Hydration

When to Push and When to Rest: an Exercise in Common Sense

When we exercise in any regard, we look to push our limits. We want to do better than before, to feel good about progress. I know after I run a route that’s new and maybe a little tougher than I’m used to, I feel it—maybe feel it a little too much. Soreness can be debilitating and injuries can flat out handicap you…and if you push your body when it has already had enough, it could cause an injury that is the beginning of the end. Yet, how do we make this distinction? How do we know how much soreness is too much soreness? Furthermore, is it possible that this soreness is just in our head, that we’re making something out of nothing and are missing days for ‘recovery’ when no recovery is even needed?

Well, it’s not all in our head, but it turns out that some of it may be. According to an insightful study conducted by Eric Hall and Nicole Razor at Elon University, there is a potentially heavy implication of “fear avoidance” that may or may not incite a vicious cycle that prevents runners from resuming normal activity, which translates to delayed healing. That delayed healing consequently means extended pain and inhibited performance. Basically, runners and other athletes may be worrying so much about their injury that they actually amplify its effects—insane, but understandable.

Hall and Razor essentially just gave a few questionnaires to various athletes that told them to indicate the degree to which they agree with sentences like “I will never be able to play as I did before my injury” & “I worry if I go back to play too soon, I will make my injury worse.” They also administered the Fear of Pain Questionnaire, the Pain Catastrophizing Scale and an anxiety questionnaire. For the record, these questions were given to injured athletes before intense exercise.

Perhaps predictably, the athletes’ answers seem to have played a role in how much pain they were feeling in the one to two days following their workout. Athletes who scored higher on these tests also reported more pain after exercising in addition to a greater fear of re-activating their injury. Just as well, athletes who cited experiencing levels of high anxiety also cited more pain and a greater fear of re-injury.

Now, we should keep in mind that, of course, this is not a cut-and-dry case, and this does not necessarily mean that soreness is all in our heads. The concept of the fear-avoidance model is subject to much debate, and as a result still needs to be substantially proven. The current results of Hall and Razor’s study merely provide a foundation for what will hopefully become a topic researched in great detail. In the meantime, its results/implications are intriguing.

For instance, if you stay off a sprained ankle too long because you are so afraid of hurting it again, you may actually be hurting it more in the long-run. Our injuries certainly need time to heal, but too much recuperation only results in a weaker, more vulnerable, more likely-to-be-hurt-again recovery that does nobody any good, least of all the athlete in question. Yet, if you get right back out there with an injury, you may only be making it worse, thus resulting in the same weakened recovery.

There is a balance to be struck and often this balance can only be found with experience. It takes time to realize what injuries are bad, which ones are minor, and which ones can be endured. I suppose the main takeaway here is this—listen to your body.

Pay attention to the degree of pain and to the extent of the injury’s seeming vulnerability. If it’s not that bad, act accordingly and deal with it. If the pain is excruciating, act responsibly and take some to time rest. More research will come; but in the meantime, practice common sense.

Never Neglect Rest

As the gravel crunches beneath my feet and sweat beads on my forehead, I pass by families, tourists, and fellow runners. Jogging down West Drive in Central Park may not be the most spacious of routes, but it may just be one of the most beautiful. The lake is adjacent to my right and it’s apparent that spring has arrived. Smiling, I swerve around slower runners and neglectful parents with toddlers when I realize I need a break and head over to a shaded area for a quick moment to catch my breath.

Arriving, I lie down on a piece of manicured lawn, breathe deeply, and look up at the leaves, taking note of the sunlight shining through the branches here and there. Closing my eyes, I feel my heart rate begin to slow, finally. My fifth day in a row running this week, I can feel my shins burning more than usual. My knees are aching and I’m not catching my breath as fast as I normally do.

Generally, I only run about 3-4 times a week so this extra day is taking a toll, a greater toll than I expected if I’m being perfectly honest. Acknowledging such to myself means one thing: I need to rest. Tomorrow, the only place I’ll be running to is my living room couch. It’s important to know when to rest. My last decade of running experience has taught me at least that much, but there are indicators other than simple fatigue that mean it’s time to take a break:

You’ve lost noticeable weight since your last run.

More specifically, by noticeable, I actually mean a 2% drop in weight. If it’s 2% or more, that can potentially mean a body fluid fluctuation, which likely means you just didn’t drink enough water either before, during, or after your last workout. As a result, your body is working overtime to counteract a lack of hydration and the extra work is taking a physical toll on your body, as can be seen by the 2% drop in body weight. If your body is already working overtime, then it cannot work to bolster your running performance, considering your body’s resources are already being spent trying to rehydrate you. It’s important to remember to rehydrate and rest so that your body’s resources can be spent on increasing performance.

Your resting heart rate is faster than usual.

To find out what “usual” is, you should take your pulse every morning when you wake up. As you can imagine, your resting rate is most exemplified when you’re sleeping. If you do this and then realize your resting heart rate is actually faster than what is normal, you should absolutely take a rest day. A sign of stress, an elevated heart rate essentially means that your nervous system has released hormones into your body in order to transport oxygen to your muscles and brain more quickly. So, if your heart is racing at rest, you’re best off taking a day to recuperate.

Your urine is a dark shade of yellow.

While not the most glamorous of indicators, if your urine is a dark shade of yellow, it may be because you are dehydrated, which means you should take a day off, drink a lot of water, and relax. However, certain vitamins, supplements, or specific foods (or the lack thereof) the night before can also induce a color change. Regardless, if you’re peeing dark yellow, you should take note and be wary.

Rest is integral to recovery. While pushing through the fatigue may seem like the most resilient thing to do, it is often not the smartest thing to do. Your body needs a chance to recover, even if your mental stamina doesn’t. With rest, your body will be better able to perform, to rebuild, and to exceed prior performance. With rest, you can continue to progress. Without it, your athletic performance could in fact regress.

Can You Run to Lose Weight While Also Training for a Race?

Just keep running. Just keep running. Just keep running (I’m starting to feel like the human version of Dory from Finding Nemo). My heart is racing while my lungs beg for air as I round out the end of this run. I turn the final corner, narrowly avoid a group of three tourists, and sprint out the remaining three blocks. I finally slow to a halt while sweat drips from my head onto the sidewalk. Hands on my knees and breathing heavily, I reflect on this last go. Usually, it’s not that difficult once I get into my groove, but this time was hard, really hard. Maybe it was something I ate? Actually, that could be it.

Last time I ran a marathon I was trying to lose weight and train at the same time and, well, it proved difficult. Although it seems like the two may go hand-in-hand, the fact is they outright contradict each other. While you’re supposed to cut calories when dieting, you’re supposed to be carb-loading when training (I realize carbs and calories are different things, for the record). So when you diet appropriately, your run suffers, which is obviously the exact opposite of what you want when you’re trying to increase your performance.

It essentially boils down to what Anne Mauney said, “If you diet while training, you won’t perform at your best because you won’t be able to adequately repair your muscles after workouts.” Yet, although it seems impossible, and certainly felt like it when I tried, it is apparently plausible to both lose weight and train for a race. Actually, it seems like a fairly obvious solution now that I’ve heard it. You just need to focus on weight loss before you start training. Take 4-8 weeks before beginning intense training and use that time to lose the weight. Then, by the time you start buckling down, you’ll be “be in good shape” to start preparing for the race! For those interested in not making the same mistake I did, here are a few tips:

Stuff Your Body With Protein

There’s are a number of studies extolling the benefits of using protein when dieting. Protein makes you feel full, curbs your appetite, and builds your muscles. Apparently, runners should try to eat about a gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight in order to optimize muscle-building efficiency. Many types of meat and plant-based foods like legumes are rich in protein, so you don’t need to look far to bulk up.

Eat Your Calories. Don’t Drink Them.

There’s no reason to make your life harder by slurping up soft drinks, sweet tea, and juice. Rather, substitute water. While I don’t think it is even necessary to preach the benefits of water, I will merely give you a quick recap. ZERO calories. While that should be more than enough reason to switch over, water also helps you stay full. So often when we’re running, we feel hungry and eat, when in fact, we should be drinking water because we’re dehydrated. For whatever reason, our body will sometimes indicate our thirst as hunger, but now that we know this is not the case, we can react properly, and drink water, not eat fatty food.

Nutrient Density

This fancy phrase really just means eat the food with more nutrients. Basically, nutrient density is just a way of saying you should eat foods that make you feel full. For instance, instead of frosted flakes, munch on a blueberry pancake. Other nutrient-rich foods include bright vegetables, leafy greens, lean meats, quinoa, and wild rice. If you eat these, you don’t even need to calorie count. You’ll be in the clear while the pounds just slip right off before your training regime.

It’s funny how running can completely change depending on your perspective. Usually, people run to lose weight, not run to meet goals. Yet, for a runner, losing weight is often the furthest thing from our minds. We’re focused on the run itself and improving not our appearance, but our performance. Regardless, aside from my former naïveté, I now know that if I’m going to lose weight, it better be before I train. Not during.

Mistakes, Mishaps, and Missteps

It’s as if I am not wearing shoes. My feet feel the concrete as I run up 85th street Transverse in Central Park. With every step, a slight jolt runs up my leg and anchors me in the moment. My lungs fill with fresh air whipping off the water as beads of sweat begin running down my face and dripping into my eyes. I wipe it away with my forearm and focus on my breathing…in, out, in, out, in, out. Then I notice that what was once a slight jolt is now not disappearing, not just fading with the next step. Soon that jolt becomes a fist in my calf, squeezing my muscle fibers into a tight ball and pinching my nerves as my leg cries out in pain. CRRRAAAMMP. I immediately stop and find an open bench. Pointing my toes upward with the help of the bench, I feel the tightness relent and my leg’s scream slowly subsides into a whisper.

I remember when I first began running and I would sprain my ankle, or my legs would cramp up, or my toenail would rip off, and I would think, “Well hey, at least now I know what not to do.” Wrong. Now I just know what not to do until the next time I do it. I’ve been running a while now and I have to say, I have given up on the idea that to be a master means to never make a mistake. Being a master merely means you make fewer mistakes.

Mistake number one: overhydration. I was nervous; it was relatively early on in my running career. I wanted to make sure I was prepared for my first long race, so I pounded bottle after bottle of water before I even arrived. I thought that if I could hydrate enough prior, then I wouldn’t need to stop at any water stands for a pick-me-up and I could make better time. Hah! I began the race with a bloated stomach and ended with a pinched urethra. Not only was I so much slower because I was so uncomfortable, but I had to stop at three separate port-a-potties to relieve myself while everyone else zipped on by me. This is one mistake I will, hopefully, not repeat.

Then there was the time that I didn’t ingest any salt before a race. I started out great, with world class 8-minute miles – , until I got about halfway through. My shirt was soaked, my legs weak, and my vision blurry. I kept going because I thought there was nothing wrong and I was just becoming unusually tired.and slow….a classic slow….30-minute miles! I realized something was wrong when my body started to feel like fire had replaced all the blood in my veins and my knees felt as if they were in the midst of surgery! I could barely walk much less run! It was only after I got to the finish line (long after everyone else had zipped by) that a friend took one look at me and said “Have you lost your mind. You obviously needed salt why didn’t you stop at any of the medical tents!?” Could I confess to not being in the know about such things…I let my silence suggest the race was intended to exhibit my great masculinity ☺

Yet another time I decided these new shoes would give me some extra support. Nope. Absolutely not. Two miles in my feet were crying in anguish and bleeding from the innumerable blisters plastering my skin. I kept on anyway. And kept on. And then I didn’t. Five miles into a 26-mile race, and there I was again, on a bench doing what? Watching everyone else zip on by me.

Experience is the best teacher because it’s the most memorable. It’s an alarm clock of memory, alerting us, if we’re lucky, when we’ve already made this same mistake. But then sometimes it just doesn’t ring, and condemns us to the same error all over again. I will say, though, that while by no means perfect, I do make fewer errors than I used to, and for that, I am certainly grateful.