Q I’ve been running for about a year with great joy and success. But the past few weeks my legs have felt like lead, and getting through my normal 6km run feels like torture. Any thoughts on how to get the joy and health back into my runs and my legs? – DONNA
A There are a variety of likely culprits that may be the root cause of the fatigue. The first step is to find the root cause. The second is to fix it. Here is a list of possible culprits and how to modify your life to recover, adapt, and run strong again.
Although the general rule of thumb is to increase mileage by no more than 10% per week, this is just that – general. It doesn’t apply to everyone. Ultimately, it depends on the mix of variables that make up your life (see below). Runners tend to experience aches and pains or accumulated fatigue three to four weeks post-progression, meaning if you are increasing too much, you won’t necessarily feel it right away, but several weeks later when the fatigue accumulates beyond a tipping point.
The Fix: Ease back on the mileage progression for two to three weeks and run fewer kilometres with consistency. Many times this is enough to allow your body time to recover and return to joyous runs.
Another trigger is pushing pace and running harder. This can be deceptive, as you can run the same pace you normally do, but it can translate to “harder” effort levels based on a host of variables (sleep, stress, nutrition, elements). If you are running your normal 6km at your normal 6:15 pace, but it feels like a hard effort – your mind sees that as an easy run, but your body feels it as a hard workout. When you run hard too often, it leads to the fatigue you’re describing. Additionally, fatigue can arise from running harder effort workouts (speed, hills, tempo) too frequently or progressing too quickly without an adequate base of mileage. If you start building the penthouse before you pour the concrete for the foundation of your house, it just doesn’t work.
The Fix: Invest in developing a solid base of easy, aerobic mileage (your foundation) before you add harder effort runs (the penthouse). Your body will adapt more readily and attain the strength and stability to run at harder efforts. Consider speed workouts and other hard effort runs like a spice in your recipe and season to taste (a little goes long way). Run by effort rather than pace. You’ll always run in the right gear no matter what the day brings.
Making the transition from treadmill running to the roads can be taxing even if you run the same pace. For one thing, a 6:15 pace on the treadmill may not feel the same as a 6:15 pace outside. And, the impact forces can be greater when running outdoors versus the treadmill, not to mention the elements (which I’ll get to in a minute).
The Fix: The more you run on a treadmill, the slower the transition should be to running outdoors to allow your body time to adapt to the variance in impact forces and running mechanics. Example: If you are running 100% on the treadmill, transition one run every one to two weeks outside. When you do, let the pace be the outcome and run by effort rather than pace.
Remember what heat can do to running performance (it slows you down). The body has to work a lot harder to cool itself in the heat, especially when you aren’t yet acclimated, which usually takes a solid two weeks of hot-weather running. Although dead legs aren’t a direct result of one hot run, if you train at your normal pace in the heat, fatigue will result down the road.
The Fix: Run with the flow of what the day brings. Doing so will allow you to run in the right zone (easy, moderate, or hard) based on what is going on in the moment: extreme pollen levels, heat and humidity, winds, mud or snow. When you run by your body rather than your head, you’ll run your best effort no matter what challenge life throws at you.
Muscle tightness, fatigue, and energy levels ebb and flow based on the amount of stress (running) versus the degree of recovery. The amount of recovery depends greatly on the amount of total stress in your life. That is, in order to understand how much recovery a runner needs, it is important to look at all the life ingredients including sleep, quality of nutrition, hydration, running mileage and intensity, strength training, changes (new form, shoes) and life stress – to name just a few. The combination of burning the candle at both ends with a lack of quality recovery in the form of a complete rest day or active rest (cross-training) can translate to overall fatigue and tired legs.
The Fix: Invest in quality down time with complete rest days and active recovery based on your life schedule. The body grows stronger when optimal amounts of stress are balanced with recovery. In general, the more stress in your life, the greater the need to balance that energy output with recovery for rejuvenation. Investing in rest days, modifying the effort level or distance of your runs on days when you’re feeling spent, balancing the demands of all your workouts (running and otherwise), eating quality fuel, performing flexibility work, and getting in quality sleep are all ways to balance the output and maintain a balance of energy out and in.