Executive summary: After a great year of running in 2021, running was awful in 2022. The problem wasn’t injury, but fatigue. After trying a lot of things, I approached the problem as if it was overtraining and switched my approach. Running became fun again, I was able to run workouts and build fitness, and my race buildup had a good outcome, with a finishing time (1:22 HM) more like gradual decline than sudden collapse. I had to modify how I think about fitness and fatigue.
This is going to be long and mostly interesting to old guys. If you want all the details, keep reading.
Baseline: I’m currently M52, normal BMI, running steadily for 9 years after a long break following high school (age 18 mile: 4:43). In 2021, I ran an adult PR in the 10K (sub-36:00) and ran sub-2:55 in the Boston marathon.
Then I fell off a cliff.
Over the next few months, I averaged 40 mpw, and most of it was bad. You have to win more workouts than you lose, but I was losing every workout - and long run, and easy run. I might have a couple good days in a row and think I was getting back to normal, but then I’d feel awful for the next several days.
“Awful” meant that my legs felt like bricks, my form and foot strike were clumsy, my pace was 30-60 seconds/mile slower, and my heart rate was stuck 10 bpm below normal at easy pace. Usually on a 6-mile run, I’ll start off at 8:40/mile, get on pace, and finish the last 3 miles at 7:50/mile. But now after 3 miles, my pace would start slowing again, from 8:00 down to 8:30, feeling worse every mile. When I had a bad fatigue episode, I didn’t want to run. I wanted to sit in front of a screen with a big bowl of warm carbohydrates. I would also sleep badly and gain weight instantly.
With races coming up I tried running some workouts in April and May, but after that I gave up on structured workouts.
From May to July, I ran 4 races. The first results weren’t bad, including a 5:21 track mile, but every result was worse. The pace on my 5Ks dropped from 5:43/mile to 5:59 to 6:06. I had to taper 3-4 days for each of them. And then running went back to feeling awful. Through July, I averaged 30 mpw. In August I averaged 10 mpw. Things were headed in the wrong direction fast.
Things I tried: I’m used to running through fatigue from HM and marathon training, so I tried to just run through it. This time, though, I just felt worse each time. I had a medical checkup, but the blood work came back normal. I tried fueling before and during every run, but it didn’t help.
I took nearly a month off running, with just 4 easy runs in 4 weeks. When I started running again, I still felt awful. Instead of running in a local race, I jog-walked along the course, and was exhausted after 6 miles.
Here’s what I think happened: Fatigue is both physiological and mental. I might have had some physical fitness, but my brain was telling me that I had too much fatigue. I had assumed that an easy run was 5-6 miles, but my brain had other plans. So I was overreaching every day and never adequately recovering. I could still access my remaining fitness by tapering for races, but I wasn’t building fitness, and so each race was worse than the last. I don’t know if overtraining was the actual cause, but treating my fatigue like overtraining was the approach that finally worked. Just resting wasn’t enough. Physiologically, a day off might be needed, but if you take 7 days off, at the end of that week, your brain still thinks that you have the same limit. Recovery means preparing your body to improve fitness, and that includes convincing your brain that your limit is higher than it thinks until you can access and put stress on your physical fitness. You have to peel back the layers of fatigue so you can push your fitness in a particular direction, otherwise your fitness stagnates and declines. You push back the fatigue by running easy, then running a bit farther and faster, gradually showing your brain that your limit is farther than it thinks, then getting warmed up and giving your fitness a good zap of stimulus. Then you repeat the cycle.
What I wanted: When things weren’t going well, I had to rethink my goals. Two years ago, I could compete for a podium spot even in some bigger local races. Now I wasn’t even a hobby jogger. I decided I wanted 3 things:
1. I wanted running to be fun again.
2. I wanted to run workouts to build fitness.
3. I wanted to be competitive in my age group.
Here’s how I got there.
What I did: I had to admit that I wasn’t trying to maintain my old fitness. I had to start over and rebuild, if not from nothing, than from whatever level of fitness my body would let me access without a fatigue reaction. I had to find where the floor was in order to build on it instead of continuing to dig myself into a hole. And what I found was that an easy run as far as my body was concerned was 3 slow miles with a couple walking breaks.
So I started with easy running, no farther than I could go on any particular day without fatigue. In week 1, that was 25 miles in 5 days. The overriding concern was not to set off a fatigue reaction. Once I was committed to easy running without pushing myself over the edge, things improved quickly. In week 2 I was back to 6 days/week, distance and pace determined by feel. In week 8 in late October, I ran 50 miles and saw my average return to 40 mpw.
I also did the same sequence of workouts that I had done early in my adult running career: one tempo run each week, adding a few minutes each time.
Comeback tempo progression: 5/4/3 minutes, 6/5/4 minutes, 2 x 1 mile + 800m, 3 x 1 mile (6:26), 2 x 10 minutes (6:35), 20 minutes straight (6:30/mile).
I had to throw out any concept of tempo pace. Tempo, as the man said, isn’t a pace, it’s a feeling. The pace was whatever came to me, not a time I was trying to hit. I didn’t measure the rest intervals, but I usually felt ready to go again after a few minutes.
I also had to throw out any concept of a workout schedule. I ran the next workout in the progression not when the calendar told me to, but when I was recovered. That meant first feeling good on at least one normal run before I attempted the next workout or long run, which might be 4-7 days later. If I got too frisky on a normal run and made it a medium effort (like doing 7:45/mile for 7-10 miles), I might discover that it was my workout for the week and I now needed to recover again.
What I didn’t do: I couldn’t focus on everything. With a HM race coming up, I had to focus on running and race-specific paces. So I slacked off on:
Lifting - I did squats once or twice a week over the winter, and got up to…95 pounds. Squats are great, but they knock me back for a couple days.
Core - I eventually did some maintenance work, but it was an afterthought.
Speed - Fast intervals impose a huge CNS cost on me and take me a long time to recover from. Tacking on a couple fast 200s after some HM pace work might double the
Mileage - I love running lots of miles, but I couldn’t let mileage compromise recovery. I would have liked to have peaked at 60+ mpw, but I only managed to hit 50.
Drills - I did drills and a few strides as warm-up before workouts. A week before my race, I discovered I needed ankle strengthening work so I could race in Vaporflies.
Diet - When my body wanted nutrients/fuel/protein, I gave it what it wanted. It’s a lot easier to maintain healthy weight if I’m not full of overtraining-based stress hormones. I might have been 1-2 pounds heavier on race day than a few years ago, but the winter weight gain has come off a lot easier this year than last year.
Supplements - I took a multivitamin sometimes if I felt tired.
There’s a time and place for focusing on all of these things, but this time around, I had to focus on the essentials.
The buildup: I signed up for a half marathon with 6 months to prepare. The problem: The first 4.5 months were during winter, and winter here is abominable. I mostly had to run on an indoor track that I can tolerate for about 6 miles at a time. If I got good weather I might be able to do a 9-13 mile long run. But I was only able to run consistently outside for about 6 weeks. My “peak” workout was whatever I could do with 12 days to go. My time goal was whatever I was in shape for.
I had two main workout sequences: long HM-paced intervals with indifferent rest, and continuous alterations of MP/10K pace. From December through May, my workouts looked like this:
Long intervals: 3x 1mi, 2x 2mi (6:34), 5x 1mi (6:24), 5x 1.5mi (6:33), 3x 2mi + 2x 1mi (6:31), 4x 2mi (6:23)
MP/10K continuous alternations: 4x 1400/200m, 5x 1400/200, 3x 1200/400, 4x 1200/400, 5x 1200/400, 7x 1000/400 (6:49/6:12), 8x 1000/400 (6:48/5:58)
My mileage wasn’t great for a HM buildup, about 40 mpw for the last 19 weeks. I had one long run of 13 miles and another of 15 miles (7:43), and I also hit 13 in my last 2 long interval workouts.
The physiology of fatigue ended up dictating an approach similar to “racing your way into shape.” Toward the end, the workouts were serious efforts. I needed an easy day or two before I attempted them, and I had to run easy and recover gradually afterward. An approach like Hansons training that depends on cumulative fatigue probably wouldn’t work for me.
The race: Based on the VDOT of my last alternations workout (50.7) and previous history, I thought that aiming for 1:23 (6:20/mile) would be a good start. It was a good prediction and I hit mile 9 feeling good. I sped up and finished around 1:22:20. Call it a 98% rather than 100% effort. I could have risked a faster pace from the start, but it was more important to have a successful race than to hit a time goal. I’ll save that for a fall race.
I ran the same HM race in 2018 (in high wind, wearing NB Zantes, but with a better overall buildup). Five years later, I had great weather and Vaporflies, and ran 1:45 slower (1:20 vs. 1:22). And that’s okay. I’m not trying to regain the lost youth of my late 40s at any cost. I’m trying to find out what I can do as a runner right now. And I think at 52, a 1:22 HM is just fine. Maybe I’ll take another swing at 1:20 this fall.