I am a recreational runner. I am not, nor will I ever be, fast enough to earn a living by running. (For the record, I don’t think I would want to. Math is awesome.) But I still take the sport seriously: I follow very specific training plans; I sign up for races with time goals, not just finishing goals, in mind; I obsess about paces and fueling and sleep; I sacrifice weekends; I try to keep up with the culture. The list goes on. I also don’t feel as if I’m living enough when I’m not running.
BUT, the combination of the above things, namely, being both a recreational runner and one who takes the sport seriously, should come with a warning label. Lina and I together have experienced a myriad of injuries and health problems throughout our ‘marathon year’, and it seems that this combination is to blame. Here’s why I think this:
1) Recreational runners are recreational because more often than not, they can’t be professional runners. They aren’t fast enough and/or resilient enough, which means that their bodies experience more stress from running than do those of elite runners.
2) Recreational runners often don’t have coaches, so training mistakes and/or race goal mistakes are much more likely to occur.
3) Runners who care about their race times, whether recreational or not, are likely to push themselves very hard to achieve their goals. This can happen both during training and during races, and unfortunately, there is such thing as pushing too hard.
As my last post indicated, I took two weeks off completely from running in an attempt to get my left MCL and my right hip back to normal, and since then, I have been very slowly increasing my mileage again while trying to strengthen my legs. I think I weakened my MCL during the Chicago marathon, but I really think I pushed it over the edge during a 13 mile run two weeks later. I wouldn’t have done that 13 mile run if I hadn’t been obsessing about staying fit for my next race (which, you notice, I had to sit out). I needed to have just taken two or three entire weeks off back then, but my stubbornness and drive had me ignore my body and keep running.
During the Philly Marathon, Lina was also confronted with the dangers of running while mortal. She entered the Philadelphia Marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston, but had to drop out at mile 17 due to severe chest pain. As it turned out, it was very smart of Lina to have stopped at that point because she was experiencing heart-attack-like symptoms (chest pain, extreme shortness of breath, etc.), and may well have had a full-on heart attack had she kept going.
At some point she was told she was probably experiencing rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the body breaks down muscle tissue to use as fuel and thereby releases dangerous amounts of protein into the blood. Having too much protein in the blood is very hard on the kidneys, so people with “rhabdo” are at risk for kidney damage; additionally, the blood tests alone can’t determine where the muscle tissue is coming from that is being broken down, so there is major concern for the heart since it is, as you know, a muscle.
Due to these potential complications, Lina was kept at the hospital overnight for monitoring. You can and should read the full story here in Lina’s own words. She underwent a stress test a week and a half after the race and it turned out that her heart doesn’t seem to have been damaged at all (whew!). Lina may have a bit of exercise-induced asthma, which combined with the relatively normal phenomenon of rhabdomyolysis (normal among young, competitive distance athletes) during a race, is responsible for landing her in the emergency room.
As with me pushing myself into injury, Lina pushed herself into the above dangerous situation because of those same two qualities: being a non-elite runner, and caring a lot about running performance. I’ve only discussed two examples of how this combination of characteristics can be hazardous, but a quick google search about either of our experiences shows that we are not alone.
So what’s the solution? Since telling myself and others to simply “run smarter” is extremely unhelpful, here’s a list of concrete actions I plan to take to improve my running while protecting myself from, well, myself:
1) Use training plans as general outlines, not absolutes. For example, if I begin a speed workout and realize that I am really struggling to meet my paces, I’ll back off and run a few easy miles instead. On the flip side, if I realize half way through a program that I’m not feeling challenged enough, I will consult more advanced programs and add in one or two of those harder workouts to my existing plan.
2) Train at goal-race pace, but not too much. Most training plans I’ve seen have you train at goal race-pace once or twice a week, and usually during a medium-length run. The problem is that in practice, I often do this race-pace thing too much or too little. From now on, I’m going to be stricter with myself about when I run at goal race-pace and when I don’t. I’ve read multiple articles recently, like this one, about needing to make ‘hard days harder and easy days easier.’ (Hard days are always race-pace –or-faster workouts, which is how these two things tie together.) If you don’t want to read the full article, here is the main idea:
“Proper ‘easy’ training should feel utterly easy, like there’s no effort at all. And the obsessives don’t like that, not at all. It doesn’t feel like it’s accomplishing anything (No pain, no gain, right?), so the intensity starts to climb. Where it should be an easy 130 heart rate or lower, it’ll start climbing to the aerobic range or higher. Suddenly, what should have been easy days start becoming medium days. But it’s even more insidious than that: these medium days end up being too easy to really stimulate fitness, but too hard to allow complete recovery. It’s this weird no-man’s land that doesn’t accomplish anything good. Which has another major consequence: without the ability to recover sufficiently, the hard days can’t be as hard. Because you can’t do a quality session when you’re tired. So the hard days start becoming medium days as well. And it all goes wrong. ”
This is definitely my biggest mistake, and I vow to change my habits.
3) Consult with more experienced runners. If I’m ever in doubt about a goal or about how my training is progressing, I’m going to fight the urge to pretend I know it all and consult with people who have done it all before.
4) Eat better. I have the tendency to skimp on protein and green stuff in my diet, so I need to make a more concerted effort to get in enough of each essential nutrient. After experiencing first-hand just how much iron (or rather, the lack thereof) was affecting my running, I have started to see that what I eat (not just how much I eat) makes a real difference.
So there you have it. These are the steps I’m going to take to counteract the deadly combination of running (and caring!) while mortal.