TRAINING: Face to face with fatigue

As part of a big writing project, I am working on at the moment, I have spend significant time researching and writing about our newest understanding of fatigue. Timothy Noakes, one of the world’s leading exercise physiologists and a maverick not afraid to rock the boat, put it succinctly – “fatigue is an emotion”.

Creature comforts

I don’t want to go into the details today but rather reflect on a more personal encounter with fatigue – because fatigue is what we must conquer as endurance athletes. Without the ability to function when tired, all our other efforts become diminished. Italian coach Renato Canova goes as far as considering it a key factor in Kenyan supremacy – most successful Kenyan runners come from tiring rural backgrounds, lives low in comfort and high in activity and chores*

As creatures of comfort, especially in the West, it’s no surprise that we prefer to talk about “genetics”, “hill work”, “lots of rest” “altitude” and other Kenyan secrets that we can try to adopt without removing compromising on our comfortable lives. “Go to a warm altitude camp”, is something we can be sold onto. “Make your life more uncomfortable on a daily basis and be tired more often,” just does not really have the same marketing potential.

* Canova’s quote from “Running with the Kenyans” has him answering why Kenyans with hard rural backgrounds succeed and “city dwellers” do not:  

‘It’s true,’ he says. ‘In the West, we have a good quality of life, no? But if you think about what “quality of life” means, it means less fatigue. Making things easier. Running, on the other hand, is about how much fatigue can you do.’

Britta’s Bay run

Aoife and I drove to Wicklow Town and parked the car about 11km from Britta’s Bay. This had been my best and most consistent training week for a while and yesterday’s 12km “Out and Back” one of the fastest extended runs I had done. My legs were tired and today would be a test of endurance. But what is endurance anyway?

Endurance is simply a manifestation of a combination of your technical, physical and psychological abilities. The stronger these three pillars have been trained for “going long”, the greater endurance you will manifest.

Knowing that Aoife is in better shape at the moment and has completed better training, I decided to start slow. Needing to call in for a “call of nature” early on, I found myself 400m down. I needed some motivation and decided I’d spend the rest of the run “reeling her in”. Suddenly the sub-8 minute miles where racking up, but I did notice that my effort seemed closer to threshold than long run pace. No matter. I know I can hold very high intensities for a very long time and by the 5 mile mark, we were running together again.

The hills began to take more of a toll as we turned at 11.6 km (the last car park into one of the beaches at Britta’s Bay) and Aoife had gone 200m clear again. Suddenly, I noticed that I was begin to slow down – inexorably. I did a quick system scan – posture was good, rhythm remained high, legs were still reasonably, springy, the 19 degree heat was bearable and my thinking was very clear. I noticed my heart rate then: it was high and the discomfort I felt came from “the central part of the body” – i.e. it was the main system that was tired, not my legs or muscles. Or, as Lydiard would put it, I was showing signs  of being “unfit”. More specifically, I was showing signs of not having done enough of this specific activity. You get what you train, having focused intensely on technique and psychology, part of my physiology, no longer fed on hours of tireless work, has now become “the bottle-neck”.

As we continued, Aoife began to drift away and at this time I began to go into “survival mode”. A runner drifted in front of me (In Vibram’s no less) and my inborn competitive instinct triggered a surge back to sub-8 minute miling pace as I passed him. 17km was completed and now I felt a wave of fatigue welling over me. “Fatigue is just an emotion,” I reflected. I found this insight quite powerful. It meant that although I was getting lots of signals to “just stop and lie down on that nice grass”, I kept executing the stride. Yet I experienced what most runners of my level would consider “a complete bonk” – dropping to first 5:54 minute kilometer pace and then to 6:14 by the time I passed the 23 km mark. I had come through the half-marathon in 1:51. When my endurance is at its best I tend to run through it in 1:40 during longer training run. Today I had to slow the pace on occasion because I was developing strange tingles and lack of sensation in my arms.

Fear of fatigue

Studies have been done to show that experienced runners brains don’t react to fatigue the same way as inexperienced runners. Without getting scientific, the experienced runners can control the anxiety that follows whereas beginners experience emotions that can best be described as “panic”.

This was an area that reached new heights last year for me and this year it’s still there. Feeling desperately tired and ready to fall by the roadside any minute, it was like there was a “machine part” – the robot brain – that kept executing the instructions it was given.

Rebalancing the pillars

By the time I stopped to greet waiting Aoife it had taken me 2 hours and 4 minutes to complete the 23.2km course. Granted it was hilly and not a bad performance for my first serious long run in almost 4 months. After-effects have been fine (we enjoyed a nice big lunch at a the Romani Stone!) and my take-away is not a sense of disappointment of frustration that I have run faster, and much easier. Rather I’m happy that my technical and psychological foundation for running are now stronger than ever. The physical component of my fitness can be quickly restored. The trick in our training system is to exit the QUALITY phase and go into QUANTITY without forgetting that psychology and technique must be kept maintained and top-tuned at all times even as you try to do more.

I don’t recommend running to this degree of exhaustion every single week in the long run (to give you a feel – I did stop to walk three steps at 22km before I gave myself a mental kick in the backside and got straight back into running) but rather do it every now and again. I have always said that endurance running is a war on fatigue – largely a mental one – and often the best training comes after one or two runs that take you into territory where you just want to lie on the ground after. But do this too regularly and you’ll just get run down.