Body Bust: When Good Training Gets Out of Hand

(I wrote this seven years ago.)

A runner can’t hope to compete at his best unless he’s training high mileage. At age 62, I figure “high mileage” might translate as 60-70 miles on alternate weeks, with easy recovery weeks in between, say, 25 or 30 miles. If I ran any more, I’d risk overtraining.

I’ve never been able to run that much. I’ve had rare, 70- and 90-mile weeks, but those included long races. Normally, whenever I tried to increase my mileage, my body simply gave out.

Yet I’ve always wanted to have the experience of being able to race long distances, and not merely endure them.

I don’t feel that racing could ever be satisfying unless I gave it my best. I ran ultras for seven years and justified my participation by making each race a spiritual adventure; but I certainly wasn’t running competitive times.

Several months ago, I prayed to understand what was holding me back. Then I stumbled across Slow Burn, by Stu Mittleman, a famous ultramarathon runner. Mittleman tells how his coach, Philip Maffetone, told him to avoid the standard high-carbohydrate diet that most runners eat, in favor of a low-carb diet with plenty of fruit, salads, protein, and “healthy” fats, especially olive oil.

At the time, Mittleman was training for a major six-day race in France. In his previous race, he had flamed out badly, placing a disappointing fifth. After going on the low-carb, olive-oil diet, he raced well, placing second in the highly competitive French race, while feeling that he could run forever. (Mittleman does use some high-carb drinks and foods during training runs and races.)

After reading the book, I reduced my carbohydrate intake and began taking a tablespoon of olive oil every day, and experienced a remarkable improvement in my recovery. For the first time in 20 years, I was able to run back-to-back days, and within two weeks my mileage had jumped from 25-30 to successive weeks of 55, 25, and 62.

I was stoked. At last, I thought, I’ll know what it’s like to train big miles and race at my best. Given my age, I felt that perhaps a monthly pattern of hard/easy weeks might be possible – say, 70, 25, 60, 30.

Runners are great rationalizers. I had no trouble convincing myself that such a rapid increase in mileage was fine – I felt great, and if my body could handle it, then why not go for it? But, while I was busy exulting, my body was going its own way. I ran 10 miles while feeling sluggish and semi-ill and got the sniffles, which became sinusitis. The next day, I was flat on my back.

My over-eagerness will likely cost me three weeks of training. Equally awful is what it’s done to my heart and mind. I’m feeling contractive, as if my whole being is shrinking from fresh challenges. It doesn’t want to run, as it did when I discovered the endurance properties of the new diet. My body is sullen, uncooperative, unenthused.

Opening my heart and offering kindness to others takes zip and energy. And I simply have little to give. My heart doesn’t want to exult and expand; it wants to crawl in a hole and hide. During my run today, I tried forcing my mind to focus and willing my heart to open, and I failed. At no point was there any genuinely expansive love – only, at the very end, a feeling that God was patting me on the head and saying “Keep going. Keep learning.”

The lesson is obvious. I can never, ever expect to expand and improve, if I insist on cutting corners, violating the physical, emotional, and spiritual laws of harmony and balance.

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