Everything in Moderation

>> Friday, April 16, 2010

We've all been there at one point or another. That point where enough just isn't enough. And no matter what area of life you've experience it in -- over-studying, over-eating, over-exercising, over-purchasing, over-anything-ing -- there's a breaking point. It's true: There can be too much of a good thing. Today, I'm applying this idea to exercise. I've been a runner for over 8 years now, and I've dealt with both the physical and mental drainage of overdoing it.

Back in the summer of 2004, I was hardly sleeping. On top of it, I'd wake each morning at 5AM to bike for an hour or more. I would go to work for 8 hours and then return home to run for as long as I could make myself. I wasn't eating much. I dropped close to ten pounds on my already thin frame. I was staying out late with friends. I was running races every weekend. Overall, I was exhausted -- burning the candle at both ends.

I look back at photos of myself from this period of time (the above isn't one of them -- it's from last year's marathon), and I'm gaunt. I look super tired -- dark circles, dull skin. My race times were far from fantastic. Strangest of all, my memories from this summer are hardly there. I sincerely believe all this running around may have had some impact on my mental capacity. There were so many demands I was putting on myself -- I was in constant motion.

You may be thinking: How can there even BE such a thing as too much exercise? Healthy people run ultra-marathons and participate in Ironman triathlons. That's all very true (and awesome). What we're really dealing with is this fine line between what's a healthy and not-so healthy extreme. It's tricky to define. There's no right formula. No one-size-fits-all approach. That doesn't mean you can't gauge this for yourself, however.

Keep in mind, I'm not a doctor or nurse, etc. I have no expertise in any health field. That being said, I know what I know from experience. I know what I know from my own struggles and triumphs. And this advice is just that, advice. Take from it what you think makes sense. Discard the rest, if you wish. But whatever you do, be honest with yourself.

1.) Listen to your body. Feeling tired is sometimes an easy excuse to skip a workout. If I feel this way, I tend to gently nudge myself to get out for a least a short workout and see how I feel afterward (remember: no workout is too short or slow). If I still feel completely out of it the next day, I take that day off. In fact, this happened to me just this week. We ran our half marathon on Sunday, and I resumed normal training. Wednesday, I felt completely drained -- but I ran anyway. Thursday night, still felt the same.
  • Basically: Feeling exhausted is your body telling you something's up. You may be getting a cold. Or, at least what I believe is the case for me, you may just need to recharge after a hard workout or race. There are limitless reasons. But if you're feeling physically and mentally depleted, you shouldn't ignore it.
  • The same goes with injuries. Some pain and soreness is expected with running. We all have our injuries from time to time. But if you're running through pain and it just won't go away -- take heed. Check out these common overuse injuries, and even make an appointment to see your doctor. I have seen far too many runners who "work through the pain." Those who have chosen to self medicate, bandage or bind up sore limbs -- and when I ask them about what happened, it sounds like they've got a bad case of the too-much-too-soons.
  • The same goes with sickness. Maybe you have a cold that just won't go away. Or you're finding yourself at the doctor at least once a month for one thing or another. Exercising too much can bring down your resistance and worse. You can even develop issues like amenorrhea or anemia. Working out is supposed to invigorate you. It's supposed to contribute to a healthy lifestyle. But if you're not feeling particularly healthy, see your doctor and examine your habits.
2.) Keep your whole routine in perspective. Life happens. If you're in school, you may be missing tons of sleep with final exams coming up. If you work, you may have logged some late hours in the office to finish a project. Whatever the case may be, life requires extra energy from time to time. If you have a week (or even entire month) that requires you be on in another capacity in your life, re-evaluate your workout plan. It's OK to scale back or even take a small break. Try to still get in at least some activity (20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day), but go easy on yourself.

3.) Stick to the plan. This tip is certainly from current personal experience for me. After marathon training in the fall, I'm having trouble staying at the reduced mileage my half marathon plan prescribes. I tend to try to follow the plan that's a step up from where I really should be training (advanced versus intermediate). Week after week, I can't keep up with the mileage. The speed work. The tempo runs. For me, I'm trying to do too much. And as a result, it makes me feel mentally down in the dumps. My legs are tired. I don't feel like running at all some days.

No matter what you're training for, stick to a plan. And a plan that's right for you, not your sister, best friend, husband, etc. For example, marathons can be run in only three workouts a week. I know people who have done so successfully. I trained for mine running between 4 and 5 workouts a week. Stephen did his by heading out 6 days. Find a plan that works, and stick to it.

4.) Exercise for yourself and yourself only. This is, perhaps, the most important tip of all. Don't get caught up in a goal that isn't your own. Maybe you're a newbie runner surrounded by marathoners. Resist the urge to head out on a 20-miler if you aren't prepared. Stop looking at what others are doing (I know this is particularly difficult) and judging yourself against their fitness levels. Instead -- focus on your own successes.

We all have different abilities. So, if you're embarking on a plan that just doesn't feel like a good fit -- you may be overdoing it for your particular fitness level. It doesn't mean you'll never reach what you're struggling with now. It just means you may need more time. For example, if you just finished a couch to 5K plan -- congrats! However, this doesn't mean you need to skip straight to marathon training. You can reach your ultimate goal, but in steps. Do some 10Ks, 15Ks, and half marathons first. Work on speed versus distance. Etc. Do your research, and you'll find there's a race or other goal out there that will work best for you. And you're all that matters.

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