Ask Pete: What Happened to My Umpf?
If our brain gets worried that we’re running too hard, it shuts down muscle fibers. Here's how to reengage your mind and muscles.
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Have a question for Pete? Shoot us a note.
I’m a 55-year-old runner who ran a 50-mile race a few months ago and haven’t had any umpf since. I’ve had to reduce mileage, take weeks off, and curtail repetition sessions on the track. Do I need an extended break, and, if so, how do I retain fitness? – Mickey
You may need a reboot more than rest.
When we runners think of recovery, we think of damaged muscle fibers, reduced carbohydrate stores, and inflammation in tendons and other soft tissue.
But there’s a bigger factor that we must deal with: our brains.
It’s our brain’s job to make sure we don’t kill ourselves while exercising. If our brain, through its various feedback mechanisms, gets worried that we’re running too hard, it creates the sensation we perceive as fatigue and shuts down muscle fibers—like a parent turning out the lights in their child’s room when it’s time to go to sleep. When muscle fibers get shut down, we lose our ability to run with “umpf.” Put too big a scare to our brains—say by running a 50-mile race for the first time—and that shutdown can last indefinitely.
When a similar period of prolonged fatigue and umpf-less-ness (one that couldn’t be resolved by normal or extended recovery) struck me a few years back, I tried a different strategy. I decided to manually reengage all my muscle fibers—to turn back on the lights, so to speak. I performed drills and sprints, ran backwards and laterally, hopped, skipped, jumped, and performed lower-body resistance training.
I forced my brain and nervous system to utilize every muscle fiber and neural pathway available for exercise. I wanted to show my brain that exercise was safe. The result was improvement after a single workout and a return to normal training, complete with umpf, within a few weeks.
Listen, a 50-mile race will require a minimum of a month and up to two months for normal recovery. But if you’re still dead-legged after that, it just might be in your head—or, at least, in your brain.
WHO ASKED YOU, ANYWAY?
Pete’s freebee training tip: Remember that recovery from a race begins with your taper before the race. Runners who attempt to “train through” races give their body a training load that it can’t handle. A race is a 100% effort, and you want to start with fully repaired muscle, fully stocked muscle glycogen, and a relaxed brain.
Pete Magill is the author of SpeedRunner: 4 Weeks to Your Fastest Leg Speed in Any Sport and Fast 5K: 25 Crucial Keys and 4 Training Plans.