[This article originally appeared in the
issue of Northwest Runner
Among the many post-race excuses I've heard or offered over the years, "I didn't train enough for this" is one of my favorites. I like this excuse because it implies a simple solution to one's running woes: just train more, and you'll perform better. Sometimes, however, a basic lack of training is not the problem. In this article, we'll review some other common culprits that could be holding you back: too much training, muscle damage, and dietary deficits.
The importance of recovery days during seasons of severe training was shown most clearly in a 272-day study of male race horses (Bruin et al., Journal of Applied Physiology 76: 1908-13, 1994) in which days of intense interval training were alternated with days of moderate "endurance running" (20 minutes at a heart rate of 140 beats per minute). The interval training was gradually made more and more difficult in an attempt to wear the horses out. Nevertheless, the horses did just fine until their "endurance running" workouts were changed to 20 minutes of running at a heart rate of 180. Within a few days of this adjustment, the horses became sluggish and irritable and could no longer consume their daily ration of food or complete the assigned training.
Muscle pain is a symptom of muscle damage (Armstrong, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 16: 529-38, 1984). This fact is intuitively obvious to most of us; if our legs are really sore, we don't expect to be able to run fast. However, it is also important to realize that our muscles may be (temporarily) damaged and our performance impaired even if we are not in pain.
Muscle damage may result from any intense exercise to which one's muscles are not accustomed. Especially common are injuries due to eccentric muscle contractions, i.e., contractions in which the muscle is lengthened as it tries to contract, as occurs in the quads during downhill running. Such contractions often lead to muscle soreness; however, the data of Clarkson et al. (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 24: 512-20, 1992) and Howell et al. (Journal of Physiology 464: 183-96, 1993) indicate that muscle function can remain below normal even after the soreness has dissipated. This situation may arise in the weeks following a marathon, since there is microscopic evidence of incomplete healing 3 to 4 weeks after the race (Warhol et al., American Journal of Pathology 118: 331-9, 1985), by which time most marathoners are no longer sore.
As discussed in previous columns, one's success in long workouts and races depends in part upon what one eats and drinks while exercising. However, the success of such endeavors also hinges on what is ingested in the days and hours beforehand. In particular, an insufficient daily intake of fluids and/or carbohydrates can make endurance exercise more difficult than it has to be.
The above list of performance-impairing factors is by no means exhaustive. I personally have used many additional excuses -- nervousness, recent illness, lack of sleep, inappropriate pacing strategies, bad weather, etc. -- and if poor races come my way in the future, I will continue to use them. However, since these other variables have not been well-researched and/or are outside my area of expertise, I have refrained from discussing them in this column. Finally, the cliche that "each person is different" certainly applies here. It is ultimately the responsibility of each athlete to identify the problems to which he/she is vulnerable and, through trial and error, to discover how they may best be avoided.