The talented former cyclist Jens Voigt, whom during his career wore the yellow jersey of The Tour de France twice (for stage wins) and won the Criterium International 5 times, is no stranger to suffering. He is also known for aptly describing the mind-body discourse of an endurance athlete: “Shut up legs, shut up body! Do what I tell you to do!”
The ongoing fight of fitness over health is a battle professional athletes, cyclists especially, are well familiar with. Surprisingly, in spite of their impressive determination to push and pull pedals to the pointing of vision-blurring suffering in an effort to put forth their best performance, the ongoing extreme endurance is in fact putting their health at risk. This is due to the demands placed on the heart and large arteries as well as the muscular micro tears and wear on the immune system that don’t adequately repair without recovery.
While those of us who endeavor age group racing on the recreational scale and aren’t versed in the back breaking, white knuckling, teeth grinding suffering that Tour riders uniquely experience, we are still confronted with the dichotomy between health and fitness. There’s a line many athletes, in my opinion endurance athletes in particular, will cross where their health is sacrificed in favor of building for future performance.
In college I experienced this in the form of shin splints and Iliotibal Band Syndome . I would run only on race days, seek out a variety of resources to adjust my bike fit, habitually ice and go to physical therapy, aqua-jog, E-Stem, cupping, cortisone shots, you name it. And only as an absolute LAST resort would I opt to just rest. Which is really what my body needed. REST. I have given that advice to peers, team mates, and fellow racers. I get that advice from coaches and loved ones with the pitiful attempt to console: “There’s always next year…” Then when push comes to shove, like it or not, there have been and will continue to be times that I’m forced to give in to my body’s need for TLC.
All that said, as an endurance athlete (especially those of us who have been doing one or more of these sports since our youth) we are well accustomed to aches, pains, and minor injuries, that we can easily bounce back from and have even ignored without consequence. So it can be tricky to identify when something is ‘take the day or weekend off’ vs ‘you’re out for the season’.
The motivation to push and insist, at least for me, is almost always dictated by an upcoming race. In reality a little time off would not be the end of the world, but there’s a significant level of time, dedication, and even of sacrifice (usually social and financial) that is going to culminate in a meaningful and challenging competition. Indulging in time off from that hard work and focus can feel impossible even when confronted with illness or injury. Our bodies either do what we hope for and recovery quickly OR get worse and end up taking longer to get better.
For me this season/this year the ongoing health battle has been getting knocked down by sinus infections and chest congestion. I’ll start to feel better and then it flares back up. I’ll have a good training week and then a few weeks of nagging sinus pressure. So why not just rest and get better? Well, the honest answer is that it feels like I’m in too deep! I’m weeks away from my big competitions that I’ve had my sights set on since last October and it feels like every single day counts! I’m managing my training in spite of being unable to fully kick this illness. And because I’ve already gone months training through it, I’m determined to stubbornly stay the course until I cross those finish lines. Would I be better off now if I would have just taken 1-2 whole weeks off when this started instead of a few days? Ya, probably. Shoulda woulda coulda. I’m here now, putting in solid efforts, getting stronger and faster and admittedly putting my fitness and desire to perform over my health.
I’m telling my legs…and my lungs to shut up and do what I tell them to do.
My nugget of advice (that I didn’t and often don’t take for myself) is to listen to your body when something doesn’t feel right. Get supportive shoes, visit the doctor, google exercises that will help you strengthen the muscles and tendons around your knees, take recovery days seriously, and above all – it’s okay to just REST. This advice should especially be strongly considered if you are early in a season, far out from your goal race or competition and if you want to cultivate healthy habits in your own life.
In the mean time I’ll be relying on good sleep, my inhaler, and God’s good grace!