Tuesday, 16 June 2009

From Rut to Back to Groove: Counter-intuitive Antidotes to Stagnation

The acutely injury-prone among us might consider it a luxury to have to deal with the "problem" of over-coming stagnation in our training. After all, to stagnate, one has first to train and race uninterruptedly for long enough to temporarily lose one's passion for the training process. However, the feeling of futility and general lack of enthusiasm for the training process is a real and often recurrent problem for runners of all levels of ability and experience, even those whose love of the sport is deep and abiding.

At the very highest levels of the sport, where training and racing is an all-consuming profession, replete with exhausting travel and withering competitive pressure, a loss of the drive to train and race is a natural and somewhat inevitable thing. Before top runners ever reach the point where they feel it's time to scale back for good, however, chances are they will have had to overcome the problem of stagnation many times. In fact, the ability to cope with this problem in an ongoing way is one of the things that separates successful runners-- whether elites or recreational runners known for their ability to stay at or near personal best level for long periods-- from less successful runners, including those who abandon the sport by choice before they ever approach their full potential.

To cope with stagnation in training we need to first to understand that it is a syndrome with dual and mutually reinforcing physical and psychological components. It's not really necessary to know the order of causality here; it is enough to know that stagnation is experienced as a failure of the body to respond to training stimulae accompanied by a loss of enthusiasm for the training process. In cases where there is no obvious physical or medical reason for poor performance, stagnation in training is a vicious circle in which the body fails to overcompensate for the training stress and the athlete loses her will to subject herself to further racing or training, leading in turn to compromised workouts and an eventual degradation of accumulated physiological adaptations. Often, if an athlete persists in this state (or, more often, is required to persist in this state, due to team or other commitments) then actual physical injury will intervene.

Once we understand that our difficulties in training are at once physical and emotional/psychological, it becomes easier to overcome the problem of stagnation. If we assume that the problem is entirely physical, then our approach may be to stop or drastically reduce all training. Such an approach will often only exacerbate the psychological/emotional aspect of the problem, however, as it will, over time, lead to reduced fitness-- a depressing prospect for the otherwise highly motivated athlete. On the other hand, to treat the problem as entirely psychological/emotional risks not only pushing the athlete to the point of injury; it risks destroying his/her sense of athletic self-- a loss that could permanently undermine the athlete's self-belief, and thereby ability to face the rigours of training and competition in the future. In my many years of involvement in the sport, I have seen younger athletes, in particular, give up completely as result of both these misdiagnoses-- either because they were pushed beyond stagnation to the point of injury, or because their repeated stagnation-induced "training breaks" prevented them from gaining fitness year-to-year; or, because they became convinced, sometimes by coaches or parents, that their stagnation was a result of their own failure of will (that they "just didn't have it" mentally to stick with training and racing). And I've seen older athletes give up a sport they used to love for similar reasons.

Understanding the dual physical/psychological nature of the stagnation problem leads, I would argue, to some counter-intuitive solutions. As long-term successful athletes will often tell you, when it comes to stagnation, a change is often not only as good as a rest, but better, even if the change involves running-- or at least training-- more rather than less. My first lesson in over-coming training and racing stagnation came at the very end of my high school track career. After spending 10 months training more intensely than I ever had (or, amazingly, have since) without enjoying the results I felt I had earned, I rather abruptly lost my enthusiasm for the training process. And once I had lost the drive to train, my physical energy level correspondingly plunged until I became not not only unwilling but completely unable to complete my workouts as before. Physically tired and emotionally dispirited, I abandoned my final high school racing season without any real plan for my future in the sport. The day following my decision to stop racing, however, I was confronted with the problem of what to do next in the very simple form of the question: will I or won't I go for a run today? Having grown accustomed to training very long and hard,and with a strong sense that at some point my enthusiasm for hard training would return, I was simply unwilling to let go of all of my hard-won gains; yet, I knew I did not have the drive to proceed as before, particularly as I now had no immediate racing plans of any kind. I did ultimately choose to run that day, but, as it happened, entirely without a plan as to how far or how fast. This became my plan, or perhaps anti-plan, for the rest of that summer. Suddenly free from the pressure of double runs and 2-3 hard track session per week, my enthusiasm for the act of heading out the door to run returned, and within less than a month I was back to running twice a day, two or three times per week. Entirely spontaneously, I actually began to run nearly as much as I had before, and often just as hard, although entirely without structure or plan. By the end of that summer, I even found myself entering races, although road races and longer events-- not the kind I had been training for that spring. By the start of my university career that September, I was not only full of enthusiasm to train, I was in the best shape of my life-- now reaping, as I was, the fruits of both my early intense training and my supposed "break" from training. What I learned from this early experience is that it is not so much the intensity and volume of training that leads to stagnation; it is the lack of variety and the feeling of not being able to tackle the same kinds of training and racing stresses over and over again without relief. Beneath this malaise, I still retained a great appetite for the training process-- very soon after "quitting" I was, after all, running almost as much as I had before. And whatever physical manifestations of staleness and stagnation I had been experiencing feeling seemed to disappear almost as soon as I had varied the training stimulus and adjusted my outlook on the future.

Since that first experience with stagnation, and my spontaneous discovery of how to overcome it, I have been very conscious of the need to introduce a variety of training stimulae both within and between training cycles. And, I have been surprised at how little variety is sufficient to ward-off stagnation. The discovery that stagnation can be overcome by actually training harder, but differently, has been one of the main secrets to my longevity as a competitive athlete. True, as a master-age athlete, I now get many more injury-imposed training breaks that force variety into my program; but, as an athlete with still relatively few serious injuries, I still need to rely on mixing up my training stresses in order to keep things fresh. (Here in Canada, we get some help from the changing seasons too, as much as we dread our winter training!)

Here, then, are some of my simple but counter-intuitive tips for overcoming stagnation in your training-- counter-intuitive because they may involve training as much or more/harder than before:

1. Run slower and longer if you have been doing a lot of hard, highly regimented interval sessions, tempo runs and races.

2. Run shorter, faster, and with longer recoveries if you have been doing a lot of longer, slower running. (Doing 30-40 second hill repeats works well here.)

3. Run twice per day if you have been doing one single, longer session per day, or twice a day if you have been running singles.

4. Put away your watch or GPS for a while and run entirely as you feel in terms of both distance and effort.

5. Switch from intervals to fartlek, or hill fartlek (long, steady climbs with faster recovery descents), and from tempo runs to simple, unmeasured, out-slow and back-fast training runs.

6. Substitute a new training modality, such as water running or the elliptical machine for some of your runs. (This works even if you end up working more intensely on the new modality than you were working on your runs).

7. Change your training surface and/or your typical routes.

8. Run alone if you have been running with a partner, or vice-versa.

9. Cut back on your racing (once a month is best for masters athletes and 1-2 times per month for younger runners).

10. Plan to run a race or racing distance you have never tried before, or haven't done in a while (even a marathon, provided there aren't obvious physical reasons why you shouldn't).

In the end, if we love the sport enough to have been doing it for a few years or more, our enthusiasm will eventually come back. The trick is to make sure our bodies are ready and able to meet the challenge when our interest returns. Athletes who respond to every bout of stagnation by taking long periods of time off (i.e. a week or more) eventually confront and new and far more intractable problem in the form of a body that is weaker, sometimes heavier, and missing some of they gross adaptations required to run safely and somewhat comfortably-- e.g., strong feet and calves, which are the first things to go in our typically sedentary, shoe-wearing everyday lives. The same fate-- injury-- awaits the athlete who attempts to "tough out" a protracted training malaise. I would venture that much of the decline in performance we associate with aging has much more to do with the prolonged training breaks that over-30 runners tend to take, either due to injury or stagnation, than with age per se. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the most successful runners, whether open elite or masters, are those who have discovered the secret of maintaining their fitness through the use of simple training adaptations that enable them to retain fitness while working through the inevitable bouts of stagnation that punctuate their-- and all-- athletic lives.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another great read Steve, stagnation basically sums up my last four years, any chance for a future blog discussing diet/nutrition and a runners optimum weight

Ken Gosleigh

23 June 2009 at 20:36  
Blogger Steve said...

Thanks, Ken. And good suggestion for a future entry. I'm not a nutrition person myself, but I'm learning a lot as a go along. Perhaps I'll arrange a guest blog on this topic at some point.


24 June 2009 at 11:19  

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