As I started my athletic career as a runty, wide eyed freshman in high school, I joined my school’s cross country team to get in shape for basketball season (and I heard they had raging potlucks with frosted brownies and popsicles after races- sports nutrition was the last thing on my mind!). Today, I’m 13 years wiser and I’d like to say that I’ve learned a few things during my past experiences as a high school, collegiate and post collegiate endurance athlete.
Chances are, if you’re reading this you’re an endurance athlete too, or curious about getting started as one. I’ll let you know from first-hand experience that it can be challenging, but oh so rewarding. However, if you aren’t careful and don’t keep in mind some key principles, you may crash and burn during your training or competition leading you to want to give up on endurance events.
Before you head out the door to achieve that goal, check out my quick tips for novice endurance athletes that I wish I had known before starting my running career:
Listen to your body
Okay, ready to be an all star? You’ve just signed up for that road race, maybe that conference championship is a few months away, or perhaps you’re working towards a new weight loss goal. Regardless, you’re feeling pretty darn ambitious, I get it. The goal is to take the right steps to keep this momentum rolling in the right direction so that it isn’t just a temporary experience.
One key mistake athletes make at all levels is overtraining. Start nice and easy. Your body is only able to handle a certain amount of stress and mileage. Early on this can be a challenge to figure out. Not all athletes are the same. Some can handle running or cycle 100 miles a week, some 50, some 15. Some can train for 6 hours a day while others feel best at 4 or 2 hours. You don’t have to run 40 miles a week right away to see results. You may even reap more benefits from lighter training volumes. Over time, you can safely increase the workload as your body allows.
One major concern with increasing your training too much is the fact that with inexperienced athletes, when fatigue sets in, their form falls apart more than highly trained athletes. A 2017 study by Maas, De Bee and colleagues, found that when fatigued due to training to exhaustion, novice runners demonstrated a significant change in running mechanics compared to competitive runners. These changes were noted with differences in trunk lean as well as hip alignment while a leg was in the swing phase.1 What does this really mean? Negative changes in body mechanics or exercise form due to training into exhaustion leads to greater injury risk. So, if you don’t listen to your body and push too much into fatigue as a novice endurance athlete, you’re at greater risk for injury than you will be after you get some experience under your belt.
If your sport involves running, choosing to run for an allotted amount of time instead of distance or adding in walk breaks as fatigue sets in can help you build a base while reducing the risk of injury. Another option is to substitute running with a bit of cross training (such as getting on the exercise bike, swimming, taking a fitness class) if needed. While cross training is usually less effective for building peak performance and should be cut back at the peak of training before an event, it should be included during most of your training to help prevent muscle imbalances, reduce over taxing muscles, and maintaining strength (which also helps body composition!). The key here is patience. Time and practice will increase your body’s ability to train longer, further, and faster. It’s better to run only 15 miles a week instead of 0 with an injury. Listen to your body!
Recover Recover Recover
We’re not just talking about protein bars and shakes here. Sleep, fluid intake, icing, massage, strength drills, staying warm, staying cool, and nutrition are all major areas of focus for recovering. I didn’t understand this as a young lad. I thought that getting 8 hours of sleep, drinking a few extra ounces of water the day of a race and taking one day off each week was more than enough. While those practices helped, they were not enough as I began to train harder.
Fueling your body with protein after a workout or race can be crucial if you want to perform your very best during the days that follow. Having a protein packed shake or snack within 30-60 minutes after your workout is a nice start. Why is this important? The consumption of ~20 g of protein immediately after training has been shown to enhance muscle protein synthesis (AKA your muscles rebuilding from the exercise!).2 Furthermore, if you can add a bit of a carbohydrate to that protein drink, you will experience enhanced muscle protein synthesis. Following up with lots and lots and lots of water (and maybe a sports drink or electrolyte replacement on top of that if needed) could be your next step. Keep in mind, you may need more sleep than normal on harder training days.
Oh and don’t forget your nutrition. Everything you eat on a daily basis will have an effect on how you perform. That double cheeseburger might’ve been tasty for lunch, but it will leave you feeling sluggish for the scheduled run, bike, or swim tonight. A rule of thumb to go along with diet and refueling: If you are ravenous or experience uncontrollable thirst after a workout, you did NOT fuel properly during the day!
Have Fun and Smell the Roses
This was something my college coach once told me and I still remember to this day.
It’s easy to get caught up in our hectic daily schedules outside of training. Work, studying, family and friends all tug at us throughout different points of the day. Take a second to stop and realize all that you’ve accomplished thus far. Maybe you were recently promoted. Maybe you just passed a course or graduated from school. There are plenty of things to be happy about and a tough day of training should contribute to these good feelings, not negate from them. It important to avoid burnout and one of the keys to doing this is to enjoy the process.
Training for this competition or goal you have can be a stress if you let it be one. While this can help drive you towards excellence, it can also negatively impact your performance.
Moral of the story? Stop, take a deep breath and start to have a little fun! Think about how far you’ve come in life. Think about the awesome people that surround you and the fact that it’s Friday, almost Friday, or only 5 days from being Friday! Just remember, a true athlete’s glass is always half full. Now go smell those roses!
What’s the best advice you’ve received in your athletic career? If you could go back in time, what would you tell your beginner self? Share your comments below!
- Maas E, De Bie J, Vanfleteren R, Hoogkamer W, Vanwanseele B. Novice runners show greater changes in kinematics with fatigue compared with competitive runners. Sports biomechanics. 2017;21:1-11.
- Beelen M, Burke LM, Gibala MJ, van Loon JC. Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010;20(6):515-32.
- Lynch S. The differential effects of a complex protein drink versus iso caloric carbohydrate drink on performance indices following high-intensity resistance training: a two arm crossover design. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10:31.