This is the second part of Fitness Fatigue vs. Extraordinary Fatigue. What happens when we have an extraordinary athletic achievement but go past some internal limits to do it?
In the first part I told the story of my longer-than-normal long run, and in this second part I offer some reflections on it…
Analysis Of The Experience
I demonstrated exceptional strength in my neural fitness – my form remained very good the entire time, despite the fatigue. My body overall was tired, and my lower body particularly, but it was the whole running system together that wanted to stop, not any specific point in the tissues (which I would regard as a sign of strain).
I first reached a level of fatigue that was within my fitness range, probably around that 16 mile mark. It was a fuzzy line, but I could tell about when I came to that limit. Had I stopped there, I would have been tired for a few hours later, and with food, water and rest I would have felt fairly normal again. But I kept going and I moved into a level of extraordinary fatigue that was beyond my fitness range.
I demonstrated that I can possibly keep going with good form when working in this beyond-fitness range. But the price I end up paying to operate there is much higher than normal. Indeed, I could still feel some residual fatigue 4 days later on an easy run. Not many people function in that range often (versus ‘once in a while’) without some sort of longer term debt to their body, whether that comes in the form of tissue injury, metabolic/hormonal debt, or mental injury (e.g. a decrease in the desire for that activity).
Two Fuel Tanks
I imagine two fuel tanks of resources in the body, the main tank and the reserve tank. The main tank represents my fitness level, and it has a capacity that has been developed through training. It is as big as my training has made it to be. The reserve tank – an everyone has one – is there for emergency situations. It’s a good think we all have one because we need it every once in a while, but it is not meant to be tapped into very often because tapping into takes more than just energy, it provokes a deeper stress and a deeper debt in the body that takes a lot more time to recover from than when only the main tank is emptied. Operating an hour past the limit of that main tank does not simply add another hour of recovery.
There are normal efforts we are capable of, according to our fitness level. We can engage in these activities using up only what’s in our main tank, and have a normal, reasonably short recovery afterward and then get back to the same kinds of activities at normal strength. Then there are extraordinary efforts that we are still capable of, but these take us beyond some of the limits of our fitness. We can do these extraordinary things, but we have to tap into that emergency reserve tank to do them, and we end up with a more difficult recovery afterward.
What Gave Out First?
Pleasingly, despite the extraordinary fatigue I felt from dipping into that reserve tank, my movements remained very good and my tissues did not experience an unbalanced load after all that climbing and descending on mostly pavement. I believe this is a result of my extraordinary attention to training these parts of my performance system. However, my metabolic system had to go beyond its fitness range and had to dig deeper to stay moving. Had I kept going even farther, I would have eventually fatigued to the point that it would pull down those other parts of the system too. My form would have eventually failed, if I had not passed out first from lack of brain glucose!
Yet, what I observe with most citizen athletes out there is that fatigue even in the main tank induces deterioration in their form (if they even had decent form to start with) which then increases strain on certain parts of the body, which then takes them closer to injury. The body is going to break down and some joint or tissue is going to hurt acutely before they actually get to the end of their metabolic strength. Going into the reserve tank to keep going only makes them far more likely to really damage something in their system. The kind of injury they are likely going to experience depending on what is weakest in the performance system, on what will give out first, and what chain reaction of failures will happen after that.
And, for endurance events at least, it seems popular for people to keep their systems doped up with sugar which denies their body the opportunity to develop a preference and efficiency for burning the virtually limitless supply of fat – which would greatly reduce the stress upon the digestive system, which can’t stay on top of the carbohydrate demand of working muscles even under the best conditions.
And, I won’t go into the negative effects of doping on caffeine which further mask fitness limits on the cellular level. I don’t know of an ingestable substance that can increase your physical fitness beyond what it’s been trained to be capable of – stimulants can only cause numbness to the deeper costs you are accruing to work that far into system fatigue and failure and closer to injury.
When you are training you need raw, unmasked information flowing from the body so that you can practice piloting with full awareness of the real situation inside.
Learning Through Experimentation
We can only learn how our body will respond to fatigue and how it tries to signal us by going there in our training. Our true fitness limits are revealed under stress, so we have to have stressful training scenarios and no covering of the body’s signals in order to learn what’s really going on inside.
Perhaps you would like to conduct a similar experiment for listening carefully to your body as you work into fatigue and start to experience some micro-failures in your performance system in order to observe what parts of your system are weakest. For many, you won’t even need to go past the main tank to find them. If you do I recommend you set up a scenario that allows you to convenient stop the experiment at any time (e.g. swimming in a pool is better than open water, running a looping short course near your home or car is better than going on a long out-and-back). Do not medicate your system with processed sugars or caffeine. Let your body perform without any masks or artificial props and see what it is truly capable of at your current fitness level and where the weak spots are. Practice detecting the most subtle signals and interpreting their meaning so you can get better at responding to those signals earlier in the training session. Get familiar with what signals go with what parts of your system and anticipate what the higher cost will be to ignore those signals a bit longer. This is all part of becoming a safer, wiser, longer-lasting pilot of your own body.
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