Training needs to be hard. Sometimes. Although you shouldn’t subscribe to the “No Pain, No Gain” motto, there is a time to push yourself if you want to be a stronger, faster, and more fit athlete. If you’re stuck in a training rut and not improving, then maybe it’s time to change things up and push yourself a bit more. After all, if you’re not seeing progress in your training then you’re doing something wrong.
* This article is for those who want to take their fitness to the next level and not just talk about how many miles they ran over the weekend in their Hokas. It’s for those who want to be a better athlete and push themselves to be more fit. If that’s not you, this Sock Doc article may be a bit much for you. Of course now you’re going to read more either way.
Lack of Progress, Lack of Adaptation
It’s not uncommon for athletes to train, and train, and train some more and not achieve results they should be seeing. Sure you’re not going to see improvements daily or even weekly, but overall you should be improving. This is true at almost any age; of course there are obvious exceptions. I realize that at 70 years old you probably won’t see dramatic gains, especially the gains you saw in your 30s. But plenty of people think their lack of progress, or their downward turn in fitness, is due to their age – “I’m just getting older”.
Reading about age-related fitness physiology regarding a certain amount of muscle loss, VO2 max decline, or other fitness aspect leads many to believe that it’s normal and perfectly acceptable to get less fit as they age. Though I don’t disagree that these physiological process naturally occur in even healthy individuals, I also think that everyone is assuming one big thing – that you’re already in peak shape. Guess what? You’re probably not.
So how do you know if you’re in peak fitness? Well, you don’t. As athletes, we’re always striving to improve. We want to run faster, run longer, lift heavier, jump higher, and do more with less time. That’s human nature. And it’s a great attribute to have. Exercise is all about adaptation. Yet so many athletes out there have stopped adapting yet they keep doing what they’re doing, over and over and over again.
Lack of progress doesn’t necessarily mean you train more. This is the common mistake so many long distance athletes make. They aren’t seeing improvements running 40 miles a week, so they run 50. And when 50 doesn’t do it, they run 60. Then they get injured and scratch their heads and wonder what they did wrong.
Not only should you be improving as your miles increase, but your health should not be suffering. You shouldn’t be getting sick or injured or mentally drained from your training. Sure we all have our good days and bad, but overall they should very good. Although peak fitness and peak health are often inversely related, you don’t want to constantly destroy your health for the temporary gain of fitness.
Likewise, if your training is progressing effectively, you should be seeing positive changes in your health including body composition. You should be getting leaner. Yes, even if you aren’t exercising to lose weight (fat), you should be losing some bodyfat if you’re increasing your time exercising. Yet I’ve seen so many people train for a marathon or Ironman, increasing their mileage substantially, and they don’t lose one pound. I’ve even seen some people gain weight. If you are this slightly (or very) plump endurance athlete and you’re not getting somewhat leaner, then you’re doing something wrong.
If you think I’m saying that it’s not normal to run a lot of miles and still be overweight then yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s not right. I applaud you for being outside (hopefully) and moving rather than sitting at home watching TV all day, but that’s not my point this time. Logging in mile after mile and not seeing any positive changes is better than doing nothing but you’re not adapting. Your fitness and health are, at best, a constant. And as you age, which you are, you will be that person who suddenly gets slower and slower, fatter and fatter, and injured more often. Maybe this is already you.
Don’t Be So Impatient
Aerobic conditioning is still the foundation of your health and fitness, especially when it comes to anything endurance. My philosophy here hasn’t changed. You need to put in the time to build that stellar aerobic conditioning I talk about all over this site. If that’s new to you or you need a refresher then check out this info on aerobic conditioning.
Most people want to train harder (anaerobic) way too soon. They don’t realize that their aerobic system is not well-developed and they want to train harder and harder. No need to talk more about this since it’s been addressed many other places on SockDoc. Don’t become impatient to build your aerobic system – “your base”. It’s vital if you want to be fit and healthy. If you only want to be fit – go to some other site to learn how to do more in less time and then come back here when you’re injured.
Yet, eventually, if you’re doing everything right, then you have to train harder. You have to go above your comfort zone and put in some high intensity (interval) training (HIIT). You can’t do aerobic training forever if you want to be a better athlete. They question isn’t whether you’re ready to train harder (as most think they are), but how to know when you’re ready.
Signs & Symptoms You’ve Done Too Much Low Intensity
The obvious sign that you need to change your training and start to incorporate some anaerobic training is that you’re not getting any faster at your same intensity (HR and perceived exertion). This is explained more in the aerobic article too, mentioned previously. However, there are some other ways to know if you need to step it up and push your body a bit harder, and these signs and symptoms should correlate with the lack of fitness progress.
Often the endocrine system suffers when you train too much, even at a low aerobic intensity. Of all the endocrine organs, the thyroid gland seems to be impacted the most. Where are studies to prove this? I don’t think there are any; it’s been my personal and clinical observation for the past fifteen years. If you’re running your thyroid down you will start to have a deep “bone cold” chill in your body, often at night when you’re trying to sleep. You also might notice that you’re losing a bit (more) of hair while shampooing in the shower, and perhaps some of your fingernails are becoming a bit brittle. Also, and in-line with what I have previously addressed, you will not only not be losing some body fat but you just might be feeling (or looking) a bit more pudgy; call it less-lean if you like.
Here’s a case history of me, Sock Doc.
After six weeks of steady training, 95% of which was aerobic, my Maximum Aerobic Function Test time was no longer improving. I ran my 8.6 mile loop and was stuck at 62 minutes while maintaining my aerobic 152 HR. During this run, I felt really strong and I felt fast, but the time was telling a different story. Around the same time period I was noticing that I was really cold a couple of nights while sleeping. I had to pile on blankets and still felt a chill. One night while out running, even though it was cold out, (in the low 20s), I just couldn’t warm up. I also noticed that I wasn’t getting any leaner with my increased aerobic frequency. I knew I was doing too much aerobic and running my thyroid down a bit. This phenomenon rarely shows up in blood work, though I had my TSH, T4, and T3 serum levels checked just to see. They were all normal, as usual.
So what did I do – train more? Of course not; it was time to cut down the volume and increase the intensity. The nice thing about HIIT training is that you’re done much faster – often 30 minute workouts rather than hours out training. I like to push myself just to the point of nausea on some of the workouts. Hey, that’s me. You can do hill repeats, sets of track intervals, fartleks, or a variety of other workouts – take your pick. Here’s what I did the past three weeks.
M: 30 mins: Intervals 3X400m w/2 min recovery then 3X200m w/1 min recovery
T: No running; MovNat drills
W: 48 mins: Intervals 5X50 sec hill intervals
F: 35 mins: Intervals 10X45sec with 45sec rest
ST: 30 mins: Intervals 10X20 secs with 1min rest
*By the end of this week my “bone cold” feeling was gone and I was already getting faster
M: No running; MovNat drills
W: 40 mins: Intervals 3min-2min-1min (same rest period); 2 sets
R: 35 mins easy aerobic run
ST: 30 mins: Intervals 10X30 secs with 30sec rest
SN: 30 mins: Intervals 5X50 sec hill intervals
*By the end of this week I felt like I had new power in my legs
M: No running; MovNat drills
T: 25 mins: Intervals 6X20secs
W: sledding workout with kids (snow day!)
F: 25 mins: Intervals 6X20secs
ST: 20 mile mountain trail race
*This third week of high intensity was a bit less training than what I would have usually done due to the 20 mi trail race I was preparing for
Monitor Improvements and Know When to Back Off
I typically advise a block of anaerobic training to last no more than six weeks. For most though, that is even pushing it especially if you’re putting in three to four workouts a week. My body often says enough after four weeks. You have to monitor your progress (and there should be progress!) and how you feel overall. Your fitness should only be improving as you train HIIT. If it’s not, then don’t keep training hard; it’s not for you right now. Most likely if this is the case then there is some underlying health problem that needs to be addressed – typically some hormonal imbalance which you are making worse with your current training program.
As you go through a series of high intensity training you should not only become more fit, but you should feel better overall. Your sleep should improve (or at very least not get worse), you should have abundant energy, an active libido, and a sharp mind. If you notice that you feel more tired, groggy, achy, or if you crave sugar, salt, or caffeine, then most likely you’re stressing out your adrenal glands too much. Back off before you get injured or sick.
Of course, as you change your training for the better and adapt to a higher level of fitness (and health), you should be getting leaner. If you’re doing all this and not shedding some fat then it’s time to reassess your situation. Sure, as with everything there are exceptions but I’ve seen even the lean get a bit leaner. So go sprint from the produce aisle to the meat counter and stop pounding the pavement mile after mile because it’s not just about logging in time.