Why ‘Training Time-Outs’ Can Be Positive

Photo of an injured female athlete

A few weeks ago, Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, and the most interesting part is that she did it after taking a substantial part of 2017 off from training and racing to recover from a major injury.

Since winning the NYC Marathon, an inspiring phenomenon called the “Shalane Effect” has been sprinting around the marathon community’s social media like a runner with hair on fire. It’s based on the fact that every one of Shalane’s training partners (all 11 women) qualified for the Olympics during the time that they were training with her. Wow! In the New York Times, Lindsay Crouse coined the term and described it in this way: “You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you, while catapulting forward yourself.” The quote from that article I have seen passed around the most is, “Flanagan does not just talk about elevating women; she elevates them. And they win.”

Every one of Shalane’s training partners (all 11 women) qualified for the Olympics during the time that they were training with her.

As absolutely worthy and inspiring as that effect is, there’s another equally inspiring and interesting aspect of Flanagan’s story that I want to focus on. It is what I am calling the Other Shalane Effect. One that I hope will serve as a shining example for all hard-charging athletes out there who are pushing themselves through illness, stress, and even injury. This Other Shalane Effect is the one that shows us that you can take ten weeks off of training and still come out on top. Way on top!

Taking a Training Time-Out

Flanagan’s ten weeks off came after she suffered a severe lower back injury, which was her first major injury since she turned pro in 2004. To say the injury was severe would be an understatement. It was an actual break in her iliac crest, which is the largest of the three bones that merge to form the os coxa, or hip bone. The break was likely caused by logging too many miles on the treadmill or on some snow-covered slippery Portland, Oregon terrain. If you are wondering how many is too many, Shalane has been known to run upwards of 130 miles per week during her training season.

Like nearly all the serious athletes I’ve known, Shalane found the mental challenge of taking time off for recovery more difficult than the actual physical act of giving her body the rest it needed. Shortly after she dropped out of the Boston Marathon in the Spring of 2017, where the injury was first brought to light, Shalane told Runner’s World magazine, “It’s thrown me for a loop. I’ve had to reevaluate what’s important to me. I still feel a little bit lost right now.”

Feeling lost makes complete sense when you understand that if you stop running for just a week, your maximal aerobic capacity (max VO2) will decrease and if you take two weeks off, you are likely to add more than a minute to your 5k run time. Knowing that, it is easy to see how much anxiety can be caused by even a simple setback like the common cold, let alone a fractured pelvis.

I think all of us marathon fans questioned whether, at 36 years old, Shalane would ever return to the high level of fitness she was previously at—but she did. And how! Let’s look at how this is possible by examining the good and the bad of taking time off of training.

The Downsides of a Training Time-Out

A great number of things happen when an athlete takes time off of training and racing but for now, I will focus on the most relevant running effects.

  • After two weeks of not training, studies show that VO2 max decreases by 6%.
  • After nine weeks VO2 max drops by 19%.
  • After eleven weeks VO2 max falls by 25.7%.
  • The amount of blood pumped by the heart per beat also takes a nosedive by 10% after three weeks.
  • Your muscles’ aerobic enzymes that help produce the energy fall by 25% after only three weeks.

The Benefits of a Training Time-Out

Enough with the doom and gloom. Some good things also happen during time off of training.

  • Your muscles, tendons, and bones get some time to recover fully and heal.
  • You repair those tiny tears in tissue all over your body (often in places you didn’t know were involved in your sport) resulting in a more injury-resistant you.
  • Your mind restores its enthusiasm for your sport and increases your desire and ability to train effectively.
  • Your immune system takes a beating when you are training and time off can give it time to recover and strengthen.

The Results of Taking Time Off From Training

Before the NYC Marathon, Shalane told USA Today, “My body clearly needed it, and in those 10 weeks, I got to explore other things in my life that were really rewarding in a variety of ways.” I think this is one of the biggest benefits to taking time off of anything we are passionate about doing. There is no worse feeling than having your passion start to feel like a job and there is also no better feeling than returning to something you love when you have been deprived of it. I remember getting back to the pool after a few months of rehabbing a rotator cuff issue. Sitting in the change room, I felt like a kid on his birthday about to unwrap the best present ever.

In that same USA Today interview, Shalane said, “I think there’s definitely some doubt—do I still have what it takes mentally and physically to keep working at this?” I would say that clearly she does. And even if she was lacking in her physical state (remember how much her VO2 max would have dropped after 10 weeks) she more than made up for it mentally and there is a lot of evidence that mental fortitude can play a huge role in athletic performance.

A professor at the University of Kent’s Centre for Sports Studies, Samuele Marcora, has spent years finding surprising links between fatigued brains and low physical performance. Dr. Marcora’s initial results actually suggested back in 2009 that what we perceive as physical limitations are often highly correlated to our levels of mental motivation and even more correlated to our state of mental fatigue.

There is no worse feeling than having your passion start to feel like a job.

Dr. Marcora published a study where 16 cyclists pedalled to exhaustion immediately after they spent 90 minutes either watching an “emotionally neutral” documentary or performing a “demanding cognitive test” called the AX-CPT test. Even though the cognitive test didn’t actually tire the cyclists out physically, they still gave up 15 percent earlier during their pedal session when they were mentally fatigued from the demanding test than they did after watching the neutral documentary.

In an ESPN interview right after winning the NYC Marathon, Shalane summed it up nicely in response to a question about taking all that time off by saying, “It was 100 percent a blessing…I needed that rest and I would never have given it to myself otherwise. I have felt so much better, which makes it so much more fun to train, when you feel good. I hadn’t realized how tired I was. I had dug myself a hole. When you’re trying to chase these goals, it’s easy to think you’re just not working hard enough, you’re not getting the win and you’re not doing your job. The reality was, I was probably overworking and underestimating my talent…”

Which basically means that your tired brain and your tired muscles can equally make you feel like quitting.

Dr. Marcora would likely explain what Shalane said with the “psychobiological” model of fatigue. This model frames exercise limitations as a fine balance between motivation and perceived effort. He says that we often stop performing at our peak not simply because our muscles are pooped out but because the amount of effort that it would take us to keep pushing is perceived (in the moment) as being greater than the reward might be for all that suffering. Which basically means that your tired brain and your tired muscles can equally make you feel like quitting. Or in Shalane’s case, make her underestimate her own talent, a thought which we all know does not lead to a champion’s mindset.

Another researcher named Timothy Noakes, who theorizes about there being a Central Governor that holds us back from either hurting ourselves or achieving greatness, uses Muhammad Ali’s words to illustrate his point: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, out there on the road, long before I dance under the lights.”

According to the Noakes model, the athlete who wins the competition is the one whose imagined symptoms of fatigue interfere the least with their actual performance. And the athlete who finishes behind the winner may make the conscious decision not to win, perhaps even before the race begins. Their deceptive symptoms of “fatigue” may then be used to justify whichever decision they made.

So the winner is the athlete for whom defeat is the least acceptable rationalization. Or as Shalane put it in her ESPN interview after the race, “I’m not crazy that I thought I could do it, that feels so good.”