To train or not to train… that is the question?

For many runners, once they are bitten by the running bug, there are suddenly a whole host of complex reasons why they run, in some cases twice a day and in many cases every day of the week. The forces that drive people to miss out on social engagements, pretend that they really like salad and wholemeal pasta dishes, go for orange juice and soda water in the pub, are powerful indeed. And sometimes the drive to improve and to succeed can become too powerful. Sometimes we are driven to train when it is certainly not the best thing to be doing.

sick-runnerSo the question is, how do you know when you should most definitely not be training and when you can safely push on through?

Actually I don’t know that there are any hard and fast rules. For me, as with so many things in running, it comes down to experience and intuition.

Listen to your body?

Runners often advise each other (and probably themselves) to ‘listen to the body’ but I think that this is too simplistic. Sometimes the body is sending messages that should be heeded, whilst at other times it should be completely – and I would suggest – aggressively ignored.

But how do you know which is which?

There are times when all runners, indeed all athletes, feel pretty low. Fatigue, over-training, a slight cold, a niggle here or there. But in many cases, the problem is not significant enough to warrant stopping training altogether. But other times a cold can become a chest infection or a pain in the knee can develop into serious tendonitis that takes months to heal.

My experience is that the longer I have been a runner, the tougher I have got. Whereas when I first started running I would heed every cough and sniffle or twinge, now I tend to get myself out to do something, even if that is not the session that I had planned. So far, touch wood, I have not had a twinge turn into anything more serious and colds have abated without morphing into pneumonia.

What advice can I offer?

I know that intuition and experience is not very useful, so here are my top tips for working out if you should HTFU and get out there, or take a rest day or two and get better first:

Illnesses
  • If you check your heart rate and it is hammering, then your body is fighting some bad-dude germs and you should give it a chance to win. My resting heart rate (that is measured as I wake up before getting out of bed) is around 42-44 BPM. I measure it once every couple of weeks. If I wake up feeling rough and my heart rate is in the 50s I give it a break.
  • If your illness is affecting your respiratory system, i.e. you’re really coughing or your lungs are sore, don’t go for a run. Breathing hard in those circumstances is a bad idea.
  • If you have diarrhea or vomiting, especially if you are dehydrated as a result, take some rest and drink electrolytes to replenish the fluids and minerals lost.
  • If you have a tickly throat or a bunged-up nose, wrap up warm and get out there, even if you only go for 20 minutes easy, you’ll often find that the run clears the symptoms of the cold.
  • Hungover? No sympathy. Get out for a run and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Injuries – this can be a more difficult area and these are only my rules of thumb. I’m no medical expert!
  • If you have a sore spot that eases up once you’re running, it is probably tightness rather than an injury, so get your run done and remember to stretch well when you finish
  • In my opinion if you have an injury that persists or even gets worst when you’re running, stop running. If you can’t at least be pain free after 10-15 minutes running then your injury is chronic and needs to be dealt with
  • Upper limbs don’t count. I ran races – including the New York marathon – two weeks after an operation to pin a broken bone in my wrist. Provided you’re not off your head on pain-killers you will be fine. Just don’t fall over.
  • If you don’t know what your injury is, figure it out. There are some things that cannot and shouldn’t be run-through. Check out the Running Injury Oracle or a physio for diagnosis
  • Accupuncture works… fast! Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen work… but they don’t fix the problem so don’t abuse that route
  • Change your shoes if you have knee/ankle problems and see how you get on before you confine yourself to your bed for a week

Timing

There is something to be said about timing – if you are two or three weeks out from a key race and you pick up an injury or an illness, the most important thing of all is getting well as fast as possible. I promise you that any fitness you loose by not training in the last 14-21 days before a key race will pale into total insignificance in comparision to how you will feel and perform if you try to train through and allow whatever it is to get it’s teeth into you. Stop training, rest and rehabilitate in the most appropriate way so that you have a chance of getting to the start line in decent shape.

If you get ill or injured with a month or more to go, the trick is to assess whether you do need to rest and rehabilitate or whether you can afford to take your foot off the pedal and simply train through whatever ails you, whilst keeping some training going. This is not, however, the time to give yourself a week off because you’re tired or have a little cold. If you are in the 16 weeks-to-go zone, you really need to be training as much as possible.

Final advice

The main thing to focus on is getting well again. Remember that for most of us (and I’ll assume everyone reading this) running is a fun activity. Sure, it is wrapped up in self-worth and how we define ourselves. But you’re not a contestant in The Running Man. So be smart – if you’re just feeling a bit tired, ill and daunted by the prospect of training, do something else, but DO get out and do something.

If you are unlucky enough to end up with a proper illness or injury, deal with that first and then get back to training. You won’t loose anywhere near the amount of fitness you fear you might and if you’re clever, you’ll be back and ready to regain your former fitness and more in no time at all.

 

The thigh’s the limit

Before I get started, I apologise for the terribly cheesy title to this review: I love thinking up snappy and catchy titles for the articles I post on here and sometimes a groan-inducing one will pop into my head. Normally I try to replace it, but in this case, it stays… so sorry about that.

The review today is about quad-guards, specifically the Compressport ForQuad product that Tim at Compressport in the UK was kind enough to send me to review.

What are quad-guards?

Ordinarily I don’t wear quad-guards. I tend to find that compression socks and tights work best for me as a recovery aid after a tough session, a race or a long run. But this summer was the ‘Summer of Ultras’ in my household as my wife Julie and I took on two ultra marathons and all the training that goes with that.

I found that after long training runs – for example a 6 hour run from 10pm to 4am on New Year’s Eve – I would have two issues: sore feet and sore upper-legs, the hamstrings and quads (front of the thighs) in particular. I tried running in compression tights but they were too restrictive around the waist and too hot after a while. So Compressport came to the rescue with a pair of the ForQuad for me to try.

They are essentially a tube of material, the right size to go around the thigh, that is tight and elastic enough to offer support and compression.

Do they work?

These little unassuming tubes of fabric were a God-send! They fit perfectly, with enough compression to make you know that you are wearing them and they are holding everything firm, but not so much that they cut off the blood supply below the knees. They miraculously stay up and I mean they really stay up – after 4 or 5 hours of running and sweating and pouring water on myself, they were still perfectly in place. And during and after my runs, my legs felt great. There was decidedly less fatigue and little or no D.O.M.S, which I can only assume is due to the fact that they hold the muscles in place and reduce damage that way. The fact that they also cured my propensity to get some chafing between my thighs after 4 or 5 hours of running, was a massive bonus!

So there you have my review: I think the Compressport ForQuad guards are brilliant. They definitely reduce fatigue, they eliminate chafing and, possibly best of all, they make you look like an ultra-marathon runner! Worth every penny, just for that…

Sleeping beauty

There are three elements that make up the triangle that is essential for ensuring success in running – training, nutrition and rest. When I was first shown this short list I was more than a little surprised by the fact that rest is considered as important as training and nutrition, but it is considered by almost every coach to be absolutely crucial. Like many runners I know, when I started out I probably used to think that rest was merely ‘not training’, but I now know that in the same way that darkness is not simply an absence of light, rest is not merely an absence of training – it is something that must be thought about and factored in to a training programme.

In our daily lives, it is pretty obvious that we do most of our resting during sleep. However with busy work and social lives it sometimes feels as though we are on the go all the time and therefore it is a good idea to make sure that rest days are just that – a day where there is as little physical activity as possible.

But when it comes to really giving our bodies an opportunity to recover from the stresses of training, nothing beats sleep. So it is essential that we get the most benefit from the precious hours that we spend in bed.

There is plenty of literature about the mechanics of sleep. The website Running Research News has a very interesting article about sleep which is worth reading. You can read the full article here.

The section of the article that I was most interested in is this:

“We sleep in stages that last about 90 minutes. Stages one and two are light sleep stages and last around 3 hours. Then we move into stages 3 & 4   (Slow-wave, delta sleep)  Deep sleep with depressed vital signs and slow, low frequency, high amplitude brain activity (delta waves), leading to Rapid Eye Movement (REM).  During REM our eyes dart about rapidly and we have vivid dreams.  General protein synthesis, cell growth and division, and tissue repair and growth take place during all four stages of sleep, but mainly during slow-wave delta sleep.  The release of growth hormone for cell growth is at its circadian peak during delta sleep, and most scientists agree that delta sleep activity reflects the metabolic activity and energy expended by the athlete during the previous day (Shapiro et al. 1984).”

So given that we have established that sleep is crucial to improved performance, what steps should we take to ensure we get adequate sleep? Well one of the recommendations in the article is to buy a good quality mattress… which is exactly what I didn’t do. When I went to buy a new bed a few years ago on moving into a flat on my own, I went to a well-known Swedish flat-pack furniture retailer where I bought a very fine wooden base and a very cheap mattress which initially was fine. However after a couple of years the mattress resembled a squidgy saucer and my wife and I would struggle to get a good night’s sleep, often managing only a couple of hours before we were woken by having rolled to the middle.

After a trip to the Andes trekking, we returned to stay at a friend’s house who has a memory foam mattress and the incredible sleep we had there whilst house-sitting for her convinced us that something had to be done.

The answer was found in an advert in Athletics Weekly – the Mammoth Sport mattress as endorsed by Liz Yelling. At the same time it turned out that a good friend of mine, and one of the people who has inspired me to train and race hard when I first joined the Mornington Chasers, had also recently bought one of the mattresses and he highly recommended it. So I ordered one hpoing that it would make a difference to my training by improving my rest.

When the mattress arrived it was vacuum packed in a roll – increadibly dense and heavy, I was amazed that it could fit into such a small box. However on opening the plastic packaging the mattress expanded and unraveled to its full size and within a few minutes it was lifted into place on the bed and we were ready to go (ahem, in a manner of speaking!)

At this point I am going to mention the only downside of the Mammoth Sport mattress – the smell that comes off initially. On opening the plastic covering the smell of foam and plastic was very, very strong and as we live in a small flat where we had to get rid of the old mattress before opening the new one, we had no choice but to air the mattress on the bed frame for as long as possible but then sleep on it that night. For a couple of nights I must say that the smell was pretty strong, although within a week there was no smell at all.

However as far as negatives go, that is it! The mattress is wonderful to sleep on; supportive, firm and perfect for someone like me who sleeps on their side. The temperature is great and I even like the look of it (although that really is a very minor consideration). I sleep much, much more consistently and many of the aches and pains that I used to suffer from with the old bed have gone now.

All in all I would say that this mattress has been one of the best investments I have ever made. I am definitely sleeping better than ever and I am absolutely sure that my wife and I will never go back to a ‘normal’ mattress. So if you can, try one out and see if a new mattress could be the very thing to help you rest more effectively and balance that all important training triangle.