Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Cautionary Tale From A Running Schizophrenic

Consider this as my contribution to Take It and Run Thursdays

Most runners use the term “running injuries” as an all-inclusive phrase to refer to the variety of physical ailments that can result from the act of running. Conditions such as shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fascitis, chondromalacia patellae and the good old runners’ knee are so commonplace in our sport that almost all runners training for a long distance event have either personally sustained one of these injuries in the past or knew someone who did. I must be one of the lucky ones, because despite having trained for and completed three marathons, I have been fortunate not to have suffered any physical injury that threatened to keep me off the road for an extended period of time. But, lest you start getting jealous, I have been “injured” on multiple occasions in the past. And although the “injuries” I deal with are not ones that are popularly mentioned, I feel they can be debilitating to say the least, and if allowed to remain undiagnosed and untreated, will not only negatively affect a runner’s performance on race day but ultimately produce physical symptoms as well. The worst of these “injuries” happened last year, at the peak of my training for the NYC Marathon.

In actuality, the fact that I ran a suboptimal half-marathon in Fairfield at the beginning of last summer should have served as a warning sign that my head was not in the right place at the start of marathon training. Although I ran fast enough for a 1:31:16 finish and a distance PR that day, my race strategy was totally off. I ran too fast in the early miles, and had to take two short walking breaks towards the end in order to finish. Because I had spent the majority of spring participating in shorter race distances, it was completely understandable why my endurance and stamina were lacking in the latter half of my half-marathon. Yet, because I was banking on running a good race to propel me into a hard training program for NYCM where I was hoping to qualify for Boston for the very first time, I was more than a little disgusted with my inability to keep a strong pace throughout the whole race. As a result, I convinced myself to scrap my old marathon training program, which had me running 3 times a week with an average of 30-35 weekly miles, in favor of a new “advanced marathon” program, which had me running 5-6 days a week with an average of 45-50 weekly miles. At that time, I felt I needed to be more dedicated and run more miles more frequently in order not to falter at the late stages of the NYC marathon. So even though I’d never run more than 35 miles per week all year, I felt it was right to up my mileage to at least 50 miles per week. After all, if the elite runners all reportedly run 100+ weekly miles, I should be able to handle half that number if I was serious about qualifying for Boston and becoming a better runner.

The first two weeks went by without a hitch. I ran about 40-45 miles each week, and felt strong throughout each of my runs. I felt so strong in fact that I decided to spontaneously add more miles even on top of what my “advanced marathon” training program had suggested. If the schedule called for 4 easy miles, I’d run 5 at an aerobic pace. If it called for a 5 mile aerobic run, I’d do a 6 at tempo speed. I was usually exhausted by the end, but I was able to keep up with the speed and the miles at least in the beginning. By the third week of my new makeshift running schedule, the extra miles were starting to take a toll on me. I was slowing down, my legs were fatigued earlier on in the run, and I was struggling to keep the pace during interval training and tempo runs. But I didn’t really care. In my mind, I was getting stronger. By the fourth and fifth week, I had trouble keeping the pace both during the speed workouts and in my general runs. Although I tried to remind myself, “No pain, no gain…” secretly, I became more and more disappointed and more and more frustrated with my running. Even as I pressed on to run long and hard as per my schedule, I couldn’t figure out why my performance was suffering so badly. I became depressed and less interested in running with each passing day. Although I wouldn’t allow myself to actually miss a run, I dreaded the process and went through the motions as best I could. Eventually, running my miles became less about fun and more about completing a daily chore. During the peak of this extensive training, I even got physically sick twice in one month, which is unusual for me during the summer.

Luckily, it was around this time that I got back in touch with an old friend of mine who initially introduced me to the sport. Because he had just recently became a new father, he no longer had the time to run with me. Still, whenever we touched base, he always liked to hear about the status of my running. So when he heard about the extended miles, the fast pace, the lack of enthusiasm, and the repeated illnesses, he diagnosed me with a disease that was unfamiliar to me. Below is a recap of our conversation that day.

“Sounds like you have a case of the Running Schizophrenia.

“Running Shizophrenia?! What’s that?”

“It’s a form of the overtraining syndrome where you overtrain so much that you develop delusions and grandiose perceptions of your own abilities to handle the training.”

Did you just make that up? Seriously, overtraining? Me? But, I don’t even feel like I’m training all that hard. My ankles and feet are fine. I don’t have any pain in my knees or my shins. I’m not able to run all that fast anymore, but that hardly qualifies as an injury."

“Believe me. You’ve officially become a running schizo. Two choices, you can either start some psychotropics or STOP THE MADNESS! Go home! Drop the anger, drop the guilt, and allow yourself to recover fully before you come back out here!”

For the next several days after our little conversation, I didn’t run, which annoyed me to no end. Instead, I used the time to review my running log and highlight areas where I overextended myself on my training. The following weekend, I went out to Queens and ran my best half-marathon ever, finishing in 1:28:06 and PR’ing by more than 3 minutes. Miraculously, even though I hadn’t run for a whole week and had no expectations going into the race, I ended up running a fast time without even trying so hard and had a lot of fun doing it at the same time.

The point of my story is not that I was stubbornly training like a maniac (maybe that is the point!) and neglected to heed the warning signs of overtraining until a trusted friend knocked some sense into me, but rather that being injured psychologically is just as devastasting if not more so than sustaining a physical injury. So, my running friends, the next time you think of running injuries please don’t forget you old noggin’, because just as neuroscience researchers in Germany have recently found a way to show how endurance running can produce a “runner’s high” in the brain, the opposite can obviously occur as well.


Nitmos said...

This is an excellent post. I'm in the same boat as you (though rowing at a slightly slower pace). I'm a type A runner so no more than 3 days a week is good for me otherwise I go into burn-out.

And I totally agree that your psychological fitness is important. When I start feeling mentally drained, I notice the physical aches become more pronounced.

Good article. Thanks.

Non-Runner Nancy said...

Great post, Lam. That friend has to be a doc they way he described your disease. Delusions and grandiose perceptions...Hilarious.

You don't know how advanced you are that you can take advice from a friend and not get defensive. I'm glad you listened to him. :D

Betsy said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing your experience.

nwgdc said...

Great post. And impeccable timing, also. After my run last night, I was already re-thinking my goals for this weekend. I really "upped" the mileage this week and my legs just feel achy. That may change, with today being an off day, but you have completely reinforced something my mind was hinting at. Thanks a bunch!

Nibbles said...

Hear, hear!

Are you still sticking with the FIRST program?

Database Diva said...

I suffer from Runner's Schizophrenia too, but I usually don't figure it out until overtraining turns into one of the more common physical ailments.

Run For Life said...

I think this is certainly easy to overlook. Thanks for reminding us to keep training in check.

The Laminator said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. We all need to be reminded to keep running and training in perspective sometimes. Excitement over upcoming races are so hard to contain!

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