Fatigue can be confusing for athletes.
You have to suffer through some fatigue on your way to making performance breakthroughs. But ignoring fatigue caused by excessive running or under-fueling doesn’t just obliterate athletic pursuits. It seep into our everyday lives and make the most mundane tasks difficult. Too many runners ignore the signs screaming at them to halt training.
I see a lot of new runners making training mistakes that put them at an increased risk for injury and misery. But new runners aren’t the only ones guilty of overtraining. Athletes of all abilities, including myself, face some degree of training fatigue in their careers. Whether it be from poor nutrition, over-training, external stresses or a freak health incident such as deficiencies, fatigue plagues us all at some point.
It sucks, but if you catch fatigue early, little changes can help turn your symptoms around. Here’s how I overcame my fatigue in just a few months—and salvaged my summer racing season
Visit Your Doctor
If you’re training hard while juggling a family, a full-time job and a social life, it probably seems obvious that overreaching in your training is causing your fatigue. Our bodies can only handle so much, and with so much going on, something has to give. Still, the problem may be caused by medical issues that require a professional. For example, I was dealing with a series of deficiencies that caused my energy to plummet and my runs to deteriorate. Fatigue-inducing medical conditions include Lyme disease, hypothyroidism, food allergies and other causes that can only be identified by your doctor.
So if you’re feeling a little less than yourself, see your doctor to eliminate some of the scarier, fatigue-causing diagnoses. While you’re there, they’ll probably run blood tests that will check for indicators of overtraining. If you’re struggling with insurance or want a blood test done before you see your physician, services such as Fuelary and InsideTracker order blood tests specific to athletes.
We all know we need to take our easy days. But if you’re experiencing fatigue, your usual “easy pace” may feel like an all-out 5k race effort. During my bout of fatigue, my easy pace went from seven-minute miles to ten-minute miles and kept deteriorating until it was all I could do to keep up a twelve-minute mile. But twelve-minute miles felt alright, so I swallowed my pride and ran short, slow runs and was OK with it. If I couldn’t keep up the twelve-minute mile, I walked. I never forced pace or put myself deeper in the figurative fatigue hole by trying to keep up what I used to be able to run.
Coach David Roche, who guided me through my fatigue crisis, advised and prescribed this slow running, believes that there is no pace too slow.
“In extreme cases, complete rest gives the body the time it needs to heal,” Roche said. “On top of that, easy aerobic activity can help improve hormone levels, help with the psychological stresses of feeling tired and provide a major aerobic stimulus that allows an athlete to come back stronger. There is almost no effort that is too easy for a runner to get aerobic benefits like increased capillary development. Do enough of those types of build-up activities, and when the body is ready to go harder again, you might find a whole new reserve of strength and stamina.”
Even now, a few weeks post-fatigue and back to training, I’m still running my easy days much, much slower than I did six months ago. I’ve realized that my planned easy days are usually designed to keep up base mileage and to help keep me limber in between quality workouts. The problem is, I blast through the easy weekly runs as if they were quality workouts.
If every run is a hard run, you increase your chances of injury, peaking early or mentally burning out. Also, running your easy weekly runs at maximum effort can put a damper on your weekly quality workouts and so they’re not benefiting you as much as they should. Just because you can run fast, doesn’t mean you always should.
Find The Right Post-Workout Recovery Drink
I’ve always been a huge believer in the post-run meal. I’ll take any excuse to indulge in a delicious post-run brunch. But the reality is, we can’t always rely on what we’re craving to ensure we get the right nutrients, or our appetite to ensure we get enough calories to top off our glycogen stores post workout.
Supplementing with a recovery shake after every run has been instrumental in making sure I get what I need after my runs. Running, especially at a high intensity, depletes muscle glycogen stores, causes muscle damage and results in fluid loss. Your recovery nutrition should, therefore, focus on both carbohydrate and protein intake to replenish muscle glycogen and repair muscle damage. Fluid and electrolytes should be included to aid in rehydration. To ensure I recover well and feel good on my next workout, I take a recovery drink after every single run, no matter how short or slow.
The first sign that something was a little off was my inability to get out of bed in the morning. My 7 a.m. runs became 4 p.m. runs. Sitting on the couch with my eyes closed quickly became my new favorite pastime. Lucky for me, I have the flexibility in my schedule to abide by my body’s demand for extra shuteye, and was able to sleep a few extra hours a night to help me heal. But even for those with a more rigid schedule, it’s crucial for us, as athletes, to prioritize sleep over TV time.
Getting faster and staying healthy only happens when you sleep and recover. That’s when your body adapts after hard training. Do yourself a favor and make sure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night. If you have the luxury, take a nap after a particularly difficult workout or long run. Elite marathoner Ryan Hall calls referred to his naps as “business meetings” because they were such a key component to his training.
Take a Step Back from The Sport
If you’re feeling any degree of burnout or fatigue, it might be a good idea to take a step back from the sport. Dreading every workout and feeling horrible on every run will wear on any athlete. Take a break, think about why you do what you do and get back to the reasons why you love the sport. When you come back, you’ll have a refreshed perspective and a new appreciation for your sport.