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AMR Aid Station: Good Days + Bad Days on the Exact Same Run: Why?

Welcome to the AMR Aid Station, a new feature on the Another Mother Runner. At the AMR Aid Station, we will answer and explain your burning + interesting #motherrunner questions, so if you have any, feel free to tweet us @themotherrunner with your question and use #AMRAidstation; you can also comment in below or email us.

"One day, I go on a specific route and it's easy breezy. The next day, it slays me. Why?"

When Dimity asked that, my first reaction was: I dunno! Why are you asking ME?

And then, Oh yeah right, I worked at a running magazine for 14 years, and I’ve run a heap of marathons. Probably I know the answer.

In this day and age when everyone’s an instant expert, I feel perversely panicky when people ask me questions.

I’m far more comfortable quoting “real” experts than making my own grand proclamations.

Especially because people—okay, my mother—throw things I say back at me in accusatory tones, like “YOU SAID I WOULD KEEP GETTING FASTER!”

AMR Aid Station

(My mother is 90. I probably DID say that, when she first started running. Thirty years ago.)

One thing that 30+ years in magazine making taught me is how to find the right expert to answer questions. Let's ask them!

Given this forum, it seemed smart to turn first to one of the coaches for Train Like a Mother programs. So I asked Amanda Loudin, coach of the traditional running programs.

Coach Amanda said: “So many factors go into a run: Life stresses, sleep, how many runs you’ve already had in a week, how long it’s been since your rest day, strength workouts, etc. All of which is to say that no one run defines you and as sure as you will hit good ones, you will hit bad ones and vice versa. Expect the ups and downs and don’t let the downs get you down.”

I like that, don’t you? In every single marathon I’ve run, I’ve had low moments. As in life, they pass.

Feeling all pleased with myself for getting a smart answer so quickly, I turned next to pro runner Lauren Fleshman, two-time USA 5K champ, creator of Picky Bars, and Oiselle partner and coach.

 

AMR Aid Station.
Lauren Fleshman's family: Big bro Jude "helps" Zadie sit up, while dad and pro triathlete Jesse Thomas does important work watching TV

 

I was lucky enough to edit her columns, including why the 5K is freaking awesome and keeping it real about our bodies.

Plus, her family is adorable.

I asked @laurenfleshman, Why does the same 5-mile run feel awesome one day but awful another? Does that happen to pro runners too? You'll see she said YES.

 

One of my first duties at RW was to edit a column  by the preceding editor-in-chief, Amby Burfoot, who notably WON the Boston Marathon in 1968. I wasn’t intimidated at all. [sarcasm emoji]

Amby Burfoot WON the 1968 Boston Marathon, making him the coolest co-worker EVER.

 

Turns out Amby is one of the most down-to-earth, sensible, and kind guys you’ll ever meet. Smart too: To this day I send people to his columns about the "ideal" running weight and the runner’s high.

From Amby: “Specific routes are easy one day, hard another for the same reason that we all have good days and bad. Which is to say, that’s simply the way things work. There are reasons for it--physiological, stress, illness, etc--but that doesn’t mean we can control these reasons as much as we might like."

“The important thing is not to get down on yourself when you have a bad run. Stuff happens. You’ll bounce back. And you’ll bounce back sooner if you don’t make a mountain out of a little molehill.”

Amby went on: "At the same time, it makes sense to monitor yourself closely for a couple of days after a bad run. If you’re coming down with something, it’s good to recognize it, and take appropriate measures.”

See? See? Sensible and smart! Isn’t it so perfect how he echoes and amplifies what Amanda said? I think we might have a column here, kids!

Lastly, I asked one of the smartest runner-writers I’ve ever read, and whom I trust implicitly: Alex Hutchinson, author of the blog Sweat Science and a new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, which Amby raves about.

Alex has a PhD in physics and ran 1500 meters in two Canadian Olympic Trials. I felt slightly guilty bothering him, as he has a 1-year-old and 3-year-old at home.

AMR Aid Station
Alex writes the smart blog Sweat Science for Outside magazine. [Photo by Alexi Hobbs.]
And then he took the time to write this incredibly thoughtful, detailed answer—complete with links!—and I can’t bear to edit one word out, so here’s the whole thing:

There are lots of different things that can be going on, and the most obvious ones are physical.

For example, even if you eat right and refuel properly, your fuel stores (i.e. muscle glycogen) won’t be fully restocked the day after a hard workout. And in the real world, we often don’t do things “perfectly,” so we may delay refueling, or not eat quite enough, and end up with slightly less than optimal fuel stores even if we haven’t done a “big” workout the day before. This matters even if you don’t actually run out of fuel during the run, because exercise will start to feel harder even when your metaphorical gas tank is still half-full.

Low-grade muscle damage or muscle fatigue (it’s sort of hard to draw a clear distinction between the two) can also linger for a few days or more, either from a single hard run or from the accumulation of mileage over time. One of the things that I notice is if I take some time off, the first couple of runs back always feel amazing, even if I’m a little out of shape, then they start feeling harder for a few weeks until my fitness comes around. Those magical first few runs are a rare glimpse of what it feels like to run with no accumulated fatigue in the legs. For the most part, anyone who runs regularly is *always* carrying a load of cumulative fatigue, and the amount can vary from day to day depending on your training and other life factors (e.g. if you were standing for a long time or stuck on an airplane the previous day).

But aside from the physical stuff, there’s also the mental side. Samuele Marcora, one of the researchers I spoke to for my book, told me he thinks

Mental fatigue is a big and underappreciated factor in  the “good day/bad day problem.”

Mental fatigue, which can accumulate for any number of reasons (work, stress, social engagements, personal stuff, etc.), affects how difficult you perceive a given physical task to be. I notice that most obviously if I try to run immediately after rushing to hit a story deadline – the run is hard even though I’ve just been sitting at my desk for eight hours. That’s an obvious example, but lots of mental fatigue triggers are more subtle, so they may contribute to a given run feeling harder without us realizing that it’s happening.

So, Dimity, to answer your question: What Alex said.

(Note: Alex will be a guest on the podcast in late March.)

What questions do you have for the AMR Aid Station? Tweet us @TheMotherrunner with your question and use #AMRAidstation; you can also comment in below or email us.

2 responses to “AMR Aid Station: Good Days + Bad Days on the Exact Same Run: Why?

  1. Love love love this article. Has to be one of my favorites, I know I’ll keep going back to it (for the obvious reasons of good day/bad day)!

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