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A Classic Case of Too Much, Too Soon?

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A guy is the world’s best athlete in a non-weight bearing sport. He was once a triathlete, but hasn’t really been a runner for many years. He decides to run the New York Marathon. His training program includes modest mileage, long runs that barely reach 18 miles, and cross training to minimize the pounding on his body. Then, with the aid of pacers, he runs the marathon in goal time of sub-3:00. He receives lots of well deserved kudos for his ability to “come off the couch” as a runner, ramp up quickly, and run a very impressive marathon.


Ten days after the marathon he learns from tests that a “shin splint” problem that nagged him during his training and in the marathon is really a stress fracture. He must now avoid impact-related training for 6-12 weeks as it heals.


Of course, the athlete in question is Lance Armstrong. Lance’s website reported the stress fracture on 12/04/2006.


Lance has what might be the world’s most powerful aerobic system. That was what he counted on to enable him to accomplish his impressive marathon debut. And it did.


However, he also made a classic beginner’s mistake of overlooking the need to prepare his musculoskeletal system to handle the stresses of a marathon program. It’s the main reason that beginning runners are well advised to gradually build up to a marathon program by running and racing shorter distances for at least a year or longer before undertaking a marathon program. And it’s the main reason that many beginners incur skeletal injuries (bones, ligaments and tendons) en route to their first marathon.


Lance’s world class cycling career, from which he was fresh when he launched his NYCM quest, apparently did not adequately prepare him because cycling is not a weight bearing, high impact activity that develops the skeletal system. His fully developed and powerful aerobic system appears to have enabled him to overload his underdeveloped skeletal system to the point of breakdown.


Actually, Lance was fortunate that he didn’t do more damage. His high pain tolerance permitted him to bear the discomfort of a stress fracture while continuing to train and finish the marathon could have resulted in a complete fracture. I knew a guy who once did that. Ten miles into a marathon, he developed a pain in a shin. He sucked it up and persevered to finish the race. But, by the time he finished, the tibia was completely broken. He was fortunate that it stayed in place as a simple fracture and didn’t become a compound fracture.


Yes, Lance was lucky. He managed to pull it off and accomplish his goal. And I suspect he is happy that he did, despite the price he now has to pay. But I hope that others who are beginning runners take a lesson from his experience which serves as an example that the marathon should be given the respect it deserves, even by world class athletes. And that a beginning runner should work up to it, not just jump into one prematurely.


A beginning runner doesn’t have to undertake a marathon to push too far, too soon. When one begins to exercise from a completely undeveloped state, his/her aerobic system develops most rapidly. Muscles take longer to strengthen, and the skeletal system (bones, ligaments and tendons) takes even longer. It is very possible for aerobic development over a relatively short time to enable one to push the less developed muscular and skeletal systems to the point of breakdown….muscle pull, tendonitis, stress fracture, etc. Injury avoidance is the primary reason for a beginner to follow a gradual development plan that controls both mileage and intensity and not just “race” ahead as fast as his/her developing aerobic system permits.