How Much Is Too Much?

As athletes, we are always trying to break walls, but sometime we end up breaking ourselves.

Lauren Steele

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Run four miles. Follow with a mile-long ocean swim. Then tread frigid water for an hour. Warm back up by cranking out crazy high reps of pushups, burpees and jumping jacks. This is all in a day’s workout for Stew Smith, former Navy SEAL Lieutenant and author of The Special Ops Workouts.

With the steamrolling popularity of Crossfit, Tough Mudders, and ultramarathons, workouts like these are no longer reserved for our country’s reserves. “We are always pushing the envelope to be bigger, faster, stronger,” says Smith. “Humans just want that next level.”

The thing about limits is that you don’t know they have been reached until you pass them. Stress fractures, overuse injuries, and rhabdomyolysis (the old and then new again Crossfit controversy), are finding their way out of athletic training facilities and into family physician offices. A study by California State University-Sacramento’s kinesiology and health science department reports that up to 70 percent of runners sustain overuse injuries during any one year.

Russian sports scientist Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky set out in the ‘50’s to explore how much an athlete’s body could handle. His studies exploited everyday people to explore the physical limits of Olympic athletes. He required them to jump from 20-foot ladders barefoot or attempt 800-pound bench presses. By testing how far he could push average Joes, Verkhoshansky found the breaking point for elite Soviet athletes. One of his athletes, Boris Zubov, became a European record holding sprinter. It was all a matter of pushing the limits.

But that doesn’t mean you should break them. “Overreaching can easily become overtraining,” says Bryan Mann, assistant director of strength and conditioning at the University of Missouri. Injury and burnout are only a few steps away.  So how do you maximize your potential without finding yourself at doctor’s office?

Recognize the difference between working out and training. “Working out is acute. It feels like work,” says Kelly Baggett, a performance consultant who has worked with athletic programs at Texas A&M and the University of Arkansas. “Training is synergistic: you find your threshold. There is a goal, plan and end result.”

Break past your limits during training—yes. Break past your limits during every workout—no. Workouts should progress throughout the year. Training should frame a specific goal, race or event. There is a fine line between mental toughness and stupidity.