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?
The Results of Taking Time Off From Training
Before the NYC Marathon, Shalane told USA Today, “My body clearly needed it, and in those 10 weeks, I got to explore other things in my life that were really rewarding in a variety of ways.” I think this is one of the biggest benefits to taking time off of anything we are passionate about doing. There is no worse feeling than having your passion start to feel like a job and there is also no better feeling than returning to something you love when you have been deprived of it. I remember getting back to the pool after a few months of rehabbing a rotator cuff issue. Sitting in the change room, I felt like a kid on his birthday about to unwrap the best present ever.
In that same USA Today interview, Shalane said, “I think there’s definitely some doubt—do I still have what it takes mentally and physically to keep working at this?” I would say that clearly she does. And even if she was lacking in her physical state (remember how much her VO2 max would have dropped after 10 weeks) she more than made up for it mentally and there is a lot of evidence that mental fortitude can play a huge role in athletic performance.
A professor at the University of Kent's Centre for Sports Studies, Samuele Marcora, has spent years finding surprising links between fatigued brains and low physical performance. Dr. Marcora’s initial results actually suggested back in 2009 that what we perceive as physical limitations are often highly correlated to our levels of mental motivation and even more correlated to our state of mental fatigue.
There is no worse feeling than having your passion start to feel like a job.
Dr. Marcora published a study where 16 cyclists pedalled to exhaustion immediately after they spent 90 minutes either watching an "emotionally neutral" documentary or performing a “demanding cognitive test” called the AX-CPT test. Even though the cognitive test didn't actually tire the cyclists out physically, they still gave up 15 percent earlier during their pedal session when they were mentally fatigued from the demanding test than they did after watching the neutral documentary.
In an ESPN interview right after winning the NYC Marathon, Shalane summed it up nicely in response to a question about taking all that time off by saying, “It was 100 percent a blessing…I needed that rest and I would never have given it to myself otherwise. I have felt so much better, which makes it so much more fun to train, when you feel good. I hadn't realized how tired I was. I had dug myself a hole. When you're trying to chase these goals, it's easy to think you're just not working hard enough, you're not getting the win and you're not doing your job. The reality was, I was probably overworking and underestimating my talent...”
Which basically means that your tired brain and your tired muscles can equally make you feel like quitting.
Dr. Marcora would likely explain what Shalane said with the "psychobiological" model of fatigue. This model frames exercise limitations as a fine balance between motivation and perceived effort. He says that we often stop performing at our peak not simply because our muscles are pooped out but because the amount of effort that it would take us to keep pushing is perceived (in the moment) as being greater than the reward might be for all that suffering. Which basically means that your tired brain and your tired muscles can equally make you feel like quitting. Or in Shalane’s case, make her underestimate her own talent, a thought which we all know does not lead to a champion’s mindset.
Another researcher named Timothy Noakes, who theorizes about there being a Central Governor that holds us back from either hurting ourselves or achieving greatness, uses Muhammad Ali’s words to illustrate his point: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, out there on the road, long before I dance under the lights.”
According to the Noakes model, the athlete who wins the competition is the one whose imagined symptoms of fatigue interfere the least with their actual performance. And the athlete who finishes behind the winner may make the conscious decision not to win, perhaps even before the race begins. Their deceptive symptoms of “fatigue” may then be used to justify whichever decision they made.
So the winner is the athlete for whom defeat is the least acceptable rationalization. Or as Shalane put it in her ESPN interview after the race, “I'm not crazy that I thought I could do it, that feels so good."
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