Although I spend a lot of my time coaching runners, I don’t often opine on training-related topics here in the morning shakeout, but Steve Magness’ excellent post on the dangers of doing too little is worth a discussion. Here’s the gist: Athletes and coaches are almost always concerned with overdoing it—running too fast, too hard, too much or too often—and risking poor performance, injury, illness, burnout or the like, but not so much with under-doing it—i.e., big tapers, complete rest days, etc.—because there’s no real danger in doing too little, right? Oh contraire.
While it’s certainly dangerous to overcook yourself in training, there is just as big a risk in backing off too much. Magness references research that showed a non-linear relationship between training loads and stress indicators.
“When the athletes had too low of a volume and intensity of work, their bodies reacted in a similar fashion to if they had done slightly too much work,” writes Magness.
In short: doing too little can be as risky/have a similar effect as doing too much.
I’ve also preached this “scale things back—but not too much” philosophy for a few years now in regard to tapering for a big race (see here and here). More often than not, I see runners taking oddball rest days, drastically dropping their volume or cutting out intensity altogether in an effort to “rest up” for the race only to put up a less-than-peak performance.
“We have this tendency to overreact and send the signal to our body that we are resting,” Magness writes. “When the reality is we need to send the signal that we are priming it to be ready. That means of course a drop in training volume/intensity/density, but perhaps not so much that it causes this increase in stress that we saw in the aforementioned study. Our bodies, in this case the immune system, overreact.”
The point here isn’t to argue specific training methodologies, but rather to reinforce Magness’ message that deviating too far from the norm—whatever that is for you—is often a recipe for things going awry.
I’ve often said that as coaches, we’re in the business of stress management. Stress is a necessary component to adaptation but we need to be careful how, when and in what doses we apply it. A major part of our job is to help the athletes we coach strike that balance between overdoing it and under-doing it—finding the “sweet spot” of stress, as Magness puts it—in an effort to keep them healthy and motivated, foster longterm improvement, and have them ready to perform to their potential on race day.
A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.
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