Knowing Where to Draw the Line

In a previous post, I described how you know when you're ready to increase your mileage.

But if you're anything like me (and if you're running a marathon, how could you not be?), then knowing when to do more is definitely not your problem. No, if you're like me, then the trick is knowing when you're doing too much. This seems comedic, but it's a real problem, and I'd like to spend some time discussing it today.

There are two kinds of "doing too much." There is carrying too heavy a burden, and then there is doing too much, too soon. Let's take a look at each one of these.

Too Much, Too Soon
Other than bad form, I think doing too much, too soon is the primary means by which runners injure themselves. This is a tricky issue, because in most cases "too much, too soon" consists of doing workouts that the runner is already comfortable with. Think about it - how can activities that you know you're capable of cause injury? Shouldn't they be inherently safe by virtue of the fact that you are already capable of them? So it can be a little counter-intuitive. Think of it this way: I have already run a marathon before, so I know I'm capable of doing it -- does that mean I don't need to train for one?

The principle holds true for strength training, speed training, overall mileage, or even the intensity of your daily workout. If you start out on Week 1 training at an intensity level more appropriate to Week 9, it stands to reason that you risk injury. In this case, the injury will often be of a sudden-onset: tendonitis out of nowhere, shin splints, pulled muscles, or next-day aches and pains.

You should always exercise some restraint during the first few weeks of training until you are so comfortable with the routine and the types of workouts you're doing that you can get some serious work done in the middle of the training plan. In fact, a great runner I know recently said to me that, in her opinion, the first week of training should feel too easy. This is a great example of an experienced runner practicing some restraint in the initial phases of a workout plan, building on her foundations, acquainting her muscles with the kinds of activities for which they are in store, and just making sure she doesn't do too much too soon.

Even if a runner is only doing a little too much too soon, it can have a cumulative effect. After two or three weeks, one finds oneself breaking down too far after difficult workouts and not rebuilding quickly enough during recovery. This is very similar to just doing too much, and provides us with a useful segue...

Just Doing Too Much
While injuries associated with "too much, too soon" tend to involve a sudden onset, just doing too much in general results in more gradual injuries: tendonitis that appears first as a light pain and then worsens over the course of a week; muscles that get sore, but the soreness doesn't really subside even after days; stress fractures. Even when no real injury occurs, runners that have taken on too much will often have a constant burning sensation in their muscles, will be a bit unsteady on their feet, will have incredibly tight joints when they wake up in the morning, will feel sluggish during virtually every workout, and can't seem to loosen up their muscles no matter how much they stretch.

Training is a process of breaking down one's muscles, rebuilding them, breaking them down again, rebuilding them, and so on, ad infinitum. When a runner does too much exercising all the time, the runner breaks down his or her muscles every day and never allows them the chance to rebuild again. That's where the fatigue comes in. This fatigue can iimpact the runner's form and cause injury, or the constant impact of heavy training can just break down the bones and ligaments to the point of serious injury. Therefore, doing too much is a far more serious concern than just doing too much, too soon.

You'll know you're doing too much mostly by the telltale fatigue and persistent muscle burning. We are now at Week #4 of our training schedule. If you feel fatigue and muscle burning every day, or for, say, three consecutive days, then I suggest it's time to take an unscheduled rest day, at least. If it happens again, take another rest day. If it happens a third time, then it's time to reduce your overall level of training.