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What “off days” actually say about your fitness

If you are like 99.9999% of runners, hikers, or walkers, the above meme resonates quite well with you. We choose a goal, create a thoroughly overthought training plan, devise a color coded spreadsheet to track improvements, mark checkpoints along the way, and practice the celebration dance we will perform in the post-race beer tent set up outside our house, cause: COVID and virtual races. Just me? Okay, *shrug*.

The reality of training

Though we plan for a linear progression of fitness (right side of the meme), our physiology commonly chooses a different route to the same destination. It is vital to understand that training journeys plagued with ups, downs, and lots of swirlies are normal, healthy, and expected, not something to validate negative self-talk or judgement. Running does not occur in a bubble and often internal and external factors, which we will go into in a moment, result in “off days” that are not true representations of fitness. Moreover, a healthy amount of uncertainty in training outcomes adds spice to an otherwise boring A+B=C training plan and are indispensable. Said in another way: is the unknown outcome - the challenge of a hard workout, new terrain, gnarly elevation profile, etc. - that excites, motivates, and sets our soul on fire, while occasionally failing to meet a challenge allows us to learn, grow and be better prepared in future. However, there are times when “off days” can point to something more sinister and attention needs to be given to avoid setbacks. How do we recognize the difference and know when and how to take action? Let’s dig in.

Why “off days” happen

Hundreds if not thousands of factors come into play when considering the existence of off days (hey off days, can you just not? And take COVID with you.). To name a few: sleep, glycogen availability, genetic composition/susceptibility, hormonal levels, weather, as well as specific external influences including work, family, and pandemic-related stressors. Every run day includes a cocktail of factors that can affect your physiological response to running and play a role in our swirlies *ahem* training progression. A hard dose of reality: we have no control over a vast majority of these influences and therefore, should not give into the tendency to equate an “off day” to a lack of fitness or, especially, a reduction in self-worth. Off days happen and most of the time should be shrugged off and laughed at as a terrible cocktail that should be sent back immediately.

Examples of the training effects of paired training efforts with recovery phases. If the correct balance of effort and recovery is achieved, the result is optimal adaptation.

When to be concerned

When we develop a pattern of off days, it can point to chronic overtraining and under recovery. In small doses, overtraining, referred to as “overreaching”, can be a healthy part of a progression (think marathon peak week). It can even lead to a very positive adaptive response called “super-compensation” when appropriately paired with recovery. However, when we train above our current limits for prolonged periods, we can put ourselves in a chronic state of under recovery, risk burnout and injury, as well as slow or halt the adaptation process. One benefit of having a coach is that she or he can build in the proper recovery for your specific needs, as well as monitor your subjective and objective data, then adjust your training to avoid the pitfalls of overtraining. If a coach isn’t in the cards, be on the lookout for these signs of overtraining syndrome*:

  • Performance decline > 2 months

  • Fatigue

  • Depression

  • Lack of motivation

  • Lack of mental concentration

  • Weight loss

  • Heavy, sore, stiff muscles

  • Anxiety

  • Waking tired

  • Anxiety

*Kreher, J. B., & Schwartz, J. B. (2012). Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports health, 4(2), 128–138.

How to correct to avoid injury or burnout

When an “off day” occurs, take a few moments to ask/consider the following:

  • Over the past two months, have I had multiple “off days”?

  • When was the last time I had a rest day?

  • When was the last time I had a rest week?

  • Have I been eating enough to fuel my running adventures?

  • Has my sleep been off lately?

  • Are there been any positive OR negative family, work, or personal stressors in my life right now?

  • What symptoms of overtraining syndrome apply to me?

If it is possible you are experiencing overtraining syndrome, here are a few action items to get back on the right path:

  • Take a rest week (or two).

  • Run with lower overall mileage and without intensity.

  • Consider lower impact cross training (biking, swimming, etc.) as a supplement for running.

  • Ditch your GPS watch and run based on mood and energy.

  • Aim for at least 8-9 hours of sleep per night.

  • Fuel more, even though you are running less and consider chatting with a sports dietician to maximize your fueling plan (during and around running).

  • Properly fuel during runs.

  • Avoid running in extreme weather (heat, humidity, etc.) or at altitude.

  • Discuss recovery tactics and periodization with a coach to better balance training and recovery to avoid over training in future.

Above all, remember the following few things. First, “off days” happen and that is OK. However, if they continue to happen over a long-period of time, consider possible underlying reasons and act quickly to avoid burnout or injury. Second, and most importantly, your self-worth is not tied to running and “off days” do not change how great of a human you are. Push yourself, have fun, and know that “off days” are all part of the game. The possibility of an “off day” is what makes the success of a “on day” incredible.

Happy running!

Coach Asher

Dr. Asher Kyger Henry, PT, CSCS, PES

Asher is a sports physical therapist, run and strength coach at Dasher Personalized Running. She partners with trail and road runners to create training programs that maximize joy and mitigate injury. Asher’s running accolades include a 5th place finish at the US Half Marathon Championships and four All-American honors in track and cross country.

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