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Smart Marathon Training: Knowing When To Say When

Learn how to listen to the signs that your body is giving you.

Learn how to listen to the signs that your body is giving you. 

As runners, we all know that to be successful, we have to push ourselves to run, even when we sometimes don’t feel like it. Often we’re rewarded with a good run and the feeling afterward that we did the right thing.

But sometimes the body isn’t kidding; it really doesn’t want to run. At those times, it’s best to leave it be. The tough part, of course, is distinguishing one of these moments from the other and responding appropriately.

One tried and true indicator of fatigue is the resting heart rate (RHR). An elevated RHR is sign of a body that’s stressed; it’s working harder than usual to accomplish its basic task of simply keeping itself alive. Many elite runners monitor their RHR daily. Although an RHR that’s a beat or two higher or lower per minute is not a cause for concern, an RHR that’s 10 percent or more above the norm is a signal that something is wrong. When elite runners find themselves in that situation, many of them cancel their day’s training plan. No argument, no debate, no guilt.

RELATED: Why Overtraining Happens, How To Spot It & How To Dig Yourself Out

The first step in adopting this approach is to establish your RHR. Pick three consecutive days that will likely be routine, normal days, when you won’t be out late or burning the midnight oil on a stressful work project. On each day, check your pulse immediately upon waking. At the end of the three days, find the average. That’s your RHR.

Continue to check your pulse at that same time every day. That’s important because your pulse will likely be different at other times of the day, so a spike in your heart rate would be normal and wouldn’t reflect excess fatigue.

Another way to easily and effectively track your fatigue levels is by simply noting your mood, your enthusiasm for working out, and your performance. Anyone can have a bad run, but several bad runs in a row aren’t good.

Sometimes bad days can add up without your noticing, which is one reason why it’s important to keep a training log. By noting all the relevant data in a log—how you felt, how your workout went, what you ate, how well you slept—you will begin to notice trends and deviations. You can buy a training log, use one for free online, or make notes in a day planner or on a calendar. The important thing is to get in the habit of listening to and tracking what your body is trying to tell you.

Does all of this sound like too much work? Here’s an even simpler test: How long does it take you to fall asleep at night? It should take about 10 minutes. Less than that indicates a high state of fatigue and sleep deprivation.

RELATED: The Importance of Recovery After A Marathon

For many of us—myself included—logging enough hours of sleep each night is the greatest challenge. Failure to get enough sleep can undermine a training program because sleep is when the body releases human growth hormone (HGH), which not only heals the damage you inflicted on your muscles while training but also helps the body to resculpt itself to meet the new demands on it. Skip sleep, and your body cannot make these repairs and changes.

The real problem, however, is not that most runners can’t spot fatigue. We all know when we’re tired, sore, and cranky. It’s that many runners feel that they dare not miss a workout. The guilt of skipping a planned run is simply too much for them. To these runners I pose this question: What do you think would be more fun and beneficial—to slog through a bad workout today and a bad workout tomorrow or to take today off and run the outsoles right off your shoes tomorrow?

Most people recognize what the right answer should be, but some of them still can’t bring themselves to take the day off. That’s a problem. I tell all of the athletes I coach that one of our prime rules is this: Do not be braver than you are smart. Working out when you should be resting is not being tough; it’s being dumb. It’s putting your health and the effectiveness of your program—and all the work you put into it—in jeopardy.

I once had a client who refused to take days off when I instructed him to do so, even after I explained how important it is to include recovery time in a workout schedule. The result was that he was fatigued on the days when I needed him to run faster. Not surprisingly, over the course of a full season he missed all of his race goals. We were both frustrated. I recognized that this was not a situation that would get any better until he could follow my advice. Until then, he would be essentially uncoachable.

Some athletes are dedicated enough to do the hard work but not dedicated enough to stop working when they should. You need to decide from the start which kind of athlete you’re going to be.

This article was adapted from the book Smart Marathon Training with the permission of VeloPress. Old-school marathon training plans ask runners to crank out 70 to 100 miles a week. It’s no wonder those who make it to the start line are running ragged. Smart Marathon Training maps out a healthier, more economical approach to training that emphasizes quality over quantity. This innovative program eliminates junk miles, paring down training to three essential runs per week and adding a dynamic strength and cross-training program to build overall fitness. Runners will train for their best performance in less time and avoid the injuries, overtraining, and burnout that come from running too much.


About The Author:

Jeff Horowitz is a certified running and triathlon coach and a personal trainer who has run more than 150 marathons across six continents. Formerly an attorney, he quit law to pursue his passion for endurance sport and now works with DC Tri; The Nations Triathlon; the nonprofit summer camp ACHIEVE Kids Triathlon; and Team Hope, a charity fund-raising training group that benefits the Hope Connections Center, a cancer-patients service organization. Learn more about Jeff at

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