Are You Racing Towards Burnout?

On April 2nd I raced Rainshadow Gorge 100km for the second year in a row. This race was the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, as I attempted to fit high volume training mileage into a schedule already jam-packed with work, school, and life responsibilities. It wasn’t easy, I didn’t always hit 100% of the runs that I was supposed to do, and I had a couple good ol’ fashioned meltdowns along the way (cured by foregoing workouts for chocolate, wine and Netflix). However, looking back at my training block now, I’m still pretty damn proud that I managed to fit in the training that I did, and I’m slowly getting better at being okay with adapting to Plan B when Plan A just isn’t happening.

One of the things I see a lot of among fellow ultrarunners is the propensity to go 100% balls-to-walls until we burnout, recover enough to do it again, and then repeat the whole darn cycle. It’s easy to do, even unintentionally, as we continuously set bigger and bigger race goals. It’s even more of a danger when we use races as springboards to longer races (Ie. Running several “C” goal “shorter” ultra races consecutively over a few months as we head towards the larger “A” goal of the 100k/100m/long-fucking race, with no recovery in between… after all, the shorter ones are just catered training runs, right?😉).

The danger in that strategy is that it presents the temptation to push too hard at each event, without giving our bodies the time they deserve to recover after that level of effort. Some runners are really good at using races as long training runs, and they can resist being drawn into pushing harder than they should be. I totally commend them for it, and I’m slightly jealous. Personally, I’m still working on it. I’m definitely better at running smarter and more conservative races than I was a couple of years ago, but if I’m totally honest with myself, I still end up pushing harder than I would if I was to run that distance on my own as a pure training run.

It’s something that we need to talk about more, because the trend of signing up for many races throughout the year as “training” or “fun” runs can actually contribute to overall burnout and fatigue. I’m 100% guilty of it too. Exhibit A: In my first 16 months of running ultras, I “raced” EIGHT 50km races and one 50 miler, not to mention multiple smaller races along the way. I got to the point where I was no longer enjoying myself, dreaded start lines, and didn’t have any desire to push hard at all – I was tired, mentally and physically burnt out, and I didn’t even know it.

Since then, my solution has been to sign up for less races. For example, this year I’ve got exactly three races on the calendar. Orcas Island 50k on February 6, which was a “C” race for me on the road to my “B” race of the year, the Gorge 100k on April 2. I still properly tapered and recovered from Orcas 50k, but I also ran it fairly conservatively knowing that it wasn’t a major goal race for me. My one and only “A” race this year will be Fat Dog 120miler on August 12 AND 13, but in between April 2 and August 12 I plan on doing nothing but fun, easy, long adventures, focusing on time-on feet. My coach Gary Robbins has been a huge help in this regard, and at the beginning of the year as we map out my schedule he insists that I rank my races by priority, and then adjust my expectations and training accordingly. It’s a much more balanced approach to running and racing, and its meant that when I actually do toe the line of an A-goal race, I feel refreshed and ready to push myself.

The other part to the overtraining piece is that we often don’t give enough care and intention to our tapering and recovery periods. It can be very frustrating to go from high volume training weeks to almost zero activity for the two or three weeks leading up to the race (hello, taper tantrums), and even more frustrating to give our bodies the recovery time they deserve following our actual race – especially if we have a good race that leaves us feeling powerful and epic and ready to conquer the world (anyone else get that or is it just me?). This feeling of invincibility is usually followed by feeling 90 years old, as every bone and muscle in my body hurts for a solid week or two, but by the time three weeks has passed after a big race I start to ask myself existential running questions like: “Am I even a runner? I can’t remember the last time I ran!”; “Could I even run around the block right now?”; and the worst one: “Why am I winded walking up one flight of stairs??”. It can be tempting to jump the gun on recovery to stop the constant and exhausting internal diatribe, even while knowing that this will only end up biting us in the rear further down the road.

For the past few weeks as I’ve been recovering from the Gorge 100k, and feeling surprisingly (and dangerously) good post-race, I’ve done my best to keep my runs to nothing over an hour or so in length, no more than a couple times a week at an easy, social pace. It’s a good excuse to catch up with friends and make outings more about the catch-up than the exercise. With the gorgeous weather we’ve been having its very difficult to stay away from the mountains, so my solution has been to call up a buddy, grab cameras and gear, and make a fun and SUPER mellow adventure out of the day… with much stopping for photo fun and ridiculous antics. I always find the buddy system is good for holding me accountable, so don’t be afraid to use it to your advantage and schedule social time as religiously as you normally do long runs.

Perfecting my post-holing with Adam Ciuk
Perfecting my post-holing with Adam Ciuk

The biggest key, for me, is to always remember why we do this crazy sport in the first place. Sure, it’s pretty satisfying to sign up for a crazy-long race and train our asses off for it, but I see races more as bookmarks and progress indicators along a much bigger journey of exploration and lifelong adventure. We are so incredibly lucky to have our health and fitness and the ability to access incredible parts of the world with our own two legs, and we can’t and shouldn’t take that for granted. So balance the work with play, and, most importantly – Have fun out there!

photo credit: Adam Ciuk
photo credit: Adam Ciuk
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2 thoughts on “Are You Racing Towards Burnout?”

  1. I needed to be reminded of the importance of figuring out the difference between an “A” race and a “B” race, and that all workouts need not be for the “A” race!

    1. Yeah, I need to remind myself all the time too! But I think it’s super important, especially as so many ultra runners find it hard to schedule downtime. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts Matt!

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