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Dedication vs. compulsion in distance running: What’s the difference?


There’s something I need to talk about:

Taking any kind of extended break from running and exercise makes me feel uneasy, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about whether this means something is wrong with me. (Hopefully it’s not a bad sign that I even have to ask myself this question.)

Here’s the thing: I’m at a phase in my life right now where I genuinely — truly — love to run a lot of miles. It’s not a chore, and it’s not a “have to.” I love to get up early and get out there. I relish the satisfaction that comes from knocking out a workout in horrible weather. I love walking down to the bus stop from my apartment on the way to work in the morning, knowing that my feet already wrote a story on those streets. I love racing, I hate the idea of getting out of shape and not being able to perform, and I don’t have confidence in rest.

You know what does give me confidence at the starting line of a race? All the miles I put in. All the workouts I logged. All the paces I hit. Everything that isn’t rest.

Smartypants scientists and well-meaning peers tell me rest is a good thing, so when I do manage to take an extended break I feel proud and normal. I look back on those blank days in my training log and say, “See, look! EXPERT RESTER. I’m obviously not neurotic about this! I’m chill. I take days off. Even weeks off now and then. Completely relaxed and zen about my running hobby. Yeah.”

But inside, I know the truth. I’m not some watchless, zen yoga-runner. I’m not just lollygagging around about this anymore. I want to squeeze down as close to 3:00 in my next marathon as I can get, and I have a pipe dream about seeing a 2: at the beginning of my finish time someday. So although rest makes sense to the “big picture” section of my mind, I’m finding it tricky to see how its fits into the day-to-day and week-to-week scheme of things.

I bring this up because I’m currently staring down 20 weeks until the Philadelphia Marathon, and if I want to peg this as a goal race, now is the time to think about how those weeks are going to look. I just wrapped up a season of spring fun runs, and race-wise, my summer is shaping up to be more of the same. The next two weeks seem like a sensible time to take a hiatus from the volume, since it’s going to rain cats and dogs and killer whales for the next few days and a snowy mountain ridge run this weekend left me with an unsettingly sore foot that could probably use time off from these shoes I’ve been running in since December.

Another reason rest sounds smart: that whole diabetic scare (which turned out to be nothing, I think), was a hard evidence wake-up call to the fact that there are metabolic and hormonal consequences that result from racing hard and training for 90+ minutes a day for months on end. Seems prudent to shut my shoes in the closet and press reset on my endocrine system every so often, right?

So. In a world where I’m reasonable and not addicted to elevating my heart rate, I take one or two weeks off/easy right now, do a build-up for an early August race I’ve got my eye on, take another week easy, and then start building for the marathon. On the other hand, I’m going through some life transitions this month and running is the easiest way to sort my head out, so mentally, the timing isn’t great for a break. Guess it will be a good exercise for me to seek out some alternate coping strategies. Suggestions?

(Is it kind of pathetic that some non-elite, never-going-to-the-Olympics, never-gonna-win-race-money hobby-jogger like me worries about how or when to take weeks off? This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but for me, it isn’t. Makes me wish I had a coach or trustworthy running mentor who could just tell me what to do and how to think. Anybody?)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 06/26/2012 23:17

    If it weren’t for the sore foot I would suggest running, like, every other day for the next 2 weeks (but please do not then run for 3 hours at a time to make up for it…). With sore foot I think that swimming or just taking the time off sounds like a better idea. “Rest” in some form is a good idea so that you can really kill the marathon training from day 1. You are in good enough shape now that 1 or 2 weeks of down time aren’t going to make a dent in your aerobic fitness.

  2. 06/27/2012 00:14

    P.S. I meant to say that I totally know the unease-with-rest feeling. Probably anyone who runs a lot knows that feeling. Definitely an element of ocd there, but so what? We just have to check in with ourselves on a regular basis and stay self-aware. Also, my statement about the 1-2 wks of down time is based on personal experience. I once got sick at the end of a training cycle and barely ran at all for 2 weeks. Then I ran the race. The only thing I noticed, fitness-wise, was a lack of speed at the end. So I lost a little sharpness, but aerobically I was fit as ever. You’re not going to race in 2 weeks so this is not exactly a parallel situation….just wanted to illustrate with a real-life example that rest is not as evil as we think 🙂

    • 06/27/2012 09:36

      All good points. And the nice thing is, I don’t have much race sharpness to lose right now anyway — just a general accumulation of fatigue that might be worth getting out from under with the hope that I’ll come back even stronger. I’m kind of glad about the foot — if it weren’t a little sore, I probably would’ve just charged on with my usual routine without even thinking about it, missing out on the benefits of rest in the meantime…

  3. Ewen permalink
    06/27/2012 02:08

    No, it’s not pathetic. It’s smart. Down weeks work best when you plan for them and space them out appropriately — so a couple (or 3) weeks of low-key exercise two or three times a year (after racing seasons/ big events?) is sensible. But… if you want to keep running at the moment (for the mental benefit), continue to write your story on the streets (if the foot is OK) — maybe cut back on the distance of the runs and make them truly easy.

    By the way, dedication v compulsion is all in the eye of the beholder. Don’t worry about being labelled one or the other. I’m sure Steve Moneghetti never thought he was compulsive for running twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s just what he did.

    • 06/27/2012 09:46

      You know, it’s funny. I thought about it so much yesterday and got so on board with resting that I honestly had no desire to run today. It’s rainy, foggy, icky, my foot is still tweaky, I have many, many weeks ahead to train and enjoy running… and suddenly, the “instant gratification mental benefit” wasn’t going to outweigh the subsequent uneasiness about running when I know I shouldn’t…. if that makes any sense?

  4. 06/27/2012 09:25

    I don’t know. I’m not really one to talk since lately I’ve seemed to compulsively stay in bed when I should be running, but I think that your awareness of what could potentially be a problem is a good start. When you think about not running, are your thoughts along the lines of “why take a break, this is working for me” or are they more like, “um, I don’t want to do that” along with a vague sense of unease/discomfort? Like, if someone told you unambiguously that you NEEDED to take a break, would you be okay doing it, or would you feel uncomfortable about it? I’m not sure if I’m being clear, but I guess I’m trying to suss out whether, like your title, it’s compulsion or dedication. And the line is blurry, no? I like the coach idea for these situations.

    • 06/27/2012 10:39

      Me too. If some trusted coach took a look at my log and goals and told me unambiguously that now was the right place to take a week or two off in order to maximize my training/performance/health later on, I could have full confidence in the idea. It would be a relief to have my overthinking removed from the equation.

      Your questions do make sense. When I think about not running, it’s more: “Am I missing out on gaining fitness by taking a break? Do I really need this break or could I be out there right now getting faster?” If speeding up in the future means taking some time off now, I’m for it. The thing is — and what I was trying to get at in my post — the advantages of mileage and paces and workouts are SO much more tangible than those of time off. A daily run provides instant feedback and gratification, whereas the benefits of time off are so much more vague/delayed.

      Part of this insecurity is that it feels weird to think about a break when I haven’t had a big event (goal race) that clearly precedes/necessitates it. Since finishing out college rowing, I’ve had very little periodization in endurance training (except for taking breaks after marathons… and I’m realizing that since I hardly ever run marathons, those breaks are likely far too few).

      I read an old post on Lauren Fleshman’s blog this morning that completely validated my thoughts. … and this video: — I mean jeez, this advice is SO basic, obvious, and simple, but somehow hearing it from her mouth makes me confident in the plan to take it easy for a couple weeks. Maybe if I keep copying everything she does, I’ll qualify for the 5K OT final off 10 miles a week…

  5. Flo permalink
    06/28/2012 03:26

    Expert Rester, lol. I’m a big proponent of downtime, the better to hit the high peaks when it’s time and also to get out of the runner-obsessed mindset. 20 weeks is a big fat chunk of time, you don’t want to end up beaten down by the end of it. And hey, I’m excited that you’re coming to Philly!

  6. 06/28/2012 08:23

    I’m having some major unease with rest too, except I’m not running anywhere near the mileage you are. Even though I’m sleep- deprived and getting sick at the moment, I still want to run. Probably because I know I’ll feel better afterward. I’m having trouble getting in many miles, which creates guilt. Ugh!

    I suppose I’m in the same place as you and have no real advice. Just want to comisserate!

    I think you’re ok; just don’t work yourself to the bone in the midst of moving and all these life changes. And enjoy watching those Oly trials once you get back east to a TV 🙂

  7. 06/28/2012 14:10

    I’ve never taken a break from running that wasn’t injury induced….so that’s…10 years of no breaks. I guess I’ve taken 3 or 4 days off every here and there if I’m on vacation. But vacations usually involve exercise (mostly hiking) so…?

    Anyway. I relate to a lot of what you say, although I always assumed “breaks” were for avoiding burnout or an overworked body. If you feel great and don’t need a break than….why take one? You’ll get your PR and low 3:00 (if not 2:xx!) this year. I don’t think the break is all that important.

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