The training stresses on the endurance athlete are considerable. Ian Craig explores the functional consequences of heavy training and what to do about them.

 “Not one part of our body will be untouched by the stress of training, to the extent that it probably won’t be a coincidence if you’re a bit depressed or anxious after hitting your highest mileage one particular week”

  • Endurance training demands large quantities of energy;
  • It is catabolic in nature; it releases stress hormones;
  • It can deplete the immune system; it may cause leaky gut syndrome;
  • It increases the likelihood of an over-use injury;
  • It pressurises nutrient reserves in the body;
  • And endurance exercise can potentially even age you quicker.

In a nutshell, endurance training is very hard on our bodies – I’m not talking about heading out for a family bike ride on a Saturday plus gyming with mates during the week. I’m talking about ‘real’ athletes who push their bodies to the max several times per week with the goal of shaving a ½ second off their best time or finishing ahead of somebody who pipped them at the post last time.

Exercise physiologists understand this whole-body stress that athletes place themselves under, but mostly people unfortunately do not and actually still think that ‘more is better’. And this includes the athletes and coaches themselves – I see a lot of top amateur cyclists in Cape Town, who are on the roads for hours every day and whose bodies are simply cooked with the effects of overtraining. It might just be one final race that tips their body into a state of non-recovery in the guise of a chronic virus like Epstein Barr (Glandular Fever) or an injury that refuses to heal. Many athletes have a vague idea of this thing called ‘overtraining’, but often don’t really embrace it until they have no choice like poor Andrew Steele in Adam’s Carey’s article. Prior to something as serious as Glandular Fever and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, there have been many months (and possibly years) of subtle overtraining. It’s like the male executive who drops dead of a heart attack at age 50 – according to medical records, he was previously ‘healthy’. Medically, he was ‘sub-clinically’ (not picked up by medical exams) sick for many years because it generally takes 20+ years to build up to a heart attack. Endurance athletes are no different, and yes, there are cases of heart attacks in so-called healthy runners, cyclists and Cross Country Skiers. We can gradually be digging a health hole for ourselves over a long period of time by unwittingly embracing the daily grind of training.

So, that’s the bad news guys. Before giving you the good news though, I want to remind you of the whole-body stress that athletes are under and try to join some of the dots from previous articles in FSN.

The Functional Model

Displayed below is ‘The Web’ of health interactions, as represented by the Institute for Functional Medicine in the States. In a simple way, the web signifies how several systems in our body interact and influence each other. Like a spider’s web, if one corner is damaged (ie. one of the systems is out of balance), the rest of the web can actually collapse. Here lies the meaning of ‘Functional’ in Functional Sports Nutrition – biochemically, neurologically, hormonally, structurally and immunologically, every part of our body is connected in some way. To fully understand our health, we need to consider these large body systems in an integrated (or functional) way.

The physical stresses of training, as noted by Dr Moir, are translated into the biochemical stresses of inflammation and oxidative stress, which are systemic phenomenon. That is, not one part of our body will be untouched by the stress of training, to the extent that it probably won’t be a coincidence if you’re a bit depressed or anxious or ‘not quite yourself’ after hitting your highest mileage one particular week.

The Good News!

After all that bad news, what could ever be good about endurance training? Well, ever since the Jim Fixx marathon movement of the late ‘70’s, aerobic conditioning has had a myriad of research supporting its benefits. Benefits are whole-body and too countless to name here, but include:

  • cardiovascular health & fitness;
  • musculoskeletal function;
  • energy;
  • metabolic support;
  • gastrointestinal health;
  • bone mineralisation;
  • and promotion of mental health, such as strongly countering depression and anxiety.

Jim Fixx incidentally died of a heart attack at age 52 whilst out running, but it was revealed that he had a strong hereditary risk of heart disease plus his diet wasn’t discussed!

All these benefits of exercise can also be diminished in function if you push your body too hard. So, like almost everything in life, it’s all a matter of BALANCE. The harder you train, the harder you must recover. According to many learned coaches, there is only one thing that’s more important to an athlete than training and that is recovery. The job of training is to break-down the structural apparatus of your muscles and pressurise all of the physiological systems involved in the endurance activity. The job of recovery is to allow time for these systems to be reinforced to a stronger level than before. So, the clever athlete can have his or her cake and eat it, whereas the over-motivated or obsessed, but not necessarily un-intelligent, athlete may simply run their body into the ground.

Chinese medicine uses the words ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ to indicate opposites. This could be hot and cold; expansive and contracting; dry and wet; hard and soft, thick and thin, dark and light etc. Yin and yang are complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, because for example, light can’t exist without darkness and vice versa, but either aspects can ebb and flow in intensity over time.

Within the context of this article that has considered the integrative nature of the human body, yin and yang provide us with a lovely analogy for obtaining the balance between work and rest. Yang is characterised as fast, hard, solid, focussed, hot, dry and aggressive, whereas yin is characterised as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet and passive. We can therefore label training as yang and recovery as yin. As long as the two aspects are in reasonable balance most of the time, we can retain our healthy and vibrant status as an athlete, but as soon as yang becomes dominant for a prolonged period of time, we are diminishing our yin (or recovery) opportunities. Of course, we don’t want yin to become dominant either because then we might be deemed a lazy athlete!

Adding the Yin to the Yang of Endurance Training

  •  Watch for the signs of overtraining: irritability, lethargy, depression, sleep disruption, menstrual irregularities,
    hypoglycaemia, diminishing performance despite trying harder
  • Check your morning heart rate, which shouldn’t be rising more than 5 bpm above normal
  • Consider a heart rate variability device which can tell you if your nervous system is in resting mode or stress
    mode (9)
  • Use Active Recuperation methods rather than simply resting. These include: a regular massage; having
    body work like osteopathy or cranial-sacral therapy; laughing and having fun; surround yourself by nature
    and animals; spend time with friends and family who feed your energy
  • Consider all the other stresses in your life – your training does not sit on an island, un-influenced by your
    job, your family
  • Eat like a king: have a diet that suits your genetic type, avoid potential food sensitivities, stay fresh and
    local*, balance your blood sugar levels.
  • Take supplements that are going to support your individual requirements
  • Much of our supermarket food has travelled considerable air miles and a lot of time elapsed since it was picked. Instead, try local farmers markets and one of the numerous UK box schemes.

About Dr Ian Craig: 

Ian Craig, MSc, CSCS, INLPTA is an exercise physiologist, nutritional therapist, NLP practitioner and an endurance coach.

He was a competitive middle-distance runner for 20 years and is now a more leisurely cyclist and triathlete.

Ian specialises in sport from an integrative health perspective and in his Johannesburg and UK clinics, integrates the fields of sports nutrition and nutritional therapy in an applied way so that both health and performance are considered