Last week, I was super fatigued. Not a dainty, yawn-and-stretch-on-your-tippy-toes tired. I was so exhausted that even thinking about running tired me out.
I usually get by fine on 7 hours of sleep, wake without an alarm, and start my day fully energized, even before coffee. Think barking Chihuahua zippiness.
Last week, I was sleeping 10 hours, plus taking power naps, and I was still not waking feeling refreshed. I normally look forward to my runs, but I was dreading some runs because my legs felt like anvils. My weekend long runs– up to 16 miles and often including significant hills – normally leave me feeling energized, but last week I struggled through an 11.5-mile easy long run on a flat path. My glutes had been sore for 2-weeks following a hard track session. My appetite was ravenous – think 2 breakfasts and 2 lunches. I could have easily out-eaten a linebacker yet I didn't gain an ounce. My resting heart rate was 10 beats above normal upon waking,
These were all signs of accumulated fatigue. This means fatigue from previous workouts is basically carried over to the next one, and the next one, and the next one, etc. until your body finally cries "uncle!" and remands quality recovery.
Being fatigued can be disheartening. I know this from my own experience, my friends' experience, and feedback from some of the athletes I've worked with. You expect an easy run to feel ... easy. But a 4-mile jaunt can end up feeling like 26.2. Your want to run, but yet you don't. You fear that all your hard training has gone down the tube. Your mind can get the better of you.
Fatigue is necessary if you want to improve as a runner
If you are training and want to become a better runner, a certain amount of fatigue comes with the territory. It's normal and necessary, even though it feels like neither of these things.
Improving at anything requiring strength or endurance, including running, means applying a stimulus, and then adapting to that stimulus.
You push yourself. You get tired. You eventually get stronger. Unless you are a bona-fide superhero, there's no way around the tired part.
A beginner runner may not be able to run a mile, or even run around the block, for example, without getting out of breath. He needs to work up to being able to run a mile without stopping over time.
The same goes for first-time marathoners. Just because Runner Jane Doe finished a few 5Ks, 10Ks, or even half-marathons does not mean she will simply wake up one morning and be able to run 26.2 miles. She needs to work her way up to running such a long distance over time, say 16 weeks, by incorporating longer runs into her weekly training plan. In the process, Jane is going to feel zapped at times, and probably even fatigued as she works up to 16- and 18-mile runs. This is because her muscles are breaking down and repairing themselves. Each time she runs and each time Jane recovers, her muscles – including her heart – get stronger and adapt to what they are learning is the "new normal." What seemed impossible during week 1, results in Jane completing her marathon in week 16.
Here's another example that most people can relate to – lifting weights. When I injured my illiosacral joint after running the NYC Marathon, I started doing a number of exercises, prescribed by my physical therapist, including machine-weight exercises to strengthen my wimpy hip abductors and adductors.
At first, I could barely move 50 pounds, because my hip stabilizing muscles were so weak. Now almost 18 months later, I can move up to 130 pounds – more than 20 pounds over my body weight. This is stimulus + fatigue = adaptation at work. Improvement does not happen unless you push yourself beyond your comfort zone.
How I dealt with fatigue
I stay in constant communication with my coach. We wanted to avoid the overtraining I experienced last year that led to a DNF, so we decided to dial just about everything back since I have a race this weekend:
- I usually do 2 strength sessions per week, or one strength and one yoga class. Monday, I was so zapped that I skipped yoga. I completed just under an hour of strength yesterday and didn't push it.
- I usually get by just fine with one rest day per week but this week, I really needed two.
- I usually complete 3 medium or hard runs each week. This week, so far, I've done only one – a speed session I did on the treadmill last night. It was intense. I could have pushed harder and run farther but guess what? I cut it short (thanks to a tempering, pre-workout cue from my coach to "be smart," Always appreciated, since he knows of my tendency to try to do too much ).
- My mileage this week is also down by about half.
Nutrition also matters. Truth be told, I've been slacking on the post-run refuel. I need to get better about ingesting quality nutrients right after my run, within that magical 30-minute window when your body really needs refuel, like a protein shake, to kick-start recovery. I've also been doing some extra glute stretches and have been foam rolling more.
The good news is that all of the above seems to be working. Today is a rest day, and I'm feeling almost like my barking-Chihuahua self.
Everyone recovers differently. What works for me may not work for you. You may need more or less recovery time. More or less sleep. More or less cross training. Finding your own magical formula is both an art and a science. I think it's part of the geeky fun of being a runner.
To recap, a certain amount of fatigue is normal and necessary if you want to improve as a runner, whether you are a beginner or an elite athlete. The real lesson is learning how to find the balance between using fatigue to improve your performance, without letting it turn the corner leading to overtraining.
So next time you're toast after a week of hard workouts, do what my coach told me: Be Smart And in between naps. pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for working so hard.
How have you dealt with fatigue? Have you ever been overtrained?