The goal of the runner is not health. His objective is the fitness necessary for maximum performance. Health is something the runner goes through en route to fitness, a way station he hardly notices in his pursuit of the 20% to 30% of physical capacity that lies untouched. And health, therefore, is what he risks in training to do his best, because just beyond fitness and a personal record lies staleness, and with it fatigue and exhaustion and depression and despair.
I have gone through this sequence many times over the years. In reaching for my peak at distances from the mile to the marathon, I have discovered that disaster is only a hard workout or an all-out race away. I have gone through the runner's version of being overtennised or overgolfed, of leaving my fight in the gym. I have become stale. I have reached that state where, as Vince Lombardi once said of fumbles, "There is nothing to do but scream."
My task then is to reach this fine line, and not go over.
As a result, over the years I have come to believe in two rules about training. The first: it is better to be undertrained than overtrained. The second: if things are going badly, I am undoubtedly overtrained and need less work rather than more. This is in line with former University of Oregon and Olympic track Coach Bill Bowerman's belief that a bad race almost always indicates too much work. For this reason Bowerman has always recommended hard-day/easy-day schedules to avoid overtraining. Most runners and coaches, of course, take the opposite view. For them a bad race is an incentive to double training rather than cut it in half.
But must you wait for a bad race? Is there some way to guide yourself more precisely? Yes, there is. First, by listening to your body. Second, by keeping a fitness index.
Your body is always trying to tell you where you are. Listen to it. Beware when you become tired and listless, when you lose interest in workouts and approach them as a chore rather than a pleasure. Back off when you become lightheaded on arising or notice an irregularity in your pulse. Slow down if you get a cold or sore throat or feel as if "mono" is coming back. Be on the alert if you develop depression insomnia, which is indicated by ease in getting to sleep but repeated awakenings during the night, or remain unrefreshed after a night's rest. Take it easy if your attention span diminishes and you can't concentrate. Listen well to these things. Your homeostasis, the equilibrium between your body and training stress, is breaking down.
Keeping a "fitness index" is simple, and because it can be charted, it is more satisfactory to some runners than listening to their bodies. When you awake in the morning, lie in bed for five minutes, then take your pulse. To do this, grasp your Adam's apple between your thumb and your index finger. Then slide the fingers back about an inch or more until you feel the carotid arteries pulsating. Now count the pulses for 60 seconds. Also check your weight and breathing. Then record the data on your chart. Follow the same procedure later in the day after training. Take your pulse at the conclusion of your workout and again 15 minutes later.
As you record these figures over the weeks you will chart your course through health to fitness. You will see a weekly improvement—a lowering of your pulse rate—until you level out at your basic heart rate, in my case around 50 beats per minute. Now you must be wary of any sudden rise. If the morning pulse is up 10 or more beats, you have not recovered from the previous day's training. Practice therefore should be eliminated or curtailed until the pulse returns to normal.
Such attention to pulse taking may make a hypochondriac or a neurotic out of you. But more than likely the fitness index will give you better control of your running life. There is no better early-warning system for detecting the onset of overtraining, no better way to avoid staleness, the catastrophe on the other side of fitness.
One way for a doctor to acquire skill, said Plato, was to have knowledge of medical science and a wide acquaintance with disease. But according to Plato, the best way was to have experienced all kinds of disease in his own person. And, to this end, he thought that a doctor should not be of altogether healthy constitution. Such a liability would not, of course, keep a physician or any Greek from being an athlete. Everyone in those days was urged to train both body and mind, thereby arriving at the proper harmony between energy and initiative on one hand and reason on the other.