Why You Need to Spend Time NOT Training Every Year

If you’re a hard core weekend warrior you’ve probably noticed a drought in posts directed at you recently. This time of year it’s all how to start, keep motivated and extolling the virtues of getting moving twice a week. But you already know that don’t you, you’re a lean mean exercising machine! You’ve had your upcoming race season planned since before the last one even finished and like me serious training season is right around the corner (February 15th for me). You’ve got no time to waste if your going to beat last year’s times and push old distances this year but… you might just be cutting off your nose to spite your face if you’re training all year long. Are old injuries nagging at you year after year, are your times stagnant and is the end of last year’s last race still haunting you? While it’s totally true that following a strict training regime is the only way to push for new distances and faster times but pushing it too far means you’ll only fall short of your goals. We all get hammered with the message that more is more when it comes to exercise. More only leads to a longer life, a stronger heart and a better bod but that just isn’t the case. Maybe you accept that at some point, like ironman training you actually harm yourself, well would you be surprised to find out that you’re getting into that harming yourself category in just attempting a 1/2 marathon?

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Lets look at the science here, dig into the literature and talk about the realities of exercising that much. I hope to convince you that you should, nay need to spend some time, a significant amount not in training each and every year. Now I’m no slacker but I’m not a crazy bird here either, but I’ve come to realize the necessity of not training pretty quickly due to injury. I’m no iron man, ultra marathoner or even marathoner but I love running races up to 1/2 marathons and participating in (not winning) triathlons. If you’re looking to smash last year later this year this might be your last few weeks to not train, so here goes! I also hope to give you a template (sort of) for maintenance season that’s not so ridged because let’s face it a rigid maintenance program is just training lite.

Rigidity vs Spontaneity and Exercise Addiction

Nothing gives my life structure, the same level of efficiency and even really purpose like following a training program. Nothing! Hell I even write training programs. When you’re following a prescriptive training program you have to plan everything at least three days out. Meals, laundry, sunsets, work and social engagements all have to be delicately and ever so carefully micromanaged when those miles pile up and I never feel so productive as I do then. Some weeks I’ll work 70 hours, run 70 km and fit in so many extras! Sure I’ll come to your dinner party and take your dog for an 8k run after. I’ll drop my laundry in the machines at the laundromat, run 5k switch them over at the buzzer then run 6 more, getting my 11k run in and getting four loads done and dry in about and hour and a half. That might be after roofing all day and doing a couple hours of tutoring then prepping meals for the next three days before bed and blogging. But that all comes at a cost a big one. A traffic jam, free tickets to a play or a meeting that runs long can fill you with anxiety, dread and calculations. Spending an extra hour at a dinner party until 9 means you won’t be home and dressed until 10:15 and that 14km fartlek won’t be over until 11:45, two hours to wind down and no sleep until 2am, no time to shower. No wonder I have a sour face on the drive home. No skipping it isn’t an option since tomorrow is an 8k recovery run and I can’t do 22 km the day before my 18 km long run, that’s just stupid!

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Check out my training plans here

This kind of thinking seems normal if not heroic in the training circuit but it’s neither really. That stress you like to call a heightened state of planning is taking a toll on your cortisol levels. This is the hormone that comes after adrenaline and the fight or flight response. It’s more of the long term stress hormone and it does all sorts of nasty things to your body. It causes inflammation, suppresses the Immune system and decreases bone formation. You might notice a decrease on wound healing, I find in training simple things like blemishes and cuts from hang nails seem to hang around forever and always wind up infected, coincidence probably not. It also acts as a diuretic and impairs your memory, ever notice those summer’s your training hard seem like a blur? Yeah that’s some scary s$&t right? We get addicted to that feeling of productivity, talking about it all the time, having something that seems important to think about all the time and then we do one training cycle after another, after another.

So let’s just agree when you’re training your not being spontaneous and leave that alone for now, perhaps we can agree that it’s kinda, sorta at least sometimes a bad thing too. If this describes you take a look at this post I wrote about how to tell and what to do if you’re entering that world of exercise addiction, it’s about you!

Injury Prevention

Maybe you know exactly what you can do in a week, moth or year without having injuries flare up. Or more like me it’s a carefully managed ongoing process, knee braces, KT tape, more yoga, less yoga, 40 reps of 8 physio exercises a day, ice, heat, voltaren and naproxen and standing on your head for three minutes after every workout, I swear it helps. Also not some of those things, all of em! I know exactly how far I can push that knee/hip and how to go just a little further when it’s telling me to stop. Once I’m in a program I’m likey to finish it not matter what. I say likely but I have literally never let an injury make me drop out in fact it once gave me the ‘now or nevers’ and that’s how I did my first 1/2. The thing is there really isn’t a way to know if you are over training and headed for injury disaster. Just because you do the same crazy races and training programs year after year doesn’t mean this year will be fine either. The truth is you’re getting older, like it or not, those years add up and this might be your year for an injury that puts you on the sidelines.

Injuries come from over training pure and simple. The overtraining that can occur is amplified by the time you spend in training pushing yourself.

So what are the signs you’re overtraining, being, tiered, drug out, sore, cranky and moody. What happens when you’re pushing your milage week after week you get tiered, drug out, sore, cranky and moody big difference right? NO! I’m not a sleeper in general but people describe literally having teenaged level almost sexual fantasies about their beds when training for marathons. I once found myself on the lush website literally salivating over foam baths and bath bombs during training for a half, mind you it was a 100 year drought year and I was down to one bath a week with lots of wet ones… but it was also soreness too. We don’t like to admit that we might not be able to do what we used to, that this is the time we can’t push through an injury like we did last year and NO ONE wants to pull out of a race we’ve already been talking about. So we don’t, we push through one more training program this year.

About the only measure that can warn us is looking at heart rate (and maybe HRV) data. THE ONLY objective measure of overtraining that we know about is the fact that your resting heart rate trending up is not a good sign. We also know that we can rationalize anything. It can’t be overtraining it’s just a half, I was stressed at work last week, got no sleep or we had a fight or two, that’s why it’s up. I wear an apple watch all the time, not while sleeping, but I suggest you get a similar tool if you do a lot of training too. The nice thing about the apple watch is that the data is easily accessible on your phone when you’re bored in the bathroom so you end up checking it. If you have to plug it into the computer and go hunting you might not check. Many of these gadgets also include HRV data now which can give you shorter term readings that can help you target you’re training day to day perhaps avoid injury. Check out this truly awesome post I right about Heart Rate Variability! (Seriously check it out this is the one and only time I’ve called a post I did even good!)

Friends and Family

Do you have friends and family? Have you forgotten because you did so many training cycles back to back? Even those last few intense weeks of 1/2 training means that honey, and since we work together, honey’s entire company (it’s small) has to bend to my training schedule. In summer we work 7 days a week, ideally dawn (I say 9am) to dark when it’s nice out or just not pouring. That’s usually cool with me and training but we at least quit early the nicer weekend day so I can long run. This year for an olympic triathlon it might mean more bending. I’m not a nutritional ideal devotee at all but… for a lot of people they have to follow a perceptive diet and so to do their families. You’re definitely skipping some quality time with people you love and if your going one cycle after another is hurting your relationships whether you want to admit it or not. Let’s agree that your relationships might not be all that they can be even if you are. Not being in training for a while let’s you prioritize your peeps and show them they are important to you. You might not believe this but normal people occasionally spend a day furniture shopping with friends, working literally all weekend, take a three hour lunch with friends or netflixing for an entire weekend with their partner and ordering pizza three times. When was the last time you did any of that. And… what were you doing instead.

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Harming your health

Not possible right, ha ha no! The truth of the matter is we even know where that line is and when you’re crossing it. And I mean death will be sooner, so that’s a hard line. But how can that be? You, and I, have abs year round, impossibly low body fat and visible muscles throughout. Some of you might look 20 years younger than you are, I hope that’s me someday too! But we know, I’m putting my scientist hat on now, it’s somewhere between 54 and 77 km per week. For me that’s between 6.5 and 9.5 hours a week but it might be less for you. That could be as little as 11k five days a week. We talk about J shaped curves in science. That means that we see a particular effect for a time but as you continue the trend reverses and exercise is like that. We see that runners lifespan improves the more than run for a time, a long time but then that trend reverses. Then we see their life expectancy decline from it’s peak. Authors of this study suggest that this effect is clearly pronounced after four hours a week. Think about that and your training schedule for a moment, yeah! Can you marathon, triathlon or even 1/2 marathon in under four hours a week, I can’t. Look closely at the bars it might even be more than 2.5 hours a week… It’s one thing to push if for a short time each year but it’s just not sustainable year round. We’d like to think that more is more and we have it all figured and we’re going to live forever but that’s just not the case.

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O’keefe et al., 2013. The dose of running that best confers longevity. Heart

Maintenance (How to not train for part of the year)

A lot of runners and super exercisers follow a pretty strict maintenance regime when their not in training. However, this can be training just by another name. If you are pushing those limits, more than 3 or 4 hours a week for part of the year you need to consider your non-training options. If you are over that limit for a month or two only you’re probably good however if you’re over that line for 4 or more months you should consider daling back or actively limiting your activity outside of training season. If you’re following a prescriptive maintenance plan logging 5 workouts a week you’re maintenance plan might actually be an example of over training. Consider making the following changes to your workouts when your not in training.

  • Limit to three hours a week or less
  • Limit to 3 or four days a week
  • Lower your intensity to only ‘easy’
  • Change your training goals to less time and distance specific outcomes like get out there three days a week, log 80 km a month or try something new each week
  • Incorporate more low impact activity like yoga, swimming or play time with your kids
  • Choose a plan that deviates significantly from your ‘main’ training sport

I hope that I have given you some food for thought. Did any of these points open your eyes at all. Do you think it’s important to spend some time not training each year?

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