The Guilty Athlete

by Mark Wolff

A new day dawns, signs of first light begin to show and a sudden rush of endorphin’s begin to stimulate my brain. The mind is on a mission, to go out and train and put in another solid workout to get keep me on track with my racing goals. This day is different however, as what the mind wants the body is actually fighting.  I lie there in an awkward state between reality and want. The want being to get out and train and the reality being that my body just won’t move in that direction. Inner conflict and emotional turmoil begin to take over with a hint of frustration and depression. The questioning starts and in the end it’s either a victory for foolishness or wisdom.  This however is where experience counts, and with a wry smile on my face I go back to sleep and decide to listen to my body.

Comrades 2014 was exactly the same. I had prepped for many months for a race I was determined to participate in and silver status my goal. Everything was on track, perfect build, perfect qualifying marathon and all my focus on the main goal had paid off completely in race readiness. However 10 days prior to the race an infection hit my system which got worse with time and eventually a strong antibiotic course and not feeling great forced me to make the wise decision to withdraw. Many people I spoke to said run anyway, just see how you feel while running. My answer to that is its not worth the risk, there will always be another Comrades and its just a matter of shifting the goal posts and targeting something else. Just yesterday I heard of the sad passing away of an athlete from this years Comrades Marathon and the cause pointed to viral infection.

Everyday across the globe athletes whether professional or amateur are faced with difficult decisions on whether to train or race based on how they feel. The biggest problem is that most of the time they don’t listen to their bodies and put themselves at risk. It’s the most painful experience when you have worked so hard towards a racing goal and when that day approaches our bodies tell us that it’s not to be.

So in light of all of this how do we know what signs to look for and how do we cope with emotional stress of dealing with what we seem to feel is failure and embarrassment. Let’s face it no one wants to be a race dropout.

The first and most important advice I can give is that no matter whether you are a professional or amateur athlete, your health always comes first. It is not ever worth putting yourself at risk for something that will always be there for you to achieve. Listening to your body’s symptoms is the most unbelievable struggle between good and evil, and a number of very important factors if ignored can put you at serious risk. The big question of course is when is it alright for me to train or race, and when should I avoid it. Once you understand this we can discuss how to cope with it.

Illness aside, when did you go for your last medical check up? Are you 100% sure your body is ready for stress? I make it a priority to have a complete medical before racing season and then after my racing season is over I go for another medical. Firstly to ensure that my engine is in good shape to actually train and race and second to ensure that after my season it is still in good working order and that no damage was done. Remember the body undergoes extreme physical stress especially when training hard and racing. Once you have a solid foundation of knowledge about your physical well being you will have a peace of mind when placing your body under stress and also be in a position to understand your body very well when it communicates to you. Its amazing how a person who is going on a drive down to the coast on a holiday will take extra special care to service the vehicle and have the tires checked and changed if needed to ensure the journey is a safe one. However most people will neglect to service their own engines when embarking on a tough endurance event.

The first consideration you need to take into account is to understand how you feel the second you wake up. Simply put you need to do a self health check upon waking. When you open your eyes are you experiencing any strange symptoms which could include pain, fever, dizziness, nausea, cramps or are you feeling good and on top of the world, without any suspicious signs of illness. If any of these symptoms do exist then you really need to think twice before doing any form of exercise. If feeling good then perform another check, which I have been doing over the years and its shown me how valuable technology can be. I take my RHR (resting heart rate) as I open my eyes in the morning, and if there are any signs of elevation I return to sleep. An elevated resting heart rate can pinpoint a sign of fatigue or overtraining as well as illness. Get into a habit of measuring your rest heart rate over a period of time, and once that is done use it as a baseline to determine RHR elevation. Its of course not very convenient to strap on a heart rate monitor at the crack of dawn, so take it manually with your fingers and a clock, or if you are one of the lucky few that possess an iPhone or Android Smartphone, they have a neat little app called Instant Heart Rate ( it makes it even easier and its very accurate.

If you are ill in other words failing the checks above and still wanting to train think again.

A major risk that can emerge when putting the body under stress while ill is organ failure, the heart specifically. Ever wondered how it is a person who has a high level of fitness can just collapse from heart failure. Over the years I have witnessed and heard of many athletes who have ended their lives by not listening to their bodies and the signs and symptoms were definitely there.

The heart can definitely provide you with sure symptoms and if recognized it should force you to rest and visit your medical practitioner. Shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations and dizziness are the most logical signs that something is not right. However sometimes the symptoms can be more subtle, and in the case of myocarditis, which is basically an infection of the heart this can very much be true. Myocarditis can be onset due to a viral illness. An athlete that has a viral infection and yet insists on training will be the most obvious suspect at risk, and it’s an unnecessary gamble. Another type of heart attack which does not have any symptoms is referred to as a myocardial infarction, this is usually predominant in those suffering from diabetes which is why we should always know our health status and a regular medical checkup is something that should never be delayed.

Something I have never believed in is training for the sake of training. The experts call it “junk mileage”. If you enter into a training session it’s to achieve a certain training goal, if you are not able to achieve that goal then why train? Ask yourself am I feeling up to achieving my training goal, if your body is fatigued or ill then best you avoid it until such time as you can. Giving up training for a few days is not critical, no fitness will be lost and you will return to strength in no time. The worst disappointment though is the onset of a viral infection which could plague you for days or weeks. The first reaction of the person experiencing the illness is total denial, and the hope that it will only be a day or two, but as time wears on and the symptoms get worse you eventually start to fall into an area of depression, resentment and frustration.

Emotionally and physically how do we cope with this, and overcome the illness period in the best way possible? It’s not simple, but here are some suggestions which over the years I have used as a coping mechanism. The first thing you need to do is just accept you are ill, accept the fact that your God given body has a way of voicing its opinion and this is it. If serious of course a doctor will need to guide you on the treatment options and there should be no delays getting into this immediately.

There is a famous quote by Edward Stanley that says “Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” This is an area that will specifically be able to get attention when ill. Immediately assess your daily nutrition and with steadfastness make the best possible changes you can to it. Clean out the bad and bring in the good, it’s the one time where you can push your training goals aside and give full attention to your nutrition goals. Your nutrition should be guided by a focus on eating for immune system strength, balanced energy levels and overall health. If you are not sure where to begin consult with a proper nutritionist who understands your needs and requirements and can guide you in the proper direction. Along with improving your nutrition you should be resting and when I say resting I mean feet up and flat on your back. Your immune system only functions at its peak when you are not putting your body under any stress. This means staying out of the office environment for a while. Working while ill is not going to help at all, in actual fact it will most likely increase the illness period and you also run the risk of making others sick which is selfish in its own right. Bottom line, stay in bed.

While pursuing this rest and recovery stage, set yourself some post recovery goals. Each day take your body’s feelings as they come don’t get despondent or down, as there will come a day when your eyes will open and you start to feel like a human again. Your body will let you know when it is ready and if you pay careful attention to its needs you cannot go wrong. Remember to value your health more than your desires, because without it you cannot pursue them.

Below is a small checklist of items that I recommend to ensure good health status for placing your body under physical stress:
There are of course many more but these are what I personally go through.

Self Examination
Energy Levels
– Fatigue
Sleeping Patterns
– Digestive Function
– Mood (Stress, Depression, Hyperactivity, Disappointment)

Medical Examination
ECG, Heart Ultrasound, Lung Function, Thyroid, Cholesterol (LDL, HDL), Blood Sugar, General Check Up

– CBC = Complete Blood Count (Including Hematocrit, Whites, Platelets)
– Liver Function
– Ferritin
– Red Cell Magnesium
– Allergy Testing
– Inflammatory Markers
– Glucose Tolerance Test






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