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Fatigue: Good or Bad?

In an effort to become better runners, we dedicate a great deal of time to training and racing at a level which continually stresses our bodies. Let's take a look at what causes fatigue, how to recognize it and most importantly, what to do about it.

In general, most endurance athletes believe they need to train hard and feel either tired or "wasted" from most workouts (i.e. more is better). Summer is almost over and a lot of athletes continue or are beginning to have feelings of fatigue characterized by a general decrease in performance.

We are so motivated at the beginning of the year; we forget that the season, can last up to 9 months. The long season, combined with stress, family, work and other obligations, can take its toll very quickly.

Getting Fatigued
Fatigue can come from a combination of many factors, making it very difficult to pinpoint at times. Beyond off training issues, the common ingredient is too much training intensity. By intensity, I mean a combination of volume (frequency, duration) of training along with actual effort level.

Also, the amount of recovery affects the overall "intensity" of training. This is why whenever you perform a training session; you need always to think about the recovery needed for the effort. Remember: “You can only train as much as you can recover”

At the peak form, where you're aiming for a training stimulus beyond your current fitness plateau, there are a few important facts to understand when diagnosing athletic fatigue:

System overload is a good thing. It's the means by which we make athletic improvements, in which limited physical stress allows us to improve our physiological performance. View system overload as doing some type of lactate tolerance or power workout on a given day, followed by different system stimulus the next day.

Endure over duress is also a good thing where we stress the body under fatigue. An example of endure over duress may be how you feel in successive days of intense training. It is usually characterized as having lower heart rates, while at the same time still being able to produce just as much power/speed as when you are fresh.

Overtraining, however, is not a good thing. We've gone far past the endure over duress phase and our performance has declined significantly. We can't get our heart rates to rise up to normal levels; we don't have the same power or motivation to train or race. Our bodies usually feel heavy and our skills are diminished.

An interesting and far too common occurrence that usually results in overtraining (and eventually fatigue) is when the athlete's performance starts to decrease; their first thought is that they are not fit enough. They then decide they need to train more or harder. The hole has already begun and by going back and training with more intensity and volume, the hole grows deeper and deeper.

If you begin to go through a period of persistent tiredness, back off and get some rest. Trying to identify what type of fatigue you have. I think it is very important to understand that there are many forms and causes of fatigue. The first step is to identify specific characteristics of fatigue:

  • Subjective factors include: appetite and weight loss (or gain), sleeplessness, irritability, lack of motivation and possible depression.
  • Nervous system factors -- Younger athletes can experience fatigue that affects the sympathetic nervous system, including: higher resting heart rates and blood pressure, sleeping disturbances and elevated basal metabolic rate. Older athletes can experience the symptoms that affect the parasympathetic nervous system. Some examples are: lower resting heart rate and decreased blood pressure as well as early fatigue in your workouts.
  • Other signs of fatigue include more illness (i.e. colds), aching leg muscles that are sore to the touch and lack of quality sleep.

How to get out of overtraining?
First and most importantly, you should seek help from a qualified coach and/or medical doctor. Describe the situation in detail and have a blood test done to check for a variety of markers that could be contributing to, or are a result of, fatigue. For example, iron deficiency anemia is a common problem that can be identified with a common blood test.

Consult a coach to talk with about performance issues and dealing with the daily stresses of life, while also trying to be a runner. Probably even more importantly, talk to your family and support network! Rest, rest and more rest and/or a reduction in training volume and intensity is a sure treatment, but not a final solution. You, your coach and doctor, have to determine the cause of the fatigue, how long to reduce training, and then make the necessary adjustments to prevent the problem in the future. A proper training plan should not lead you to an overtrain state as it will stress the systems accordinlgly.

How to prevent?
In closing, prevention is the best cure. The optimal solution is not to get to the point of being “over” fatigued. In terms of a training plan, remember that it is better to be over-rested than over-trained. If you begin to go through a period of persistent tiredness, back off and get some rest. A customized training plan and good communication with your coach can prevent a chronic problem before it begins. Having routine checkups from your physician which include blood work can also identify signs before they happen. Consulting with a good sports nutritionist can help give you a diet that meets your athletic needs, a vital component. Think of the long haul and what stresses you are putting onto your body.

Train Smart and stay healhty!

Enjoy your training!