Fortunately, for magazines such as this one, endurance is currently very en vogue. Whereas, not so long ago, people would aspire to run a marathon, 26.2 miles is now just not enough and the once considered realm of supermen, ultra-running, is now their goal. Incredible challenges such as the Bob Graham Round or the Marathon des Sables, although still amazing achievements, are now seen as relatively normal endeavours. In triathlon, the once standard apprenticeship of sprint distance, Olympic, and half-Ironman, before tackling a full long course, is now routinely bypassed by relative novices for whom it’s Ironman or bust. On the bike, sportives are getting longer, more gruelling and multi-day events, providing a taste of Grand Tours, or cross country epics such as the Race Across America are tackled by nine to five working amateur riders.
It’s brilliant to see so many people, inspired and pushing themselves to their respective limits and, although there are many health benefits to endurance exercise, can you have too much of a good thing?
At the beginning of the year, the papers were ablaze with headlines proclaiming that running will kill you and is actually more detrimental to health than permanently sitting on a sofa watching television. As is often the case, much of this tabloid hyperbole was scientific studies poorly interpreted but, at the more extreme ends of endurance exercise especially, might you be doing yourself more harm than good?
We talk to two experts, a Sports Doctor and a Sports Physiotherapist, to find out the potential dangers of going long and what you can do to mitigate them. Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.
Dr Will Magnar is a practicing medical physician, competitive national level athlete and sports doctor. He is a GP and Medical Director for major national cycling events including the Tour of Britain, London Classic and Women’s Tour, and was on duty for Sir Bradley Wiggins’ successful Hour Record Ride. He has represented GB in triathlon and is a national time trial Bronze medalist. His company, www.indurance.co.uk, offers blood profiling to endurance athletes.
How bad a condition do some athletes get themselves into?
There’s a spectrum ranging from a little bit of fatigue, athletes who are heavily over-reached to formally overtrained, chronically fatigued and severely debilitated. Normal tiredness from training is resolved by a couple of days rest. Over-reaching is functional and is the tiredness you achieve which, given enough recovery, leads you to gain fitness. The real issue for sports medics are the athletes who are perpetually chronically fatigued. These athletes are constantly tired, underperform for weeks, months or even multiple seasons and just never recover. We’ve seen profiles so bad that it’s a miracle these guys are getting out of bed in the morning, let alone training and competing.
Why is this especially a problem for amateur athletes?
Amateur athletes aren’t training and competing as their job. Professional athletes are able to train and then give the same time, focus and importance to recovery. With a job, family and other life stresses, for amateurs this just isn’t possible. Their downtime often isn’t real downtime. A rest day where you’re sat in the office working isn’t a true rest day. Even the metabolic demands of your brain is enough to delay recovery. If an amateur is struggling to fit everything in, they’ll prioritise their work and workouts and it’s recovery time that often goes out of the window.
What are the warning signs should people look out for?
The classic early warning signs are agitation, difficulties with mood and increased irritation. Clumsiness and problems with sleep, either too much or too little. Appetite can also be a pointer, getting too hungry or inappropriate food choices, opting for instant gratification and energy from sugary foods. An over-reliance on caffeine or other stimulates which give the athlete a temporary boost. It’ll start to take longer and longer to recover from workouts, muscle soreness will linger on and there can be issues with cramps and headaches.
Are people going too long too quickly?
Many people are coming to endurance sport in their thirties or forties having spent fifteen or twenty years out of structured aerobic training. This means their endurance architecture, their muscle-skeletal system, aerobic system, endocrine system and metabolism, hasn’t had time to develop. With running for a example you’ll see people going from a largely sedentary status straight into marathon training. They miss out the apprenticeship of shorter distances, walking and just being more active. It’s an area that needs more research but there definitely is a big question of how long does it take to become fit for the purpose of training safely and recovering from long distance events. My feeling is that it’s almost certainly years rather than months.
What steps can endurance athletes take to protect themselves?
Being mindful and self aware without being obsessive. Don’t just track your progress in training but also track your recovery, sleep, appetite and mood. Get into the habit of taking your morning pulse rate. If it’s significantly up this can be an indicator that you might be getting ill or are pushing a bit too hard. You have to be an athlete when you’re training but also need to be an athlete when you’re not training. Structure your recovery in the same way as you structure your training. Listen to what your nearest and dearest are saying to you. If they notice you’re becoming a bit more irritable, that can often be a really strong indicator that you’re heading down the wrong route. Finally, in the same way that many amateur endurance athletes neglect rest, as they see it as an indulgence, they do the same with resistance training. Strength training will benefit your power on the bike and running times but it’ll also improve bone density, neuromuscular function and sex hormone production.
Is it good to go long?
If it makes you happier, yes. We develop a reliance on steady state exercise as it causes endorphin release and increases our feelings of self-worth. These things are inherently addictive and that’s why we can get into problems with over-training. In life though we have to do things that make us feel good but you just have to be aware of the potential downsides and put the mechanisms in place to protect yourself.
Tim Deykin is a Sports Physiotherapist who runs the highly successful and established SportMed clinic in Stockport. He has worked at world class level for over 30 years in sports including rugby league, slalom and sprint Canoeing, cycling and swimming. He was lead physio for the North West English Institute for Sport before returning to work at his clinic in Stockport. He trains regularly and still competes in triathlon, quadrathlon and slalom canoeing.
Do you feel that people are rushing to go long?
Yes, people think that if they can double up from a half marathon to a marathon then it’s just the same stepping up to an ultra. This is simply not the case, it takes time for your body to adapt. Every time you exercise some of the cells that make up the tissues of your muscles and tendons break down or reach the end of their life span. New ones regenerate but this occurs more slowly as we age. If we overload this repair and regeneration system for too long it fails and the tissues fall into the process of degeneration.
Probably the most significant thing about going long is that if you have any slight anomaly of your movement pattern, the effect is magnified with the increased repetition of the movement. Any aberrant movement patterns, producing inconsequential affects at short distances, can be hugely magnified by longer distances and combining this with the effects of fatigue on postural muscle can rapidly bring on an overload in tissues of muscle tendon and bone. I would suggest, if you’re relatively new to endurance sport, it’s absolutely imperative to seek a Risk Assessment from a qualified and suitably qualified professional such as a Chartered Physiotherapist who has worked in elite level sport.
What are the most common problems you see?
For runners, the most common problems are undoubtedly shin splints, though this is somewhat of an umbrella term and can be caused by running technique, foot and lower limb postural biomechanics and possibly footwear. Lower back problems with radiation into buttock and posterior thigh are also common.
For cyclists, the main complaints are of neck and nerve root compromise from poor or an overly aggressive position. Load bearing through the palms of the hands can cause com-pression issues of the ulnar nerve or median nerve in the hand and wrist and lead to numbness in the hand and fingers. The lower back and buttock also feature due to extended periods in a poor position.The knee is the is another region of complaint, usually due to tracking issues at the patello-femoral joint. Bike fit is crucial, as well as footwear selection, orthotics to correct collapsed foot arches and cleat set up.
We all get twinges and niggles, when should we take action?
If a niggle feels like it is getting worse and making you change your movement pattern then you should cease the activity as you are altering the neural template of the movement and the muscles firing sequence involved in the activity.
Don’t necessarily wait until you’re hurt to see a therapist. Develop a good relationship, including regular checks, especially during intense phases of training or in the lead up to competition. Become more aware of your own body, it’s rare that an injury appears without any warning signs. If something doesn’t feel right, such as a muscle feeling unusually tight when stretching, don’t ignore it but consult with your therapist.
Are you seeing an increase in overuse/endurance injuries?
Yes, going long has become far more mainstream and, with more participants, many of whom may not be so experienced or conditioned to the sport, there will be more injuries. Along with ultra-runners, cyclists and triathletes, I have treated participants from ultra-distance kayaking to long distance horse riding.
What measures can athletes take to guard against injury?
Make themselves as robust as possible. If you only focus on your main sport or activity, you’ll develop and compound imbalances and make yourself more susceptible to injuries from everyday life, such as twisting to lift the kids out of the car. Build your main activity on a wide base of other activities such as circuit training, boot camp type programmes as well as weights. Do a range of activities from badminton to swimming, rock climbing and mix it up just at a recreational level to make you more resilient and able to cope with unexpected strains and stresses. As I had on a banner in the gym at GB Canoeing, RoBUST or BUST.
Prioritise recovery. Post activity recovery must not be neglected and I like to think of this as the preparation for the next training session not the end of the last one. So, focus on appropriate warm down, refuelling and rest or release of tight muscles with massage, stretching, heat and ice baths. Treat yourself to a professional sports massage every now and then and view it almost like an MOT and service for your body.
Is it good to go long?
People and their bodies are capable or amazing things and, as long as they have no existing health problems, reaching the goal of an ultra run, Ironman or long distance bike ride is safely achievable. However, it’s essential that they take their time to build up slowly, recognise the demands of the event, don’t neglect recovery, consult with relevant and qualified professionals and listen to their bodies.
Both of our experts agree that there are definitely issues with going long but, as long as you understand the risks and take steps to mitigate against them, the potential rewards of endurance sports outweigh them. Make sure you follow these top 5 rules.
1) Monitor yourself: Learn to listen to your body and to be aware of the warning signs that you may be doing too much. Don’t ignore niggles, overuse injuries rarely come on suddenly.
2) Prioritise recovery: Optimal recovery is equally, if not more important, than the workouts you do. If you find you’re skimping on recovery post session or not scheduling rest days, your training needs reevaluating.
3) Be patient: Endurance fitness takes time to build so, don’t rush it. Don’t leap straight to an Ironman or an Ultra, serve your apprenticeship with shorter events and plan towards your ultimate goal over a few years not a few months.
4) Don’t neglect strength: Regular strength training is a must for all endurance athletes, especially if you’re thirty plus. It’ll build injury beating robustness and give other health and performance benefits including stimulating sex hormone production.
5) Seek professional advice: Whether it’s blood profiling, a physio assessment or coaching, spending some money on professional advice will almost certainly be a better investment than a fancy new piece of kit.
This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.