, how much is too much?  It all depends on your body and if you're listening to it you can often avoid trouble.

#3 - Preparation is everything.  However your preparation should be generally sustainable.

You need to prepare for events if you hope for them to be a good experience.  That said, there's a smart way to do it and a really stupid way of going about it.  Sustainability is your key word.  I learned the following rule from a few masters athlete runners and it works like a charm.  Most of your runs should be easy.  You should finish most workouts and feel that you could do it again at the same intensity.  It's almost too good to be true.  It's almost like I'm telling you to never try hard but that's not the case.  It's just that your hard efforts should be intelligently performed, you don't need two interval training sessions per week every week of the year.  Instead, you build a certain thing at a certain time to peak for a small number of events, this greatly minimizes the potential to over-train or injure yourself but you still get good performance.  Go back to the aerobic training link at point #1 to review the pyramid of training.

If you want sustainability as a runner, don't skip on the aerobic base.

Easy running is sustainable while hard running for long distances over years and years is not.  We are all still human and our bodies still require recovery periods despite the amazing feats our top-tier runners have accomplished.  Outside Online ran an excellent piece on top ultra-runners developing chronic over-training syndrome.  Many of you may also be aware that famed distance runner Ryan Hall recently retired from the sport of competitive running due to chronic over-training as well.
I named my bone spur The Talon (circa 2014).  I had an x-ray after a long stint of plantar fasciitis to look for signs of stress fracture.  I had been training unsustainably for years and accumulating body trauma.  Why so stupid Sam?  I refused to slow down to fix mechanical issues that needed attention because I always had a race or event on my schedule to train hard for...the silliness eventually lead to me not having a choice to stop running.

Summer sandal trail running is my favorite kind of running.  I used to over-stride and heel strike heavily.  Learning good technique was part of the solution to my chronic injuries.  It took several months of improving muscle memory (technique) before I really got back the spring in my step.  I also worked on specific mobility, stability, and strength for runners.  Preparation is as much about these factors as it is your running pace/mileage.

#4 - You can't have it all, all the time.

Inherently there is nothing wrong with wanting to become a better version of yourself.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to see how far you can go or how good you can be.  It's just that there will be a cost.

Sometimes it's okay to push.  Sometimes it's okay to really go for it.  In preparation for the Spartan World Championships I trained well within my capacity but when it came time to compete, all bets were off.  I went all out and did things in the race I would never do in training.  For months I trained sustainably, no injury or illness, so that on event day I could take more risk.  This is what I recommend to other non-sponsored, non-multi-million dollar athletes- train smart and sustainable, and if you really want to take a risk, save it for the competition.
Runner #1 just wants to have fun.  This is totes awesome-sauce, fine and dandy.  This runner will train sustainably and enjoy their events in a sustainable way as well.  They'll be able to participate in many events on their calendar year, for years and years, because they aren't wrecking their body.  They will enjoy the health and social benefits and probably live forever.
Runner #2 wants a challenge but also wants to maintain physical activity into old age without serious pain, health problems, or orthopedic surgeries.  This runner should train sustainably and compete hard once in awhile ensuring full recovery between difficult events.  This runner wants the physical challenges but within reason, they aren't getting a retirement out of this.
Runner #3 wants to be an Olympian and set world records earning multi-million dollar sponsorships.  They will sacrifice long-term health for short-term gain but in their heart it may be worth it to be the best in the country or the world.

I trained sustainably for the Spartan World Championships, knowing that I might only be 90% prepared, it was worth it to be 100% uninjured at the starting line.  I placed 12th in an elite field of women from around the world in only my 2nd spartan race.  All bets were off during the race and I went as hard as I could.  The final results suggested that if I'd been slightly better prepared I could have been a top-10 finisher.  My priorities created the outcome of which I am 100% content.  I have no issues putting my health above a performance, however there may be athletes who take this to mean they should work harder next time.  Understand that sentiment isn't always without harm.

Bottom Line:

Lots of heavy training and competing without adequate recovery isn't healthy (especially when done for years).  It's possible to see a temporary improvement in performance or a few good seasons but it is very rarely sustainable for a career.  I don't recommend it unless your goal involves making lots of money so you never have to work again.  When we are thoughtful about the way we train, we can enjoy great experiences, enhance our health, and avoid permanent damage to a great extent.  We can be old and not needing walkers and canes.  We can play until the day we die.

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