"Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

- George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

Monday, August 30, 2010

On Sickness & Injury

For a runner in training, the two worst things that can happen are injury and sickness.

For purposes here, let's make sure we differentiate between injury and discomfort. A little bit of knee pain after a few miles is discomfort. Purple toenails are also filed under discomfort. What Ted Spiker (The Marathon Virgin) did to his ankle a few weeks back is an injury. So is a stress fracture (but not a shin splint). Discomfort you can work through even if it means slowing down or not going as many miles. Injuries keep you in the house with your shoes and gear packed in the closet. For the injured runner, there isn't much internal argument between the mind and body: they're typically on the same page and agree that continuing to train is a bad idea.

Sickness is a different ballgame (and if we need to define sickness also, let's say anything short of being rushed to the emergency room or requiring constant bed rest). In this case the mind and body can find themselves at odds with one another. The mind says go because it's just a cold, it's not that bad and you can't afford to miss a long run. The body thinks otherwise and is pleading for time to rest and repair itself. And on it goes.

Which power wins this battle? The mind or the body? Which should be given priority when deciding if that 18 mile Saturday morning run is worth it?

Let's use the game of Risk as an illustration. For those unfamiliar, the basic premise of Risk is to accumulate armies and wage battle against an opponent's armies in an effort to achieve "global domination." Various strategies are required, including knowing when and where to attack, when to cut losses, when and where to reposition armies and when to take defensive measures against an ensuing attack.

Any guess what's coming next?
Imagine the following scenario being played out: Player 1 (P1) sees Player 2 (P2) stockpiling armies in a territory neighboring one of his own. As the size of P2's army grows, P1 knows an attack is inevitable and begins to take immediate measures to protect and defend his territory. And then it happens: P2 initiates a battle and P1 is left to defend his territory.

P2 may take several turns to fight this battle, but ultimately there are two possible outcomes: either P2 will be victorious over P1 and claim the territory or P2's army will be reduced or even eliminated by the defense and possible counter-attack of P1.

To make the analogy, P1 is the body and P2 is sickness.

Most people know and can sense when symptoms of sickness are coming on. This is P2 accumulating armies in preparation for an attack. At this point most people (runners in training especially) scramble to defend themselves with any variety of measures: increasing Vitamin C intake, drinking more fluids, getting extra rest, taking over-the-counter products like Zicam or Airborne. They hope and pray they've done enough to prevent an all out battle against sickness, but then, like in Risk, it happens: the body comes under attack and goes into full battle mode against that sickness.

Back to the game for a moment. If P2 wages battle over the course of a few turns, P1 has a few options to consider on their turn. Two of these options include sending additional armies to the territory being attacked or sending these same armies elsewhere to fight other battles. The first option is surely the most prudent move, especially if P2 has a significant numbers advantage. True, no one has ever won a game of Risk without ever being on the offensive, but most all games are lost by failing to play effective defense.

The body has the same two options: it can focus its resources on fighting the sickness or it can spread those resources thin across various physical tasks. To extend the analogy further, the body's armies in this case are units of energy. What can the body do with available energy? Here are three possibilities, among several others.

1. Repair and regenerate itself
2. Digestion
3. Physical activity

Resources should go where they are needed most
If the body is under attack and needs all available resources sent to the front lines to fight off the sickness, the prudent move is to send them there. Asking your body to use this energy for digestion or physical activity will only prolong and/or deepen the illness. Surely some energy is required for both of these things, but this requirement can be minimized by consuming easily digested foods (like fruit) and by (brace yourself) shutting down your training program until your body gives the "all clear" signal. As difficult as this may be for the mind to accept, it's what the body needs.

By forcing yourself into your shoes and out the door for a strenuous workout, vast amount of additional armies are being directed away from the body's most pressing and important battles.

Furthermore, each of the training runs in a program have a purpose (speed workouts, tempo runs, hills, etc). As this specific purpose will not be achieved while the body is not well, slogging through a run while the body is sick provides little benefit to your actual training. Chances are good that it won't be a productive run anyway, and, while there may a temporary relief from the symptoms of the sickness, you can be sure the armies of the sickness will return with a vengeance once the body returns to its normal resting state. However, because energy has been directed to the exertion of a workout, the body will not be able to fight it as effectively as it may have.

The next time you are sick and struggling to decide if you should get stick to your training plan or take a day off to let your body recover, do you body a favor and rest. Failure to do so could allow the sickness to drag out for days and even weeks -- truly destroying your training program. In the short-term this will be difficult for the mind to accept. But once the body's armies have conquered the armies of the sickness, you'll be confident knowing the battle was quick, that the body fought it as efficiently as possible and that there are no lingering effects standing in your way to training the very best that you can.


Andrew Opala said...

Ukraine is weak!

Travis C said...

Control Australia - Control the world!