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The Invisible Injury

There’s something I call “The Invisible Injury”.

It’s not a pain or a pull. The invisible injury doesn’t happen from one moment to the next like a crash. It sneaks up on you. And many times you don’t even know you have it until it goes from small to big.

What is it? Fatigue!

It’s tricky to spot because at first it’s just a vague feeling that something isn’t 100%. “I’m a bit off. I’m more tired than I should be. My workouts have sucked recently. I train tons but can’t sleep. Even though life is good, I feel a little depressed. I’ve lost my mojo and all I can think about is sitting on the couch and eating chips.” The list goes on…

A little fatigue is part of the endurance game though. By nature, we get more fit by reaching beyond our current fitness in training. But that benefit only comes when we recover fully before reaching again. And if we don’t, the burnout clock starts ticking. An invisible injury has started to form.

The body has an amazing capacity to mask building fatigue though. The first is from our ability to convince ourselves that “I’m just being lazy”. We override that little voice calling for some extra rest and recovery. You can still have solid training and racing even with low grade fatigue.

But without correcting the reason fatigue has started, you’ll eventually hit the midpoint. That’s when you can’t put your finger on what’s going on, but it feels like you are actually getting out of shape even though you’re hitting all your training as planned. First your times start to get slower in the pool. Then it starts to become a struggle to get your heart rate up on the bike. And then you feel like your body is full of lactic acid even at the start of an easy run. Out of breath and full of lactate at a pace minutes per mile slower than you can normally hold? Yes, the invisible injury is festering.

Then the wheels start to come off.

You go from one day feeling like a super hero because you rose up and maybe even hit a PR is a workout, but then the next you are wasted beyond belief. It takes a supreme mental effort to even think about going out for another workout. From super hero to near zero…it’s a sure sign that the invisible injury is spinning out of control.

By this point most people have either gotten sick or injured, which forces them to slow down and take it easy. But not always. And for sure, don’t wait for an illness or an injury to tell you when it’s time to ease up!

Here are three huge signs you are unsustainably fatigued:

  • You can’t get your heart rate up in training. Or if you can, it’s only for a few minutes, then it drops way back down no matter how hard you try.
  • Even going slowly your muscles are burning.
  • Your training is like a yoyo. One day you feel supercharged, the next you can barely get going.

What are training pitfalls that get you to that state of having the invisible injury?

  • Doing more than three hard days in a row. Two demanding days are generally ok. But three is the limit. After that take a day super easy.
  • Doing too much fast training week after week. If you have limited time to train, this can be the go-to way of structuring workouts. But it only adds physical stress onto what is likely a busy stressful life that prevents you from having more time to get in your workouts.
  • Lack of sleep. If you train hard, sleep hard. It’s that simple. If you up your training volume and intensity, up your sleep. It’s that simple!

How can you come back from being fatigued? How do you beat the invisible injury?

The easiest is to continuously be mindful of how your body is responding and recovering from your training. And I don’t mean mindful in the sense of are you sore or are you able to keep getting up for the sessions that are on your calendar. I am talking about tuning into how your body is feeling energetically:

  • Are you feeling fresh more days of the week than not? You know what that means if you are not.
  • Are you taking longer and longer to finally get going in your training sessions? You know what that means if it does.
  • Does your brain feel like it’s in a fog when you get up in the morning? If it does, you can reach for another cup of coffee, but consider going back to bed and skipping that early morning swim in favor of some more sleep.

Here are three tips on trimming your training when you know fatigue is over the reasonable limit:

  • Take one day completely off, then the next two cut your training load in half. See how you feel after that.
  • If that doesn’t do it, keep the next seven days completely aerobic, nothing fast. Spin in an easy gear. Run a few minutes per mile slower than you ideally like to. Put on the pull buoy and paddles and keep your heart rate low in the pool.
  • If you still haven’t come around, still keep it aerobic and cut your planned volume in half for the next week. Then if you are coming around, the following week do 75% of what is scheduled, and if you are gaining freshness, put a light tempo session in if planned at the end of that week. Then if it’s all good, the following week, build back to normal volumes and intensity.

You may wonder why I’ve spent so much time with this topic. It’s because I know it well. Here is just one story of how the invisible injury got me!


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