The first American woman to win the NYC Marathon in 40 years took a large part of 2017 off from training to recover from a major injury. Did it help?
A few weeks ago, Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, and the most interesting part is that she did it after taking a substantial part of 2017 off from training and racing to recover from a major injury.
Since winning the NYC Marathon, an inspiring phenomenon called the “Shalane Effect” has been sprinting around the marathon community’s social media like a runner with hair on fire. It's based on the fact that every one of Shalane’s training partners (all 11 women) qualified for the Olympics during the time that they were training with her. Wow! In the New York Times, Lindsay Crouse coined the term and described it in this way: "You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you, while catapulting forward yourself.” The quote from that article I have seen passed around the most is, “Flanagan does not just talk about elevating women; she elevates them. And they win.”
Every one of Shalane’s training partners (all 11 women) qualified for the Olympics during the time that they were training with her.
As absolutely worthy and inspiring as that effect is, there's another equally inspiring and interesting aspect of Flanagan’s story that I want to focus on. It is what I am calling the Other Shalane Effect. One that I hope will serve as a shining example for all hard-charging athletes out there who are pushing themselves through illness, stress, and even injury. This Other Shalane Effect is the one that shows us that you can take ten weeks off of training and still come out on top. Way on top!
Taking a Training Time-Out
Flanagan’s ten weeks off came after she suffered a severe lower back injury, which was her first major injury since she turned pro in 2004. To say the injury was severe would be an understatement. It was an actual break in her iliac crest, which is the largest of the three bones that merge to form the os coxa, or hip bone. The break was likely caused by logging too many miles on the treadmill or on some snow-covered slippery Portland, Oregon terrain. If you are wondering how many is too many, Shalane has been known to run upwards of 130 miles per week during her training season.
Like nearly all the serious athletes I've known, Shalane found the mental challenge of taking time off for recovery more difficult than the actual physical act of giving her body the rest it needed. Shortly after she dropped out of the Boston Marathon in the Spring of 2017, where the injury was first brought to light, Shalane told Runner’s World magazine, “It’s thrown me for a loop. I’ve had to reevaluate what’s important to me. I still feel a little bit lost right now.”
Feeling lost makes complete sense when you understand that if you stop running for just a week, your maximal aerobic capacity (max VO2) will decrease and if you take two weeks off, you are likely to add more than a minute to your 5k run time. Knowing that, it is easy to see how much anxiety can be caused by even a simple setback like the common cold, let alone a fractured pelvis.
I think all of us marathon fans questioned whether, at 36 years old, Shalane would ever return to the high level of fitness she was previously at—but she did. And how! Let’s look at how this is possible by examining the good and the bad of taking time off of training.
The Downsides of a Training Time-Out
A great number of things happen when an athlete takes time off of training and racing but for now, I will focus on the most relevant running effects.
- After two weeks of not training, studies show that VO2 max decreases by 6%.
- After nine weeks VO2 max drops by 19%.
- After eleven weeks VO2 max falls by 25.7%.
- The amount of blood pumped by the heart per beat also takes a nosedive by 10% after three weeks.
- Your muscles' aerobic enzymes that help produce the energy fall by 25% after only three weeks.
The Benefits of a Training Time-Out
Enough with the doom and gloom. Some good things also happen during time off of training.
- Your muscles, tendons, and bones get some time to recover fully and heal.
- You repair those tiny tears in tissue all over your body (often in places you didn’t know were involved in your sport) resulting in a more injury-resistant you.
- Your mind restores its enthusiasm for your sport and increases your desire and ability to train effectively.
- Your immune system takes a beating when you are training and time off can give it time to recover and strengthen.