Above All– Relax!

Above All– Relax!

Above All– Relax!


I had a wonderful coach my freshman cross-country season in college. He had a certain flare for melodrama when giving the pre-race “pep talk.” Stern and solemn, he always said pretty much the same thing before every contest, and always with a straight face, which I couldn’t help but find amazing, considering his message. It went something like this –

Men – here’s the strategy today. When that gun goes off, move out quickly – don’t let the other guys get ahead. Go through the first mile as fast as possible and try to discourage them. When you get to the first hill [a monster, by the way, at mile one], take it up as hard as you can. Don’t let up on the downhills. Lean forward and lengthen your stride so you pick up speed. On the flats, pick up the pace. The rest of the hills, you’ve got to work. And when the finish line is in sight, sprint for as fast as you can.

But above all …relax!

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this message contained a certain oxymoronic quality, especially when one tried to follow his prescription. The trouble was, we really didn’t know any better. We just assumed that to be successful as a runner, you had to go all-out, all-the-time.

More than three decades and hundreds of running magazine articles later, I would have thought that serious runners would now know better than that. But when it comes to training, if not just racing, I see scores of runners who “just don’t get it.” The “it” is the relationship between intensity of training and incidence of injury.

The human body reacts to physical stress in one of two ways: build up, or break down. Training is essentially the application of stress in [hopefully] measured amounts, calibrated to promote adjustments in muscle size and/or cardiovascular capabilities to permit the individual to perform at a higher level. If the stress is too great for the structures (bone, ligaments, muscles, tendons) to handle, however, there will likely be a failure of that structure (e.g., stress fracture, sprain, strain) and we end up injured.

Excessive stress can take several forms. For example, both high intensity/low frequency and low intensity/high frequency training regimens can cause problems. And it would seem obvious that if both intensity and frequency are high (i.e., the athlete trains hard all the time) the odds an injury will occur increase exponentially. Apparently, though, this is not all that obvious, since I see so many runners who seemingly are not aware of this principle. They routinely undertake intervals, hill work, tempo runs, and long runs all in the same week. Add onto that the frequent race and you have the recipe for a big hurting. Such a regimen is one to be frowned upon.

Though, somehow I suspect my former coach would be smiling.