Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why Trainers Say 'Slow Down' (Wall St Journal)

Ultra-goddess Julie Fingar was featured in the Wall Street Journal yesterday in an article about overtraining. Some fascinating stats on exercise-related anorexia too - 50% of women in endurance sports? That's scary. Definitely worth a read.

Why Trainers Say, 'Slow Down'


When his running coach implored him to take rest days, Bill Carr didn't listen. Slated to run a 100-mile ultramarathon this month, the 36-year-old cranked up his workouts over the summer, running more and harder miles than his coach recommended.

Running coach Julie Fingar guides Bill Carr, who ran too much and injured his ankle, in drills at a Twin Rocks trail near Folsom Lake in Granite Bay, Calif.

"I wanted to make sure that I got to the event fully prepared," he says. But Mr. Carr won't get to the 100-miler at all. Last month, his ankle sustained an over-use injury during a workout, sidelining the Rancho Cordova, Calif., project manager for a vision-benefits company.

"Type A personalities will increase their training load until something backfires," says Julie Fingar, Mr. Carr's running coach, who says her biggest challenge is convincing her clients to take an adequate amount of rest. "In their minds, taking rest means they're not working hard enough."

Today, says Mr. Carr: "I'm taking Julie's advice and starting to cross train."

Roughly 10% of athletes preparing for an endurance event are training too hard, estimates Jack Raglin, director of graduate studies at the Indiana University's department of kinesiology. Research in the field has shown that injury rates rise as runners increase their weekly mileage. Besides injury, excessive training can contribute to or cause major depression, loss of sleep, anorexia and sometimes death.

"The overtrained athlete is so fried by race time that he either performs very poorly or can't perform at all," says Dr. Raglin, who specializes in overtraining problems.

A more-is-better mentality permeates the endurance-exercise culture. Novice runners in particular tend to think that finishing a marathon requires no end of training. In fact, however, under-training is rare. After all, more than 95% of marathon starters reach the finish line.

Statistically, the harder line to reach is the start line. Of the tens of thousands of Americans who pay as much as $180 to register for marathons, as many as 25% fail to make it to the race. Injury, illness and loss of motivation as a result of overtraining are major reasons for this.

Coach Julie Fingar guides Bill Carr on abdominal exercises to break up the pounding intensity of running.

But moderation is a hard message to promote among runners determined to reach extremes. For such athletes, no matter how conclusively science may prove the value of rest and recovery, the culture of endurance sports lionizes those who seemingly never rest.

"In running circles, there is huge pressure to do big mileage, to do the big training, to do the biggest races," says Sandra Ross, a 47-year-old runner in Auburn, Calif.

It also can be difficult for runners to know when they are training too hard. One red flag, sports-medicine specialists say, is an intensifying obsession with performance. Exercise, after all, is supposed to be stress-reducing, and amateur competitions by definition are recreational. Yet marathon fields are populated with runners who are visibly stressed out about whether they'll set a personal record or win their age group.

To head off overtraining, some coaches urge athletes to remain alert for the point at which greater doses of exercise cease to produce improvement.

"The body responds beautifully to the right schedule of training stresses," Lynn Bjorklund, who in 1981 set the still-standing female course record for the Pikes Peak Marathon, wrote in an email. "However, too much stress and not enough nutrition or recovery pushes your body toward injury and illness. You need to stay in that zone of just enough, and that takes a very high tuned and honest appraisal of yourself."

Ms. Ross, the California runner, says that for years she would suffer injuries while training for marathons. To help pace herself, Ms. Ross hired Ms. Fingar, the running coach, who enforced rest days, cross-training and trail-running as a lower-impact alternative to pavement.

The discipline paid off, and this summer Ms. Ross completed a 100-mile race. That accomplishment wouldn't have been possible if she hadn't resisted the impulse to match the weekly mileage of her younger running partners, she says. "If I ran as much as they do I'd be faster. But as an older runner I need more rest, and I also have a child, a husband and a career," says Ms. Ross, who works as an environmental consultant.

Overtraining can contribute to exercise-related anorexia, a potentially fatal syndrome that strikes nearly half of all women in so-called lean sports such as running, according to a book published this year, "Eating Disorders in Sport."

"I was diligent about cutting down the calories and increasing my workout schedule. The pounds fell away and it seemed to result in better racing," recalls Ms. Bjorklund, who says that soon after setting a Pikes Peak Marathon record she entered a hospital near death from anorexia.

"It is easy to think that if a little is good, more should be better. After a period of time, however, I would always crash and be forced to cut back," the 53-year-old wrote in an email.

Ms. Fingar, the running coach, says that early in her athletic career she was prone to overtraining and exercise-related anorexia. As a result she says she studies her clients and friends for signs of chronic fatigue, depression, compulsive training or privation. "It can be really destructive," the 35-year-old says. "When someone becomes addicted in a non-healthy manner, all other things suffer—work, family, friends and of course their performance."

Ms. Fingar says she tries to set an example for her clients. She refrains from aerobic exercise one day a week. Often, if she listens to her body instead of her mind, "I'll realize that I'm tired and I'll take another day," she says.

When training for an ultramarathon, Ms. Fingar runs about 70 miles a week, far fewer than the 100 miles that many other ultramarathoners log weekly. But unlike some other runners she is rigorous about cross-training weekly in the pool, on a bicycle and in yoga and Pilates studios. She says this training offers a break from the monotony and physical pounding of running, and provides flexibility, enhanced aerobic fitness and a strengthening of core muscles.

"Especially with trail running and endurance events, you need upper-body and core strength to ascend and descend the hills," she says.


  1. Excellent timing.
    I set out for a 15k loop run and had to turn back at 3.5k, my legs were just too heavy after daily running since Saturday (incl long run and hill reps/sprints!)...


  2. Thanks Scott - I'm a 63 year old with over 120 marathons and ultras in my legs and now my ankles are screaming "See, I told you to hold back". The article was very timely and appropriate to all of us who just want to get out and ENJOY running until we do that "last trail run". Always enjoy your blog. - Al D.

  3. Absolutely awesome article - definitely sharing.

  4. Thanks for sharing (love your blog, by the way!). I have the opposite problem... I undertrain and overeat. :)

  5. Devils Advocate.9/08/2010 09:55:00 AM

    While I realize this article is largely aimed at mid to back of the packers, it seems that achievement and goal setting are viewed somewhat negatively. Sure, over-training happens, but that should not be confused with pushing oneself to improve.

  6. Overtraining can mean very different things to different people. Highly fit runners/cross-trainers can tolerate and thrive at very high levels of training. It takes years of work to get to those levels and to have the knowledge of how hard to press your body, or not press your body. The guy profiled in this article seems to be a novice runner that was pushing too hard at all of course he is bound to be injured.

  7. Middle-of-the-packer marathoners just don't know the symptoms well enough to identify what their body is going through when over-training. Countless articles, such as the recent one in Running Times, states one needs to be running 75+ miles/week to run a marathon and that dedicated, no-excuses, driven soul will go out there and do it, by golly, cuz that's what they've self-taught themselves to do.

    Great article, thanks!!

  8. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Overtraining can happen to anyone. I seem to exceed my limits 1-2 times a year, and it kinda sneaks up on me. Usually the symptoms are that I'm so tired I can't really sleep, which in turn lends to lack of motivation to train and crabbiness. If I keep pushing it, flu-like symptoms will follow. My body stops adapting to the training levels, and I just feel tired in general. It only gets back on track with 100% rest.

    About the only way I've been able to keep myself in check is to measure my heart rate every morning. If it's up by 15%+, then I force myself to take as many days off as needed to allow it to recover (usually 1-2 days). Some days when it is elevated, I feel fine in all respects. Prior to the morning HRM ritual, I would have gone out and pushed it like any other day.

    Using the HRM has had it's surprises - I was good to exercise only four days after the Burning River 100m, but about three weeks prior to BR100, I was feeling sluggish and my HR stayed elevated over 3-4 days of rest. I guess the body needs what it needs when it needs it.


  9. Very useful article. I seem to develop a parasympathetic type of overtraining where the AM heart rate keeps dropping, doesn't want to elevate in training, and performance drops. Anybody know anything about that? I've heard the term "adrenal fatigue" offered as explanation, but don't really know what that means.

    The problem seems to be that people have different tolerances and if we all try to train like the elites, some of us (me!) just get tired and injured and slower. Cross training is a great idea- you satisfy the training compulsion but balance things out a bit.

    I wondered if you (or your readers) have any experience with . It's an app for the Iphone which is supposed to monitor your AM HR variability and determine your readiness for training each day. Sounds like the kind of gadget you would like!


  10. What you mention as "crabbiness", and "Flu Lke Symptoms" are actually symptoms of Adrenal Stress disorder, which is the human bodies response to increased stress levels over a long period of time. has some interesting information related to possible effects that stress can have on the body.

    The Article is discussing two different aspects of what is commonly called overtrainign syndrome: Injuries brought on by training, and stress syndrome. stress syndrome is what make us feel sick, elevates our heart rates, causes irritable behavior, etc. This is most often because runners are not getting enough sleep. From my recollection Jack Daniels (the running coach, not the whiskey) recommends 10 hours of sleep per day. Not very common amongst non-elite athletes who do not have sponsors paying the bills.

    Injuries are a subject of question, since many ultra-athletes seem to be able to run forever without ever suffering an injury. Dean Karnasez has often said that he has only ever missed 2 days in a row one time when suffering from the flu. Many other ultra runners run 100 to 200 miles a week, much more than the recommended mileage for a "normal" runner. So, either these people are mutant, or there is something that is missing from the equation. Like Form. Fixing your form fixes many of the things that cause injuries, and more miles with bad form makes for many more chances to get hurt.

  11. I think many people still live with the thinking that no pain no gain. But the truth is that, sometimes, pain is a bad thing. Your body tells you to stop and rest but people keep on going until it is too late, after that, it becomes a painful journey of recovery. You definitely shared insightful opinions and I will surely link to this page. Thank you for your wonderful effort.

  12. We shouldn't push to much to our limits. I believe the saying that anything in excess can be harmful. This is a very good article. I learned a lot while reading this. Thanks for sharing!


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