It’s an all-too familiar scene: You’re 19 miles into a marathon, feeling good (ish), loose, physically and mentally strong, and then all of a sudden you hit mile 20, and everything starts to crumble. Your muscles ache, your head hurts, your feet throb, your stomach groans—you’re fatigued, and you’ve hit a giant wall. Now you just need to climb over it. No problem, as long as you’ve taught your body how to do that successfully.
“For many longer events (half-marathons, marathons, Ironmans, etc.), you can’t practice the full distance in training,” says Jeff Gaudette, head coach for RunnersConnect. “You need to train tired in order to simulate what the last 10K or so will feel like and to learn how to handle those specific demands during the race.”
Training tired can be tricky, though. There's some evidence to suggest that it increases your risk of injury, notes physiologist Darren Paul, author of a recent injury prevention training article published in Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal. “Plus, energy levels are depleted and you become slower in your reaction and decision-making time, which will also likely impact your ability to perform.” Approach it properly, however, and it may make you a better athlete. “Training through this response results in better maintenance of strength and improved postural control.”
Endurance athletes aren’t the only ones who can benefit from pushing past fatigue during their workouts. Paul's research shows that soccer players who performed strength or balance exercises at the end of their training sessions, rather than at the beginning, were less negatively impacted by fatigue during their matches.
All athletes can also see psychological benefits from pressing past their physical limits. “When you learn to withstand fatigue and push through something difficult, it gives you confidence. It’s empowering and shows you that you can do more than you likely thought you could,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.
Here’s how to do fatigue training properly, so you improve your performance and ultimately reduce your risk of injury—without getting injured in the process:
Be strategic in your planning. Have a well thought-out, periodized program that meets the demands of whatever specific goal you’re training for. “During marathon training,” Gaudette says, “one of my favorite methods for introducing accumulated fatigue is to stick a shorter, steady-paced run in the day before a long run. For example, you run six miles at marathon pace on the Saturday before your Sunday long run. That way you don’t start your long run at zero miles, but rather at six or eight miles, since that is the level of fatigue and glycogen depletion your body is carrying over from the previous workout.”
Focus on your form. “If you can push through fatigue while maintaining proper form, that’s the ultimate [goal]. However, form has to come first, and if you’re going too hard or too fast to keep it in check, then you need to slow it back down,” says Olson. Practice good posture (for runners: shoulders back, chest up, spine tall, abs engaged), and try not to go harder or heavier than your plan entails.
Stack your workouts on top of each other. One common way to experience training through fatigue, especially among triathletes, is to do bricks. “Bricks are workouts in which you perform a certain type of movement, like biking, and then do another movement that uses complementary muscles, like running, immediately afterward, which forces your body to adapt quickly,” says Darcy Norman, director of the Performance Innovation Team at EXOS in Phoenix.
Don’t push too hard. “Pushing through fatigue does not mean doing three days of PR-paced running in a row,” notes Olson. “If you’re losing sleep, your heart is racing or you feel extremely weak and light headed, then you could be overtraining, and it could result in injury or illness.” If that happens, back off from training and talk to your doctor.
Build in plenty of recovery. “Training is a balance of fatiguing one’s self, recovering and then gaining fitness as a result of that stress,” says Norman. “The problem occurs when the training becomes too much or intensities are maintained for too long without having the appropriate amount of recovery built in.” For runners, Gaudette recommends taking a rest week every five or six weeks, during which you cut down your mileage by 65 to 75 percent and reduce the intensity of your workouts to help your body recover and adapt to your training.