Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Life-Changing Magic of Bottoming Out

As you might imagine, after we got home from Big Sur on April 30th, I took a week completely off all physical activity (except going to work, which is to say, I went to work *at least* three days of five). Recently, though, I've gotten back to a basic level of activity. Very, very basic.

Some things I've been up to post-Boston/Big Sur:

Karate. I've been treating my class like my red headed step child these last few months & was starting to wonder if our students would even remember who I was. I still can't do any kicks properly but at least I can move around okay.

Actually buying groceries & cooking, something neither of us were even remotely up to for the first two weeks.

Massages. Knowing I was a bit of a mess even before the races, I'd had a woman who'd come recommended for her plantar fasciitis skills/knowledge work on my left calf and foot a few days before we left for Boston, & scheduled up a follow-up for Saturday May 5. As she put it that afternoon, "Holy moley, honey, you're a mess." So. Y'know. I guess that's where my expendable income is going for the foreseeable future. (Which is good, because things just really do not feel right. At all.)

Mobilizing. Again with the whole bit-of-a-mess body-wise thing even going into these races. I tried to do a good job with this while I was training, honest I did, but life was so crazy and stupid and I definitely did not do enough.

Stretching. I think it's probably true that runners don't need to constantly obsess about stretching too much, but I know that my body just tends to get pathologically tight when I'm running even remotely close to kind of a lot, and I'd been pretty terrible about it while training for Boston/Big Sur. So I've been trying to do a little every day while I'm not running in an effort to help things get back to normal (...whatever that means).

Extremely gentle strength training. Like, *extremely* gentle. Tuesday, May 8th was my first day, about 45 minutes at the gym involving 80 squats w/ a 30# kettle bell (ie, not even the empty bar), 80 push ups, 80 seated rows @ 40# (again not even the empty bar), & a smattering of clam shells, jack knives, & bridge marches. So just a wee baby workout really, and OMG I was sore for days. FOR DAYS.

(This might be its own post right here, but side note, just because you can run 2 marathons in 13 days means doesn't necessarily mean you're particularly "fit" or "in shape"; it just means you have a decent amount of cardiovascular endurance. I am very, very much NOT in good shape relative to what I like to think of as my baseline.)

Also: Sitting on the couch drinking wine & catching up on WestWorld & The Crown.

Also: Eating whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want.

Also: Nothing.

Something I have NOT been doing, at all, not even a little bit, is running.

Like, imagine waking up really, really hungover, & someone offers you a margarita; it's like that. Sometimes I'll see someone casually out running and for a moment, "Oh, hey, running! I like--oof, NOPE. Do not want. All the nope. 100% nope rocket."

On one hand, I guess, this probably shouldn't surprise anyone. I can't say I trained super hard for Boston/Big Sur in terms of mileage, but I definitely tried. Which means I expended a lot of mental and emotional effort, and still ran my body into the ground pretty good and suffered a lot, not to mention the three injuries.

Not surprisingly, as the weeks went on I started to get excited about the possibility of a break after Big Sur. And not like the usual four days off, then a couple weeks of short easy runs, then start ramping up for the next thing. Usually I'm very much in the camp of, "Ehh, don't make any big decisions till you see how you feel," but I saw this one coming weeks and weeks out. I knew without a doubt that once these two marathons were over, I didn't want to run again for a while.

A looooong while.

And, I'm fine with that. Which is surprising because I was definitely not always fine with the idea of taking long breaks from running.

If I think about it, this probably goes back to something a coach told me years and years ago when I first got into long-distance running. "You'll never even get a glimmer of how good you can be until you train hard for a solid two years, no injuries and no breaks." And somehow in my head that got twisted into, "NO BREAKS EVER OR YOU SUCK!"

Also the idea that burrowed into my head at some point that running the same number of miles in a year as the number of the year (ie, 2,018 miles in 2018) was the bare minimum acceptable baseline and if I couldn't even manage that then what even was the point. (I even had it all broken down in my head by week--to get to 2,0xx miles I needed to run about 38 miles a week on average, so of course every week became a judgement. 38 miles or more? Good week. Not great, necessarily, but C+. Less than 38 miles, unless it's a race or recovery week? Terrible, horrible, no-good very bad SHAMEFUL week.)

So, yeah; I could rationalize reasonable breaks, like a week or two after a hard marathon, or a few weeks or months of all-easy running.

But the idea of just not running, at all, for more than a week or two?

Horrifying. I swore I could feel all my hard-won mitochondria evaporating just thinking about it.

The blogosphere didn't help matters. So many big-name big-following bloggers made such a big to-do about bouncing from marathon to marathon, training plan to training plan, and we called it "INSPIRING!!1!" and "HARD CORE!!1!" and heaped them with praise and admiration for their dedication and commitment and no-days-off attitude.

You know what I say to that now?

Fuck that shit.

Fuck. IT.

And I'm not alone. You know who agrees with me?

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, co-authors of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success. The science is sound when it comes to the core message of the book, which is stress + rest = growth. As a lifelong runner I of course understood the concept of hard/easy and that rest days are when you *actually* get stronger, but this book was probably one of the first places where I first encountered the idea of hard/easy on a larger scale, like weeks and months.

    "Whether you want to grow your body or mind or get better at a specific skill, you need to push to the outer limits of your current ability, and then follow that hard work with appropriate recovery and reflection. Decades of research in exercise science show that this is how you get stronger and faster, and the latest cognitive science shows that this is also how you get smarter and more creative."

Greg McMillan. The well-known coach emphasizes that the benefits of a long break from running aren't only physical:

    "I see a bad habit forming in many runners: the lack of a recovery cycle after their big races or racing seasons. Today, far too many are simply finishing one race (often a marathon) and immediately starting to train for the next one....Science is discovering that the chemistry of the brain, the hormonal system and the immune system are compromised during hard training. Breaks rejuvenate these systems, allowing us to train better, more consistently and with more zeal across the next training plan.


    "I took nearly a month off after my last marathon. I gained a few pounds. I enjoyed some new hobbies and time with family. But most of all, I rediscovered the desire, motivation and passion that drive me as a runner, and I couldn't wait to challenge myself to do better. The next training cycle went even better than expected because I carried all the fitness from the previous cycle, plus my recharged motivation. I was able to run 2 minutes faster in the 15K than I had the year before. I'm convinced the recovery phase played a large role in this breakthrough."

Shalane Flanagan. Known as one of the hardest working, most bomb-proof women in US running, Shalane was crushed to miss the 2017 Boston Marathon because of a stress fracture in her back. But the injury ended up a blessing in disguise. As she told Mario Fraioli in a fantastic interview (seriously, go read it):

    "I had to, for sure, mourn the loss of a dream of running Boston again. It was what got me so excited to start training again after Rio, and it’s all I could think about throughout the whole fall and winter as I was preparing and getting back in shape....I realized quickly thereafter, getting over feeling sorry for myself, that I think, essentially, I needed that break. I hadn’t really allowed myself to ever really take any downtime or rest. I just am constantly throwing new projects and goals in front of myself, and I think I needed that break. Not until I allowed myself to just take a step back and rest, did I realize how tired I was. I think [taking a break] has rejuvenated me mentally and physically more than I ever would have thought, and it allowed me to appreciate the other amazing things in my life."

And then what does she come back and do the following November? Kick the crap out of the NYC Marathon, that's what.

Desi Fuckin' Linden. If you've followed her career or even just read a few of the post-Boston articles, you might have heard that a year or so ago the 2018 Boston Marathon Champ took five months completely off running due to general burnout & lack of motivation. "I hated everything about running," she famously said. So instead of jumping back into training after a disappointing 4th place finish at Boston 2017, she did literally anything else--kayaking, fishing, reading, playing with her puppy. The opportunity to do a fall marathon came up, but instead she said, "Nope, don't wanna." Instead of telling her she was wasting her career and her mitochondria were evaporating, her coach Kevin Hanson just told her, "Hey, let me know when you want to do this again." After five months of nothing training-wise, she was apparently ready, and. Well. We all know how that worked out.

RIGHT BEHIND YOU DESI!!!! ok maybe not right RIGHT behind...

So. Yeah. I kind of love that the timing of this last training cycle has given me the opportunity to read about these two amazing, hardcore women whom no one can *ever* accuse of being lazy or undisciplined or less than super-duper-ultra hard core & how taking a nice, long break from running ultimately resulted in both of them coming back stronger than ever.

I still fully intend to run Race to the End of Summer on September 9 (PROMO CODE AK2018 FOR $7 OFF ANY DISTANCE!) & RNR San Jose Half on October 7, but it very well may be mid-June before I lace up my running shoes again. I'm signed up for Bay to Breakers, but ugh, dudes, I just cannot get excited about even going to get the bib (which is a huge hassle in & of itself, BTW). I'd also planned to take another crack at the 5K at Pride Meet in June, but I really just don't want to do it unless I'm really feeling it, and currently I am just so, so far from feeling it.

When I do start running again & training for RTTEOS & RNRSJ, I want to be all in, and for that to happen I think I really just need some time to completely & totally bottom out.

Ever needed a nice, long break away from running? How long? What happened?


  1. A few years ago, I got to meet Meb! and Sarah Crouch. Both of them said that they take a complete 2 week break from everything after a big race. And even after that, they ease into running. I think you're doing exactly what you should be. I'm no expert but when I see all those "big name" bloggers running marathon after marathon, I wonder who they are doing it for? Themselves or notoriety? Listen to your body and I think you'll be just fine. Running will be there for you and you'll love it all over again.

  2. You're smart. You don't need me to tell you that, though. You're running now in a way that will allow yourself to be a lifer, doing this when you're 90+, just fucking footloose and fancy free and happy. Good on you! Glad you liked Peak Performance, too. :)

  3. I didn't do much running for the sabbatical year because of so many different reasons (not my number 1-5 priority that year, street dogs, bad online map data, getting lost, safety, no good surfaces, etc.). I didn't really lose too much fitness (in fact, in some ways, I think carrying a 10K pack and hiking all of the place made me stronger). One thing it did do, that I'm still enjoying is that it made me very grateful for *anytime* I am successful in getting a run completed.

  4. I've taken breaks, but I do find that the older I get, the harder comeback becomes! I do better if my break includes easy running at low mileage, or else I tend to get hurt coming back. I remember that I got burned out the summer after I had both hip surgeries. The entire past year had been surgeries, crutches, PT, and slow, slow recovery. And I just got frustrated with the whole thing and took almost a month off. I doubt it did anything, good or bad, physically, but mentally I needed to think about something else.

  5. Enjoy the time off and the karate and the cooking and the Reading (Gravity's) Rainbow and getting much, much closer to your massage therapist! :) I have probably run my last steps...minutes...whatever of this pregnancy so it's probably going to be another 5 months or so before I run again, and I'm fine with that. (The pool and I have all summer to build our relationship.)

  6. Hey, I think you're super fit to run both Boston and Big Sur. Fitness is different things to different people. Maybe they weren't your fastest races and you didn't get to train as much as you hoped, but you completed both and had a life experience that a lot of people won't get. That's the beauty of running- that even when a run or race isn't our best, it is still something we are fortunate to experience.

    You deserve a good recovery though! Take as much time off as you need, running will be there. Plus you can go to karate and still stay reasonably active and fit. It's hard when you can't run and you really want to (like me), but if you absolutely don't want to, and you've just done some hard training, your best option is to rest. After a few weeks, when you start to really want to run again, it will be there.

  7. I am a huge believer in bottoming out once/yr, minimum. You gotta want to come back.