How do you know when you’re pushing your body to its maximum potential? For me, it requires “finding your lines” in training and striking a healthy balance. As an athlete, you can stay in your comfort zone and never risk setbacks, but if you want to see how good you can be and make great gains, you have to be willing to push the envelope and see how much your body can handle. The key is to avoid crossing the line into fatigue and injury.
Think about it this way: A weightlifter has to keep adding plates to the bar; if the weight isn’t increased, their body adapts and stops getting stronger. Similarly, as runners we have to keep putting our bodies under the appropriate amount of stress so that we can keep benefitting from the workout.
This winter, I set off to find my line as I prepared for a race. Week after week I ran 120+ miles with a healthy dose of intensity. The courses I ran were also much more difficult than previous build ups as I sought to mimic the hilly terrain I’d find in the race. In the process, I reached my body’s limit and learned some important lessons about finding one’s lines.
1. Pay Attention to How You’re “Absorbing” the Training
It’s important to note how you feel on recovery days. I can always get up and grind through a tough workout, but if it leaves me feeling like I’m constantly trudging the next day, it’s a good sign that my body is not absorbing the hard work well. However, if I feel a manageable level of fatigue, I know I’ve put my body through an appropriate amount of stress.
Find yourself needing more and more caffeine to get through the day? That’s another sign that your central nervous system is overtaxed. In that case, you’re forcing your training beyond what your body can handle and it’s time to pull back.
2. Watch For Signs of Sickness
Take aches, pains, and illnesses as a sign to dial things back a bit. When your body is at its threshold, your immune system is lower and your ability to recover is diminished. It may seem like something hurts every day. If you feel like you’re “breaking down” more often, it’s time to decrease your training load and give yourself an easy week. Think of it as giving your body a chance to absorb (as opposed to resist) the stress of training.
3. Monitor Your Sleep and Heart Rate
When your body is overtrained, your deep sleep and REM sleep may decrease and your resting heart rate may increase. I track my resting heart rate every day by wearing my Fitbit Ionic at night. As soon as I wake up, I reach for my phone and refresh my app to see my sleep quality and resting heart rate. If you see a jump in your resting heart rate for a few days in a row, it’s time to give yourself a recovery period.
4. Adjust Your Training Accordingly
There are times in my training when I’m doing great—my body’s absorbing the miles well and things are going smoothly. Other times my commitments become chaotic and my schedule gets thrown off. This winter I was absorbing my training really well until I had a week with a lot of travel and not enough sleep. That, combined with the added stress of increased altitude, left me drained.
My misstep: Instead of adjusting my training accordingly, I increased it. One night I sat in a twisted position to face the speaker at an event and, when I got up, realized I had aggravated my sacroiliac joint near my lower back. This injury likely wouldn’t have happened without the stress of the week leading up to it, but when you’re walking that fine line, one little thing can push you over the edge. Don’t be afraid to take some risk in your training and find your own lines. As T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.