Agony and ecstasy

"It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it." - Tom Hanks in A League Of Their Own

It’s one of the great and enduring mysteries that will be familiar to pretty much anyone who has ever laced up a running shoe. (At least, I’m assuming so. Maybe it’s just me? In which case, er, just forget I ever said anything).

How is it that you can go out one day and feel brilliant and the next day you can almost sense you’re going to have a shocker the minute you put one foot in front of the other? 

I had this experience just last week on a favourite 10km training run that I must have done 200 times over the past couple of years. The first morning I went out was golden. Everything felt right and the world was spinning under my feet. I scooted up the hills like I was on an escalator, couldn’t put a foot wrong on the downhills and arrived home feeling elated and barely fatigued.

It was one of those days all runners cherish.

Then, the following day, it all turned to custard. On the exact same route I felt about as lithe as a pregnant water buffalo. It was as if I was running through a swimming pool full of treacle. Everything hurt, from my breathing to my knees, and mentally I was in bits, with the darkest of negative thoughts assailing me at every step. It was horrible.

I asked Paul Penna, a sports psychologist who, among others, advises the Australian swimming team and Wests Tigers, what's happening when we feel like this.

“You’ve got to listen to your body and read what’s going on,” he says. “Maybe it’s the start of a cold or flu. But you also have to realise that your body adapts to training so some days it is working really hard to recover and other days it is fully adapted and fresh and ready to go.

“We have an expectation for ourselves and whenever we don’t meet it we get frustrated and that affects our mood, which becomes flatter and we enjoy the training less. The next day you might go out and force yourself to run harder because you weren’t happy with yesterday and then you get more fatigued and stressed. And that’s how burnout can start.”


Penna says a problem for a lot of amateurs is not understanding the cyclical nature of training, or at least not being able to manage training sensibly because of other commitments.

“We get fitter and stronger by producing stress on our body,” says Penna. “You can’t continue to increase stress. It needs to go in a cycle. Typically it can be three weeks in stress production and then one week in recovery. If you don’t give your body the chance to recover it doesn’t adapt and get stronger, instead it continues to get stressed until it breaks down.

“We make all these assumptions that more equals better and a lot of amateurs don’t train properly – they don’t give themselves adequate rest.”

I'll certainly put my hand up to that one. My training is pretty haphazard because, with the best will in the world carefully planned schedules of speed work, long runs and rest days tend to go out the window the minute real life intervenes. I'm more likely to overtrain for six or seven days straight, then have to take a couple of days off for family or work reasons, then go hard again because I feel bad for not running.

Hardly ideal. But then I suspect that this is the case for most amateurs. Most of us just have to take the rough with the smooth, muddle along as best we can and grab those golden days when they come along.

Do you manage to stick to a strict training regime, or do you inevitably end up over- or under-training. And what are your secrets to setting up an efficient routine and fitting everything else in?