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Harder and More Does Not Mean Better

One of the most pervasive and perverse thoughts centering around training (and health/wellness in general) is that working harder and doing more will always make you better.

Basic definitions:

We can think of working harder as ‘intensity’ and doing more as ‘volume’. Intensity and volume both contribute to an overall ‘training stimulus’. However, we should be intentional about how much of each component we put into our intra-session and inter-session programming. Let’s start with the basic physiological principle of training, then get into common mistakes people make, then I’ll offer some suggestions as to correcting these pitfalls.

-Stimulus + rest = improvements

First, a little background on what actually occurs when we ‘train’ for something.

I would distinguish ‘training’ from ‘exercise’ in that training is working toward a specific goal (racing faster, racing longer, having a higher maximum squat weight, being able to do x, y, z, etc.). Exercise is more of an activity done for its own sake, but often with a broad goal of health or fitness. Exercise bouts are more likely to be performed as stand alone sessions without regard to or progression towards a specific goal (general goals could include: health-physical and/or mental-, being social, stress relief, losing weight, lowering blood pressure, or….dare I say…. Just for fun?). Exercise is still great, but we’ll focus more through the lens of training for this post.

The training we do for specific goals is only as good as we allow it to be through adequate recovery afterward.

Roughly speaking, when we exercise or train, we actually break our body down a bit and lower our short term performance ability. It’s only after we recover adequately that we even get back to baseline and then into ‘supercompensation’ aka being better than your baseline. This can be visualized in the graph below- which has been studied and known as General Adaptation Syndrome, first described in the 1930’s by Hans Selye.

​Over time- with properly timed workouts and recovery, these super compensations accumulate to make us better at our goal.

When training, we don’t need to fully recover between each training stimulus, and can stack a few fatiguing training sessions in a row (actually dropping lower and lower below the baseline) with the idea of eventually having a larger rest period- like deloading weeks or eventually Tapering- to recover and get a larger supercompensation prior to our goal event.

This gets tricky when it comes to timing out the training, allowing ourselves to ‘functionally overreach’ during training, knowing that we’ll recover fully at the right time and peak for racing. If it sounds a bit complicated, that’s because it is; and it takes individualized training/coaching, and the athlete knowing themself to get it ideally right… but that doesn’t mean that self coaching, using generalized training programs (such as ones found online or in books) can’t be very helpful tools to get things ‘right enough’ for improvements.

However, continually training without adequate recovery (whether on a daily, weekly, or monthly scale) can lead to breakdown, decreased performance, pain, and injury.

So, how much and how hard is too much?
-Only so much stimulus can be absorbed at one time

The body’s tissues can only take so much stimulus (for muscles, this is temporary breakdown) in one session. Fortunately, the optimum amount of loading for healthy tissues is less than the amount of loading that would cause injury (some tissues recovering from injury, like tendinopathies and bone stress injuries, have less buffer and need to be loaded and progressed more carefully).

To a certain degree, once a tissue has reached its optimal loading, it won't benefit from any more work in that session (and until after adequate recovery prior to the next session). Different tissues require different amounts of stimulus, and your cardiovascular system can take more loading and recover quicker than muscles/tendons/bones. So there will always be some limiting factor for each individual.

Any stimulus above the upper stimulus threshold is all risk and no reward.

-Too much stimulus at one time= acute injury

Though most injuries don’t occur based on a single run or training session- some do. Everyone knows someone (because it wouldn’t be ‘us’ that did this :-) ) that has done such an absurdly hard/long run that they’re not ready for and ended up with ‘IT band syndrome’, ‘plantar fasciitis’, low back pain, etc.

More often though, these workouts are just the turd-cherry on top of a crap-training cake because the person has done…..

-Too much stimulus in a period of time = overuse injury

These are the most common injuries we see in runners and other endurance athletes. People who train too much and/or at too high an intensity for weeks/months and create pain and injury. Common overuse injuries include: -tendinopathy (includes tendinitis and tendinosis), -muscle strains -bone stress injuries (includes bone stress reactions and fractures).

Each of these occurs, in essence, because a person has exceeded the upper stimulus threshold of a tissue without adequate recovery between training sessions- over time. They look like the “Training too Frequently” graph above, but instead of performance, we’re substituting tissue strength or tissue health.

That part of it seems straight forward enough… why would someone do that then?

-Lack of Knowledge, Keeping up with friends, Ego, and Strava.

There are too many reasons to list why people push too hard or too much.

But here are a few:

-Lack of knowledge. Training principles just aren't common knowledge. That's fair.

-Social runs. Social pacing often ends up too hard. It’s fun to run with people, and we get excited and start running in the effort purgatory between easy and hard running- which is neither adequate training stimulus nor easy enough to be a recovery run. This doesn’t mean that you should be a training hermit, but you should speak up if the group is getting carried away too fast- others will often feel the same and be glad you spoke up.

-Aiming for numbers rather than what feels right for your body. Let’s be honest, it sounds cool to say that you ran 40, 50, 75, 100 miles in a week. We use these arbitrary numbers as milestones to show our running prowess and to track progress. And sometimes we can get caught up in doing more, rather than doing the right amount of us any given week. Doing 4 more miles in a run might get to you x0.00 miles, but if it’s at the expense of your training program, it’s not worth it.

–Last but not least in this category is STRAVA. I think there is added pressure to do more, or go faster, when a runner knows that others will be seeing it on Strava. The peer pressure is just another factor that may lead us to push a bit more than we should. And not only does it affect our runs, it affects how some feel about their runs. Oh boy, have I heard a lot of comments demonstrating that Strava is zapping joy from runners. “I felt good about my x miles until I saw that so-and-so did x+5.” Strava can be fun and good for tracking your personal trends and accomplishments; but I think a lot of people would benefit from learning how to separate their personal running stats from their friends.

We’ve gone through the overview of training, how one overtrains, why one might overtrain… Next is how to know if YOU ARE overtraining.

-Signs that you’re working too hard/too much

The big, obvious signs include things like injuries and total derailment of training.

The next step down would be feelings of pervasive fatigue, feeling like you’re struggling during multiple workouts over the course of weeks (not just tired from working out, but missing paces and goals you know you should be hitting).

Getting sick multiple times during a training cycle (COVID may not count in this since it’s working it’s way around still). But if you have 2-3 colds, flus, and general illness within a few months, your body is probably overtrained.

These would all be signs that something needs correcting.

Last, and most important, what do we do with all of this…

In terms of intensity: Not all training should feel easy, good and energizing.. But at least some of it should. Hard workouts and training should feel hard. But a majority of our running shouldn’t feel very hard. We should be able to have a conversation with a friend during most of our runs. After some easy runs, you should feel better than before them. Say you do a long Saturday run, and an easy Sunday run. You might feel stiff, tired, tight at the beginning, but by the end of it you should feel looser and a bit more energized. If you feel tired and sluggish during every run, you’re training/recovery balance is off.

There are tons of numbers and percentages out there for how much training should be done in specific heart rate ranges, intensity zones, etc. But it’s safe to say that a large majority of running should be done at a relatively easy effort; meaning 60-90% of your weekly miles should be pretty easy effort. This varies widely based on your experience, training history, injury status, time until next race/event, weekly mileage, other training sessions and modalities (weight training, cross training, etc), life obligations, and overall life stress.

In terms of volume- people simply mistake more for better within the context of their training. I do think that this is less of an issue than excessive intensity is. Some people training for endurance activities could, in theory, benefit from having more volume in their training as long as they keep their intense miles in check and have the energy, time, and strength to do more easy miles. This will often be limited by our schedules and other obligations, which leads to us trying to squeeze in more miles in shorter periods of time aka increased intensity again.The trick to easy effort miles is you need the time and patience to keep them easy.

If you’re noticing some of the above symptoms: fatigue, always feeling flat or heavy, having constant aches/pains, it’s time to adjust your training because you end up with a full blown injury that will force you to stop running. Often, simply shortening a few runs over a week (deloading week) and getting some ‘extra recovery’ is enough to get back on track. (see previous blog post: ‘Cup Runneth Over’ post about how to build higher capacity in order to be able to tolerate more training).

As you can gather, there is a lot to take into consideration when planning your training (you do plan your training out…right?). Everyone is a bit different, but also everyone is mostly the same physiologically. There are methods of training and programming we can use to reliably help people avoid these pitfalls, and reduce the risk of injury while also improving performance!

Remember, Zenith-PNW is here for every stage of your health, wellness, and fitness journey; whether it be helping you recover from an injury, work to prevent one in the first place, or focus on performance. Click here to schedule a session and experience the Zenith Advantage.

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