Exercise: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Enthusiasm dampened somewhat, I consoled myself with the fact that I am not a middle-aged man and that in my last few big races I've gotten the hang of balancing my fluid intake. Like other racers, though, I've noticed that in the week following a big race I immediately come down with a bug. And last season, I seemed to have a chronic low-grade sore throat, mild fever, and fatiguenot to mention chronically crummy race results.
None of this is uncommon, I learned. David Nieman, in the department of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, years ago abandoned marathons for working on his farm (and says he feels much better for making the switch). He says that while immunity goes up when you work out for less than about 90 minutes, after a marathon, runners are about six times as likely to get sick as folks who didn't race. The long-term consequences of this immune-system suppression aren't clear.
As for my fatigue last season, I was probably flirting with overtraining, I concluded after talking with Jack Raglin, who does research in kinesiology and sports psychology at Indiana University. This isn't the same as exercise addiction, where people take multiple classes a day at the gym and compulsively work out even when they're injured. Overtraining syndrome is defined by its symptoms: changes in mood, appetite, and sleep patterns, perhaps a series of colds or bugs, and a decline in performance. It's common in endurance sports like running or swimming or in other sports that require intense off-season conditioning. The more training you do, the worse it gets. (This sounds suspiciously familiar.) And the only way to break the cycle, Raglin says, is to rest.
I long ago reached the point of getting diminishing returns from my workouts. "I tell everyone to walk vigorously 30 minutes a day," says Paul Thompson, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Researchers know that it's good for you; while exercise does raise the odds of a heart attack in that short time while you're working out, if you do it consistently, it drastically cuts your chances of heart problems over the long termnot to mention providing a host of other health benefits, from staving off obesity to preventing osteoporosis and possibly cancer. Quadrupling or quintupling Thompson's daily prescription isn't going to similarly increase my chances of better health and, if I'm not very careful, may put me at risk for other problems.
That said, there's no way I'm giving up my two-hour runs and six-hour bike rides. Some people climb mountains or meditate to achieve mental and emotional clarity or to cope with stress and other hazards of modern living. I run, bike, and swim long distances. Rather than drastically reducing my training, which would have the side effect of making me extremely unpleasant to be around, I've decided that I'll make a concerted effort to maintain balance in my life: to occasionally sleep in rather than head to the pool at 6 a.m., to spend an hour with friends or family for every one I spend on my bike, and to generally put my training in the larger perspective of my life. Of course, I will still try to kick ass in my next race.
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