Getting the balance right

I have been blogging a little more frequently in the past week or so because I have been ill, and therefore not running.  I have been exploring issues related to over-training and heart rate variability on my blog because one possibility is that I had become ill because of over training.  At this stage I am puzzled.

A peculiar illness

First an outline of the illness: it started over three weeks ago with an exacerbation of my long standing inflammatory arthritis; then became an acute fever with a temperature of  101-104 degrees F. for a few days; then what appeared to be chicken pox with  fairly typical skin vesicles, and  most distressingly, severe mouth ulceration. I have largely been living on ice-cream and cool fluids for over a week.  This morning, I woke at 3:30 am with a new crop of painful vesicles in my mouth, a painful throat and a mild asthma attack.  At this stage I am a little worried that the problem will extend more deeply into my lungs, though as I sit at my desk typing this I do not feel seriously ill.  Maybe it’s just chicken pox and a few incidental problems, though since I had chicken pox as a child, it’s all a bit mysterious.

Could this peculiar illness be a consequence of over-training?  At this stage I think it is very unlikely.  As I have been discussing in recent postings, there is good evidence for regarding the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity as a useful measure of recovery from training.  As I posted last week, my heart rate variability before I became ill indicated a good balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic activity. Since I have been ill, I have not recorded heart rate variability but simple tests such as the orthostatic test (change in heart rate on standing) indicate there has been a small shift from parasympathetic to sympathetic activity.  This is only to be expected with the degree of illness I have experienced.  Nonetheless, I can still get my heart rate down to the low 50’s by relaxed rhythmic breathing, so the evidence suggests I still have reasonably good parasympathetic control. If maintaining a good balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic activity is a sign of good recovery from training, I have been recovering well.

Could my illness be due to immune suppression produced by the steroid inhaler I use for my asthma?  My doctor thinks that is very unlikely. So the situation remains a mystery,   At this stage I do not know when I will get back to running.


The overall balance sheet

Though at the moment I am not well, it is also important to keep in perspective the overall balance sheet with regard to my health since I recommenced running.  Let’s start with the negative side of the balance sheet.  The one definite deterioration has been in my asthma.  Although I have suffered mild asthma since childhood, I had never needed treatment until a year or so ago.  It is possible that getting cold air into my lungs when running has exacerbated that problem. My arthritis presents a different story.  It had also been a mild problem since childhood but had started to become more of a problem as I approached middle age. In particular my right knee and the metatarsophalangeal joints in my feet were starting to be troublesome.  But contrary to expectations, those problems have greatly improved since I started running. The recent flare-up of arthritis was I fact very minor.  Most importantly for my general health, I think the decrease in my resting heart rate, from around 60 a few years ago down to the mid 40’s, is an indication that my heart is much healthier as a result of running.  So I think the balance sheet is positive.


Maintaining the balance

Meanwhile, I still continue to be fascinated by the question of how best to monitor training so as to maximize both my health and my running performance.  Even though there is little to suggest recent over-training, my experience of the past couple of years has demonstrated that I am now less able to cope with heavy training than forty years ago.  Maybe that is an inevitable consequence of aging.  But if I accept that, it becomes all the more important to develop good strategies for optimizing training level.

My overall conclusion is that training vigorously is almost certainly the best way to remain healthy into old age, but finding a good way to judge just how vigorously to train is the challenge.   I am also inclined to think that for an athlete of any age, the challenge is similar.  Finding the optimum balance between stress and recovery is likely to be the recipe not only for achieving for good general health but also for maintaining the consistency of training necessary to achieve one’s peak performance.  I just hope I can get back to running soon, though I might have to wait a year or two to achieve my M60 peak performances.


9 Responses to “Getting the balance right”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Sorry to hear about the illness and I hope you will recover soon. It definitely does not sound like you’re suffering from overtraining, though.

  2. Andrew(AJH) Says:

    Hope you recover quickly! Do you swim? I hear that is good for asthmatics, and a good cross training activity. Do you do any cross-training activities or mainly just running ?


    Sounds like a nasty illness, hope your feeling much improved soon!
    A couple of years ago I got very ill with fever and my mouth got full with th ulcers! very painful, this started each time I ran an interval session, I got a check up at the docs and after blood test I was found to be low on Iron!
    Taking iron tablets quickly improved my condition.
    anyway all the best and good health soon. RICK

  4. canute1 Says:

    Andrew, Thanks for your comment. I do some cross training on an elliptical machine – mainly for augmenting cardiac fitness while minimizing stress of the legs (like cycling it produces minimal eccentric load). It’s rather boring, but in winter it allows me to limit my exposure to cold air.
    I enjoy swimming but am not keen on indoor pools; I prefer wild swimming. Our local river is the Trent but unfortunately it has quite a lot of nitrates and phosphates from fertilizes in the run-off from agricultural land, together with industrial waste from Stoke-on-Trent and from Birmingham (via the Tame) and the treated sewerage from a population of 4 million people. I understand water quality has improved greatly in recent years and the otters are returning to the river – but I am not sure whether it is wise to follow the otters just yet. Maybe I need to learn to like indoor pools.

    Rick, thanks for the tip about iron. I will look into that possibility

  5. Ewen Says:

    I hope you’re feeling better soon. Similarly to Thomas’s comment, it doesn’t sound like over-training to me. In my estimation, the volume of your training hasn’t been excessive, nor has the volume of intense training.

    I know that higher quality and a greater percentage of quality/volume can be an effective method for aging athletes. That’s pretty much what one of my training partners, Kathy, does – and she would be one of the best 53-year-old runners in the country. She runs around 50-55k per week, but with 2 to 3 high quality (and a high volume of quality) sessions per week.

    It’s strange about the asthma – you’d think that would respond positively to aerobic exercise. Maybe it is the cold weather. Not much can be done about that, except train indoors, or move to Queensland.


    HI CANUTE, hope your feeling better,
    First, fish oil and how it can help asthma, I found this on younger legs website;

    And second, a question;
    on your decription of good running form you mention Gebresalassie and how he uses his hamstrings to pull his heels up behind his butt, But can you be sure, a high knee drive on its own can bring the heel high up behind the butt without the need to use the hams, are there any scientific reports on the matter!

  7. canute1 Says:

    Rick, Thanks for the advice about fish oil. I am recovering from my peculiar illness – though still have a few symptoms. Last night I did some Pilates exercises and today did a short, easy cycle ride, with no ill effect apart from feeling very tired. I hope to recommence running within a day or two.
    With regard to scientific studies of which muscles are used in the lift off from stance, there are studies using electrodes placed in muscles to record muscle contraction, that show that hamstrings play a major role. I believe that hip flexors also play a role at this stage, but some of the hip flexors such as iliopsoas lie deep within the pelvis so it is not easy to apply electrodes to these muscles.
    I am not aware of any convincing studies that compare the efficiency of different ways of lifting the leg from stance. One widely quoted advantage of bringing the foot up high behind the hip is the fact that this will create a short level arm that can be swung forwards with less effort.

    It is necessary to get the foot forwards fairly quickly if cadence is to be rapid, so one cannot afford to let the foot trail behind for too long, so dragging the foot along a long loop behind the buttocks is unlikley to be efficient.
    But overall, as far as I am aware, there is a lack of scientific evidence to demonstrate the most efficient way to lift the leg from stance.


    Thanks Canute,
    Came across this video comparing 3 runners, elite, good and average abilities;

    Cheers RICK

  9. canute1 Says:

    Rick, Thanks for posting the link to the power cranks advert video. I agree with all of the principles of good running form listed in the advert.

    Short time on stance and landing just in front of the centre of gravity are two aspects of the same thing. Short time on stance is efficient provided cadence is fast, so that the airborne time on each stride is not very long. Long airborne time would make it necessary to bounce too high on each step. (I deal with this issue in the calculations in the side panel of my blog). However the price of short time on stance is an increased stress on the foot. If you spend a half the gait cycle on stance, the average upwards ground reaction force exerted on the foot is twice body weight; if you spend ¼ of the gait cycle on stance, the average upwards ground reaction force is 4 times body weight. Unless your feet are well conditioned to this stress, then a force greater than about 4 times body weight is likely to produce an appreciable risk of stress fracture over a long distance such a marathon, as a result of repetitive strain.
    Lifting the foot high behind the hip decreases the length of the swinging leg so that it requires less effort to swing it forwards, but as I remarked in my reply yesterday, if the foot executes a loop that it too high, there is a risk that the foot will not move forward quickly enough
    The third recommendation in the advert is lifting the knee high. This requires strong hip flexor contraction in addition to hamstring contraction and will help get the foot forward quickly, thereby avoiding the problem of a trailing foot, so I agree with lifting the knee. However, the swing forwards must be controlled. It is crucial to avoid extending the knee too much as the foot descends, as this would result in landing too far in front of the centre of gravity, which takes us back to the first point.

    Overall I agree with the principles expressed in the advert, though they all need to be interpreted in light of the potential problems that they might create if not executed properly.

    With regard to the utility of power cranks, I agree that they will promote development of the muscles that act to get the foot off the ground quickly and move it forwards efficiently. The most noticeable difference between cycling with power cranks and running is the absence of eccentric contraction of quads on foot fall with the cranks. The advert claims that the lack of impact is a virtue because it minimizes stress on the joints, which is true. However, if you want to run a fast marathon it is crucial to make the quads fit enough to cope with repeated eccentric contractions. Overall, I think the material in advert is true but does not tell the whole story.

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