Welcome to this month’s edition of “Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,” where we talk about maintaining our overall health and well-being as we train for trail running.
“Where the Road Ends” is the name of both this column and the book Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell of iRunFar published in 2016. The book Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running is a how-to guide for trail running. We worked with publisher Human Kinetics to develop a book so anyone can get started, stay safe, and feel inspired on the trail.
The book teaches you how to negotiate technical trails, read a map, build your own training plan, understand the basics of what to drink and eat when you run, and so much more.
This column aims to do the same by publishing sections from the book, as well as encouraging conversation in the comments section of each article. We want you to feel inspired and confident as you start trail running as well as connected to iRunFar’s community of off-road runners.
In this article, we excerpt from Chapter 9 and write about the importance of running and living healthy — in other words, finding balance between all of our life’s responsibilities and passions.
The Importance of Healthy Running and Living
No matter how easy it is to focus only on your running, and how tempting it can be to run as hard and as fast as you want, whenever you want, your body is only so resilient, and your running is but one small factor affecting your health.
Non-running stress — work, family, school, and more — can set back your running more than any workout or training block can move it forward. If left unmitigated, stress changes the body’s hormone production, which can leave you feeling physically and psychologically drained. Life stress can destroy your desire to work out, physically hamper your ability to run and, combined with the beneficial stress of running, leave you burned out.
You cannot eliminate all of life’s stress, but you can minimize and mitigate it as it happens before it negatively affects your well-being. Running is an incredible stress reduction tool, but only if it’s a healthy part of your life. Reading, yoga, meditation, cooking, writing in a journal, walking your dog, and taking a weekend camping trip can all be effective stress-reduction tools. Choose the tools that interest and work for you, practice them to counter everyday stress, and employ them when irregular stress happens.
To be a strong trail runner — and a good, contributing member of society — you need to take care of your health outside running. Adequate sleep is probably the most underutilized health tool in Western culture. Sleep experts say that people generally need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. You may find, however, that you need increased sleep when you are training hard for or recovering from a goal race.
To dive into the science of sleep and how it affects our running and overall health, check out our in-depth articles:
Overreaching and Overtraining Syndrome
Should you start feeling tired when you first set out for your runs, lack motivation to head out the door, need far more sleep than normal, or always wake up tired, you may not be fully recovering from your runs and other life stress. If these symptoms have just appeared, a few recovery or rest days, a few good nights of sleep, and a reduction in stress can turn you around.
But if those or similar symptoms — such as sleeplessness, increased irritability, or a set of non-chronic grumbles — last for more than a week (and you’ll often only notice them in hindsight), you may be heading toward overreaching in your training. Another sign of overreaching is that you’re training hard but encounter a period of several weeks to perhaps a month in which your fitness is not progressing, or appears to take a step back.
Overreaching is most common in trail runners who run a significant amount (generally, 10 or more hours per week) or who have significantly increased their running in a short time period. Overreaching affects runners whether or not they have an organized training plan. After they identify the problem, most runners recover from overreaching with a couple of weeks of rest or near-rest.
Overtraining syndrome is the big, bad brother of overreaching. You experience the same symptoms as you do in overreaching, but with great intensity and duration. Overtraining syndrome can be crippling and, sadly, can take months or a year or more to overcome.
But it’s heartening to know that overreaching and overtraining syndrome are preventable. You just need to monitor your body carefully and rest when your body gives you the appropriate signs. One of the most common paths to both problems is performing a major upswing in fitness and piling more and harder work onto your training plate. Avoid this temptation!
The same goes for the temptation to run numerous longer trail races at 100% effort in a short period. Another problematic situation occurs when a runner with a well-established and seemingly safe training routine encounters a ton of new life stress. The non-running and running stresses combine to overwhelm the body’s systems, leading to burnout. Athletes need to minimize, monitor, and mitigate stress.
To learn more about overreaching and overtraining syndrome, check out these articles:
- Beyond Fatigue: Understanding Overtraining Syndrome
- Overtraining Syndrome, Part 1: An Overview
- Overtraining Syndrome, Part 2: Treatment and Prevention
- Overtraining Syndrome, Part 3: The Trail Ultrarunning Specifics
Working Toward Balance
With this in mind, life balance is a worthy topic upon which to focus for a moment. Although difficult to define and often harder to attain, life balance can mean that no aspect of your life should negatively affect another. You probably know this already: Running isn’t everything.
We all have jobs, friends, families, non-running hobbies, vacations, and many other ways in which we spend our non-running time. Running should make you happy and healthy and provide an outlet to challenge yourself. Symbiosis between running and the rest of life keeps trail running a positive experience.
You can certainly have short periods during which you focus on your running more than other aspects of your life, just as you surely have short periods in which you focus on something else that is important. New mothers and fathers, for example, know that the first year of their child’s life requires extreme focus. During that time, other aspects of life are temporarily set aside. And students can attest to the fact that during finals, hobbies take a temporary backseat.
On the other hand, if you decide that a running goal is important, your preparations may require extra time and energy. To focus effectively on your trail running, make sure you provide the space for it in your life by spending less time with other hobbies or by cutting back on socializing with friends.
Life ebbs and flows, just like a winding trail. Some trail runners find deep enjoyment in the unregimented freedom of trail running for whatever distances and times they are inspired to do on a given day, whereas others enjoy the sense of accomplishment derived from creating a training schedule and completing it before a goal race. Whatever you do, enjoy the run!
Excerpted from Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, by Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell. Human Kinetics © 2016.
Call for Comments
- Have you ever experienced overreaching or overtraining?
- What do you do to keep yourself in balance?
- What are some healthy sleep habits you’ve developed?