You Have a Choice

Recently, the New York Times published an article about the hearts of long term endurance athletes. The article was sent to me by an number of folks and, I’m guessing, that it was circulated widely in the endurance community.

Chris Carmichael wrote a response to the article. There’s a lot of truth in Coach Carmichael’s reply. Given his experience, with the highest levels of professional cycling, he’s uniquely qualified to offer insight on sport and health.

When you read the NYT article you can find yourself wondering, “oh crap, am I hurting myself?” Odds are, you aren’t hurting yourself.

However, when I read the article, I was nodding my head in agreement. You see, I’ve done at least as much extreme training as the athletes in the study and I’ve been paying attention to how that effects the body. I believe, athletes at the top of our sport (myself included) are at a much greater risk for exercise-induced health problems. It makes sense, we are doing a lot more exercise.

Given the lack of scientific basis in my feelings, I’ll leave it to the docs on our editorial board to examine the data for you!

I’m going to focus on practical advice.

When it comes to exercise, I want to remind you that you have a choice.

Exercise is not binary. Daily exercise follows a continuum from sedentary to illness. My athletic life breaks down as follows:

  • Hour per day – my personal minimum
  • Two hours per day – my personal sweet spot
  • Three hours per day – elite amateur performance
  • Four hours per day – elite performance
  • Five hours per day – likely to cause illness if sustained long term

Each of us will have our own continuum and I’d encourage you to find your sweet spot. My sweet spot (12-15 hours per week) enables me to stay fit; do big cycling trips; host training camps; look good; be mentally aware and feel spiritually satisfied. It doesn’t enable me to run 2:46 off the bike, go sub-8:30 at ironman or win Ultraman Hawaii.

As I move up the curve, I generate marginally better athletic performance but my “life benefits” decrease markedly.

Interestingly, my inner circle considers four hours per day to be reasonable, and I long for the high-volume lifestyle of years past! I read somewhere that addicts like to hang out together…

You control of your definition of success. If you define success in terms of victories, or beating other athletes, then you’ll be tempted away from the health benefits of exercise.

Be aware that elite sport (professional and amateur) is about winning, mostly. Many of your competitors could care less about their long-term personal health — they just want to train hard (and kick your butt) today, tomorrow and for as long as their body holds out.

Our society is set up to create demand for products and services. It is going to take effort on your part to consider your health.

Extreme workloads are a phase, not a destination. If you are driven to be your absolute best then you will need to challenge yourself. Do it with your eyes open and under the supervision of a good sports doctor.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Get a medical check up
  • Figure out your personal sweet spot
  • Write out your personal definition of success — make this as broad as possible
  • Pay attention to choices that cause you to drop below your sweet spot
  • Never train with a chest infection

Fitness is a powerful drug. Try not to get greedy.


Categories: Health

About Author