Can Competitive Distance Running Be Part of a Healthy Lifestyle?

I’ve been a distance runner for 12 great years, transitioning from high school to college and now I’m training myself.  I started running about 20 miles per week and have gradually built up my endurance capacity to handle 90 miles during my peak training blocks.

Competitive Distance Running is Hard Work.

It’s tough work if you want to be fast.  As my old coach used to tell me, “You can’t burn the candle at both ends.”  You have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to fit that mileage into your already busy schedule.  Happy hour on Thursday nights with your friends?  Keep dreaming.  Competitive distance running takes absolute focus and you have to stay aligned with your goals.

The Effects of Competitive Distance Running

In the pursuit of fast race times, distance runners have to sacrifice other important elements of fitness.  Flexibility, explosiveness, upper body strength, and energy levels will suffer when you’re training at a high level.  While you may be able to work on these areas of fitness while putting in the high miles, you’ll never be as flexible or strong in the gym if you weren’t running so much.

The loss of overall fitness for the pursuit of specialization is because distance running fitness is one-dimensional.  Running involves movement in only one plane of motion.  There are no other types of movement (unless you’re a hurdler or steeplechaser, in which case you’re slightly more athletic) which make most runners not very athletic.

High-volume training is incredibly stressful – the mega mileage, the long tempo workouts, and the intense intervals consistently wear down your body.  Most health professionals would agree that competitive distance runners training at a high-level would be best served by lowering their mileage and intensity and incorporating different types of exercise into their program.

Years ago, my doctor told me that I should stop running so much and gain 5-10 pounds.  I pretended to consider it.  If I ran a third of the mileage I do now but did more strength training, a yoga session every week, and a game of pick-up basketball (for example), my overall health would be much better.

But I’d be slower.  My singular goal right now is to run faster than I ever have.  I’m not interested in comprehensive health.  I want one-dimensional, specialized fitness.  If you want to race fast, it’s a sacrifice you have to make.  To limit the unhealthy side-effects of competitive distance running, you have to be careful to avoid over-training. Even if you’re not trying to be competitive, you should be careful if you are reaching for new personal bests.

Know the Warning Signs of Over-Training

Balancing the stresses of this kind of training program is vital if you want to improve and reach your potential.  If you do burn the candle at both ends or take on more volume or intensity than you can handle, you could be over-training or risking an injury.

Over-training is when the body has worked so hard that it’s unable to recover, even after a normal period of resting time.  It often requires a week or more of little to no activity to allow the body to “get back to neutral” and properly rest.

If you think you’ve been pushing the envelope too far and are over-trained, the first thing to check is your workout and race times.  Have they significantly decreased?  Does your normal 5k pace now feel like a dead sprint?  If race and workout times are declining and your effort level seems to be increasing, you probably need some down time.

Another good indicator that you have taken on too much is your heart rate.  When I was in college, a friend of mine ran himself into the ground – 100 mile weeks (when he wasn’t ready for it) and racing every workout.  After about three weeks of this type of training, his heart rate would be nearly 170 during normal distance runs.  He needed rest.

Aside from these warning signs, overall feelings of fatigue, random injuries, and even not being able to sleep are common among those who are over-trained.  Be especially careful in the summer and know how to beat the heat when it’s hot outside.  Your body will be working harder when the heat and humidity are higher.

Prevention and Training Balance

Even if you never get over-trained, competitive distance running is not the most holistic way to get healthy.  If you decide to stick with an intense running plan to satisfy the competitor inside yourself, remember these five rules.  They will help you stay healthy, avoid fatigue and burn-out, and reach your goals.

  1. Sleep is crucial to recovery.  Get as much as you need and don’t skimp; your body needs to repair the damage you’re doing on a daily basis.  If you can, take naps.  Elite US marathoner Ryan Hall calls his naps “business meetings” because they are part of his job.
  2. Diet matters. The old saying, “if the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything” is not true!  Fuel your body properly to stay energized, promote recovery, and keep your weight where it should be. Remember, everything you eat should provide nutritional value.
  3. Don’t be afraid to rest. Recovery runs are meant to be slow.  If you feel flat or fatigued, run a few miles less.  Take a day off once in awhile.  Don’t fret.
  4. Plan extended periods of no running.  Several times a year, take 1-2 weeks off from running and enjoy other activities.  You can hike, bike, swim, or just take it easy.  Allow your body (and mind) to recover from the stress of high-end training.
  5. Do the little things. To keep yourself healthy, the small things count.  Dynamic warm-ups and core routines help you avoid injury.  Ice baths reduce inflammation from hard workouts.  Massage or a foam roller help work out the kinks in your tired muscles.

It’s often a balancing act to train diligently and remain healthy.  Over-training can sometimes happen without the normal warning signs if you’re not careful.  It’s up to you to take care of your body and put your health high on your priority list.

While it’s not the most vibrant form of a healthy lifestyle, a competitive distance running program is a rewarding form of training and will help bring you closer to your running goals.

How do you avoid over-training? Do you think the high volume, intense training program of competitive distance runners is healthy? If you like this article, please share it!

This article originally appeared on RunAddicts, a professional running blog, on July 27th. It has been slightly modified  for Strength Running.

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