Be Careful – You May Be at Your Weakest when You Are Running Strongest

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Photo credit: Form from Flickr user sukhchander, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Sometimes, you hit a point in your training cycle where everything seems to be going right.  You meet or beat every goal on your pace-specific workouts.  Your weekly mileage is right on target – or slightly ahead.  Every run feels easier than you expect.  And you feel like you are recovering quickly from each workout – anticipation runs feel like a formality instead of a requirement.

Hopefully you have been there – it’s a feeling like nothing else, as if you are invincible, as if every workout will be better than the last time.  And it is at this point that you need to consciously raise your guard, as it is at this point that you are most vulnerable.

How can that be?  You are clearly gaining strength and fitness.  If you’re making the right investments, your chassis (structural fitness), is improving along with your engine (metabolic fitness).  You feel fine, and are maintaining that as needed through massage.

But momentum is hard to fight.  Soon, you find yourself wanting to make each workout better than the last – and better than it needs to be.  It is hard to restrain yourself, because your confidence is sky-high.  The training plan, complete with goal paces, gets set aside, as it starts to seem too “easy”. Your joy from each run comes from exceeding your goal.  You see what other, “better” runners do and start mimicking their workouts.

This joy can, in fact, start working against you. Assuming you set your goal and selected your training plan properly, you must resist this temptation.  The training plan was designed to help you meet your goal.  “Beating the plan” doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to reach your goal.

When you start overreaching like this, several things can happen.  Most seriously, you can get injured, because you do, eventually, reach beyond your capabilities.  You run the workout that you shouldn’t have – either too soon, too hard, or too long.

More subtly, you may peak too soon.  Meeting your workout goals actually starts to get harder.  This can lead to injury as you strive to make the progress that you think you should still be making.  It may lead to burnout or frustration.  And it may lead to underperformance at your goal race, as you are a bit “past your prime” conditioning when race day approaches.

I am no stranger to these experiences – both the urge to push harder every workout, and the resulting injury.  In fact, part of the reason I’m writing this post is because it’s happening again.  So what can we do to avoid this problem?

It’s easy enough to say “relax, back down for a bit, etc.”, but it’s devilishly hard to follow that advice.  So maybe there are ways to trick ourselves into doing something different.

  • First – maybe you have set too easy of a goal, or selected too easy of a plan.  Take a look at the “next” level – a new time goal, a step-up in the training.  Compare that to your training history.  Should that goal and plan have been manageable for you?  Are you comfortably meeting the requirements?  If so, consider modifying your plan and goal accordingly – but be sure you are being honest with yourself as to how “easy” your efforts have been.
  • Second – if the risk is peaking too soon, consider an earlier race.  You may well be ready sooner than you think to meet your goal, and can be better served by doing so before problems arise – then allowing a proper recovery afterwards.
  • Third – take a forced weekend off to recalibrate.  This may be enough time to not only allow yourself a bit of well-earned recovery (since you are running ahead of plan) or some extra sleep, but to reflect on points one and two above.  Or to invest that time in ancillary work to make sure your chassis is really keeping up with the engine.  While one weekend cannot make up for a season of neglect, perhaps you can re-start the habit.
  • Finally – and this is the most risky – just accept that pushing yourself 100% for a bit can give you a lifetime best race, at the risk of an injury in the process.  You are playing the odds here, but if you do it often enough, the odds will pay off in your favor.  Of course, you may have to cope with the other end of the spectrum several times in the process, so go into it with eyes wide open, and think about whether you really are keeping the best long-term option in mind.

Regardless of what you choose, even being conscious of the situation and taking the steps to think through your approach can help you either achieve new highs or avoid a crash.  Or, at the least, be fully aware of the risk you were taking when you do fall off the cliff.

Oh, and as far as my choice – well, it’s not exactly clear yet.  I’d like to opt for #2 and register for the Glass City Marathon four weeks earlier than the originally-planned Cleveland Marathon (which I can no longer run due to a conflict).  However, there is this small matter of a sore achilles tendon, which leaves me hoping I’m not thinking through this topic too late…

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