Finding Comfort In The Unknown

Geoff Roes describes how he reacts when his body responds unpredictably to training.

By on September 9, 2015 | Comments

Training = stress + recovery. This simple equation has significance to nearly every runner. No matter what we are trying to get out of running we need to keep our levels of stress and recovery in balance to become stronger runners. The more we work (stress) our bodies, the more we need to rest to reap the benefits of this stress. Conversely if we don’t stress our bodies enough, in relation to the amount we rest, we simply move steadily towards being out of shape.

As runners we are constantly looking to achieve this balance. Nearly everything we do that we call ‘training is in some way related to finding and maintaining this balance. Over time we learn to be able to predict how much rest we will need to maximize our benefits of a given amount of stress. When we become deeply in tune with our bodies we get to a place of feeling like this all happens intuitively, but in reality we are working off of weeks, months, or years of past experience which helps us predict what our bodies need in the present and in the future.

It can be a great feeling when we have this equation totally dialed in. When we say that we are in really good shape, we essentially mean that we have our amounts of stress and recovery in ideal balance. There is no better feeling for a runner than knowing just how to optimize this equation. When things are clicking just right it can feel like we already know exactly how our bodies are going to respond to a certain amount of stress or a certain amount of rest.

What about the times though when we don’t have this all dialed in? Whether it’s a function of injury, illness, aging, or other life stressors; nearly every runner will have a time when they have little or no grasp of how to balance this equation. As much as we strive for having this balance figured out, I think it’s also very important to consider how to work through the times when we don’t have it figured out.

It’s been more than four years since I last felt like this equation was in balance for me. Before that I felt like I had it in balance for the better part of the previous five-plus years. At the time when this was all in balance I felt like I knew exactly how my body would respond to a given amount of stress, and also how it would respond to a given amount of recovery. Now though, this is all very different for me. Occasionally my body responds to stress or recovery in the manner that I expect it to, but much more often are the times when it seems to respond in an entirely alien way. This has been one of the hardest things to work through over these past few years. My overall health has continued to generally improve as I have worked through unknown and undiagnosed chronic ill health, but I have not really come any closer to being able to predict how my body will feel based on my behavior. Sometimes I feel the best when I am putting my body under a lot of stress, and other times I feel best when I am resting excessively.

All of this has led to a significantly changed relationship with running for me. More than ever before I am forced to take things one day at a time, or even one step at a time. I don’t plan my running in advance to any large degree, because I can’t necessarily nudge my body into feeling fresh by tapering and resting, and a can’t necessarily get my body into better shape by training more regularly. To a large extent, how I feel on a given day as a runner feels more or less random and unpredictable.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of difficulty and frustration that goes along with this lack of predictability, but there are certainly ways of dealing with it that help minimize the difficulty and frustration.

I think the most important thing is to be able to accept this if it does become your reality for any reason. Not to say that you should stop trying to get things back into balance, but sometimes we just don’t understand our bodies, and the most effective thing we can do is to accept this and not be too overly concerned about it. In most cases when we are able to let go of these concerns, we will start to feel things coming back into balance, and our bodies will once again respond to stress and recovery in the way that we would expect them to.

This acceptance can be a serious mental and psychological battle. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get frustrated when they don’t understand what their body is doing and why it is doing it, but over time it is certainly possible to minimize this frustration by simply focusing as much attention as possible on the times when our body does feel ‘right’ and as little attention as possible on the times when it feels ‘wrong.’

In many ways it can be liberating to give up some of this control over our bodies. Just as one can get in a rhythm, and in really good shape by knowing what to expect from our body, it’s also possible to get in a rhythm and balance through being more adept at responding to our bodies. It might be frustrating to feel like we have no control over our body, but with enough practice at this it becomes easier and easier to feel like our bodies have less and less control over us. When our bodies are surprising us nearly every day it becomes pretty easy to respond to these surprises in a comfortable and accepting way. In this sense we come to savor the times when things do feel ‘right’ much more than we ever did when we felt like we had everything figured out.

The larger point is that it is okay to not feel like we have everything figured out. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I would prefer it this way, or that I’m not trying every day to find this balance once again, but I do know that life as a runner without this balance can be, and still is a very intriguing, satisfying, and worthwhile thing. The spontaneity and unpredictability can be marvelous, and the lessons we learn on a daily basis seem to teach us more about who we are than what we ever learn when things are predictable and in balance.

Understanding how to achieve a balance of stress and recovery within my body has been a very elusive thing for me for quite some time now, but I have come to realize that this balance, no matter how much I strive for it, is not necessary to be a runner. Not only is it not necessary, but I think there are even times when our pursuit of this balance can get in the way of fully understanding other things. I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to see things from this perspective. This said, I certainly will have no complaints if/when my body decides it’s able to once again work towards a more predictable balance of stress and recovery.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Since it happens to all of us at one time or another, can you describe the last time your body didn’t respond to training and recovery in the way you expected it to?
  • When your body responds in unexpected ways to your running, have you found it a challenge to accept?
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Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.