This article is very much inspired by the feats of Kirk Apt who this year completed his twentieth straight Hardrock 100. On the face of it, it might not seem all that tough to turn up to a 100 miler once a year and complete it. But then on paper, most things look pretty simple. The reality is that life and all manner of ‘other stuff’ gets in the way. So it got me thinking… While the sport and in particular news sites such as ours, generally place focus on the pointy end of the field, what about the other guys who achieve phenomenal things, but compete mainly against themselves rather than others, maintaining a constant steady throughout their lives? The normal person so to speak?
The termed that was coined in the Outside Online article that featured Kirk was ‘fitness for life’ and I thought it was a great turn of phrase to use for someone who has kept themselves and their body in check for that amount of time. A kind of constant, rather than an erratic yo yo’ing of performance. But what does that mean exactly? Why is it important, and how might you set about going to achieve it?
The reason why the term struck a chord with me is because when I first started doing this ultra thing around seven or eight years ago, one of the things I wanted was to make sure I was still doing this gig in twenty years time. I want longevity. People come and people go in this sport. They hang around for a few years and then disappear. There are lots of reasons why that happens. Some lose interest, others become injured and unable to compete or take part any longer, but how do you set about achieving and living by the term ‘fitness for life’? While there are a number of reasons, we’ve focused on what we feel are two of the most important. However, feel free to add your own in the comments too.
#1 Race carefully
You may be wondering what we mean by the term ‘race carefully’, given some of our bravado articles of the past that focus on racing hard. This tip isn’t pointing the finger at individual races, but more so planning out your year or indeed next two to three years of racing. One thing you notice when you start running ultras is that as new entrants, we feel like kids in a sweetie shop. There are a huge amount of races to go off and take part in. I remember myself in those early days, wanting to do every race under the sun, and for the most part I did. I was running between 6-10 ultras a year and traveling around Australia to do them. There are some that still do, but in the long-term is that sustainable?
Quite simply no – the body can only take so much and we’ve seen this time and time again with not only guys and gals at the pointy end succumbing to injury and ultimately retirement, but your normal everyday guys and gals who simply go at it too hard for a few years and burnout. The temptation to race every month (particularly with the number of races now on offer) can be very strong. Of course, there will be people reading this who have done just that and wondering what all the fuss is about. Sure the body will cope for a few years, maybe even five if you’re lucky. But if you’re racing big ultras month after month and really putting the effort in, the body is going to bite back sooner or later. The same goes with training volumes too.
So what do you do? My opinion is that you need to choose your races carefully. Your body only really has one, two and maybe three ‘A’ races in it, each year. Those are the races where you lay it all on the line and give it your all. You’ll know if you’ve done this, because your body will be a wreck after the race, and I mean a wreck. As an example, I’ve raced the Six Foot track trail race here in Australia four times. I thought last year I’d really run the race hard and gave it my all. That was until this year when I finally understood what it meant to put your body right on the edge. I couldn’t walk properly for a week after and I’d say it took me a good 4-6 weeks to really feel good again. I laid it all on the line for that race, but I can’t go about doing that six times a year – I’ll break. So the best advice we would give is to choose two races a year to really smash it. Throw in a few other races where you know the intensity will be lower. You’ll still be competing, but not at the intensity of a big ‘A’ race, the one you give your everything for. The other races will be a benchmark, but a benchmark that will allow you to continue training as part of the overall bigger goal.
# 2 A healthy balance – Beware the addiction
Similar to racing, the temptation can be to head into training like a bull in a china shop and use every waking hour to go for a run. The truth is that running is addictive – as in seriously addictive. Everyone knows that when we run or perform a physical activity, endorphins are released, thus giving us a buzz and wanting to go back for more. But it can be easy to go too far. Normal people i.e. people that don’t run ultras 🙂 would find it hard to believe that going for a run is addictive. But just as you would with any other form of addiction, the (often difficult) trick is to know and identify the symptoms early, pull your neck in and maintain a healthy balance.
So what are the signs and symptoms of running addiction? From the little reading I’ve done, a proper classification of exercise addiction has been hard to define due to the lack of a specific and widely accepted definition (1). Excessive exercise is generally regarded as the overarching theme with exercise addiction, the term also includes a variety of other symptoms such as withdrawal and “exercise buzz”. I don’t profess to be an expert by any means, but my aim is to try to provide the surface level detail to open up the debate – who knows, perhaps a further article on running addiction is required.
Some of the signs and symptoms of exercise addiction include (2):
- An increase in exercise activity that could be labeled as detrimental, or indeed becomes harmful.
- A dependence on exercise in daily life to achieve a sense of euphoria; exercise may be increased as tolerance of the euphoric state increases.
- Not participating in physical activity will cause dysfunction in one’s daily life.
- Withdrawal symptoms following exercise deprivation including anxiety, restlessness, depression, guilt, tension, discomfort, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and headaches.
- High dependence on exercise causing individuals to exercise through trauma and medical conditions.
But where do you draw the line? I’m sure all of us can probably see a few of those symptoms in ourselves, and as with any addiction, it can be very hard to know when and how to pull back. One of the lessons I learned from my rugby playing days is to make sure I have an ‘off-season’. Runners generally don’t like off-seasons because it means losing fitness while the body ‘rests’ – that doesn’t sit well with runners as we don’t want to have to start all over again.
With the plethora of races on the calendar now too and racing all year round, it can again be very hard to down tools and take a break, particularly if you’re an elite and there’s an ‘expectation’ to race at certain events.
Injury can sometimes enforce an off-season, but if not, try to take a good 6-8 weeks off running at one point during the year. Not only will it rest the body, but it also goes a long way towards resting the mind too. Before running, I played rugby for twenty years without many major injuries and I put a lot of that down to getting the balance right – I now try to take those lessons into my running career too, so that I’m still doing this running lark when I’m 60.
If you know you need a break, take one. Sometimes, it’s natures way of telling you to slow down.
(1) Johnston, Olwyn (2011). “Excessive Exercise: From Quantitative Categorisation to a Qualitative Continuum Approach”. Eur. Eating Disorders Rev. 19: 237–248.
(2) Krivoshchekov SG, Lushnikov ON (2011). “[Psychophysiology of sports addiction (exercises addiction)]”. Fiziol Cheloveka (in Russian) 37 (4): 135–40.