I Didn't Exercise for 22 Days. Here's What Did (and Didn't) Happen
If you are looking for a post about how my life isn't complete without running and how I was lost for 3 weeks without it - you will probably be disappointed in what I have to say.
Prior to today, the last time I ran (or even exercised) was a little over 3 weeks ago at the Olympic Trials.
You read that right.
In the past 22 days I have not run, crosstrained, completed core work, lifted, or yoga'd. According to my FitBit, I have exceeded 10,000 steps a grand total of 6 times in 3 weeks.
Normally, racing makes me feel like this:
(Photo cred: Julie Lowry)
But more recently, my body has felt more like this:
(photo cred: Julie Lowry)
Therefore, a long break was needed.
The last couple weeks of my OT training, I felt like I was running on fumes. It seemed as though I spent more of February feeling sick than I did feeling healthy. As I mentioned before, in those last few months, every time I got knocked down it felt as though my body had a harder and harder time getting back up.
The worst thing I could have done for myself was to have only taken a week off. And I have the data to prove it.
A big reason that I want to share this post is because there are many people whose running lives are being upended right now, which can cause anxiety. Anxiety on top of uncertainty isn't healthy for your immune system (neither is pushing excessively hard or running when you are exhausted simply because you feel like you should or because it's on your schedule), so I want to share the reality in case you are struggling to run/train due to stress, scheduling, caregiving, home schooling, etc.
Please keep in mind that everyone is different. My data is a sample size of 1, over an incredibly small period of time. Your experience likely won't be identical, but it probably won't be a complete 180, either.
Expectation #1: 3 Weeks Off Will Destroy My Cardiovascular Health
Data: FitBit Resting Heart Rate Data
Reality: Little to No Change
My resting heart rate was all over the place leading up to the Trials, which, considering I was fighting illness for most of February isn't surprising. What probably shouldn't have happened: that big drop in RHR as soon as I took time off. During the 3rd week of my break my RHR started to creep back up, which is exactly what I would suspect after 14 days off. What this data says to me: severe overtraining.
I have only been using a FitBit since January, so I am very interested to see what my heart rate data looks like from start to finish of my next training cycle.
Expectation #2: My Eczema Would Clear Up
Reality: It did
As a life-long eczema sufferer, it has taken me a very long time to figure out my triggers. My biggest triggers are stress, muscular inflammation, mold, and PMS. Something my massage therapist, my PT, and I have all observed over the last year: areas where there is a lot of muscular inflammation tend to also have eczema flares. Trouble spots recently, both eczema and pain-wise, have been ankles, posterior knee, and basically my whole right leg in general.
The fact the eczema has cleared with time off again makes me believe that I was severely overtrained, from a chronic inflammation standpoint. In the future, I want to use eczema flares as just another way to make informed decisions about my training.
Expectation #3: I Would Go Crazy Without Exercise
Reality: Yes and No
The first week of my break I was very bored and felt a little stir crazy. I actually found this surprising because normally I have no problem just sitting and being. Dave and I went out to lunch or dinner (sometimes both) every day that week. It felt excessive. It was excessive. I'm so glad we did it, though, because the following week we began self-isolating.
Without planning my days around running for the past 3 weeks, I had to learn something that wound up being very important: how to entertain myself at home.
I'm a firm believer that you can only make big changes in your routine when you are extremely out of your normal routine. I played around with my schedule and found something new that works for me:
-time for myself until 1 PM
-work 1 PM - 5 PM
-time for Dave 5 PM - bedtime
Running and exercise had previously been a crutch for me (sorry, can't do that, need to nap (reality: using napping as an escape) or I don't want to spend the mental energy on this task right now because I'm focusing on running (reality: procrastinating) or I earned a full day of Netflix binging because I ran 12 miles (reality: more escapism). Taking running away made me look at myself - and my habits - in a different light. I was extremely productive these past few weeks. I learned new ways to self-soothe. I'm better for it.
Expectation #4: My Body Will Feel GREAT
Reality: Everything Started Healing. Painfully.
At our core, humans still have many animalistic tendencies. One of those tendencies is the ability to ignore pain, particularly pain that may keep us from activities we enjoy.
My right hamstring has bothered me in some capacity since 2015. This pain has largely been under control with regular massage and PT. I wouldn't even categorize what I feel as "pain" as much as an annoyance. Until I stopped running. Granted, it's completely possible that something happened to my hamstring in Atlanta. The weird thing, though, is that I didn't feel anything during the race, only as soon as I stopped running.
My first week off started out painfully, but gradually tapered. The second week I felt mostly okay, but was puzzled why I had any pain (even the slightest bit) at all. The third week was by far the most painful. Even with Dave using my Addaday Biozoom on my hamstring every day, I have been in a significant amount of pain. My theory is that my body was using its resources to keep the essentials running and now that those are taken care of, my immune system is working on my hamstring.
I felt weird pain in other areas of my body, too, including my calves, back, neck, and right oblique (all problem areas in the past).
Expectation #5: Coming Back to Running After That Much Time Off Will be Hard
Reality: Not at all
In the past, I have felt that after 2 weeks off, it's hard to motivate myself to get out the door. Maybe that's a sign I haven't taken enough time off, because I woke up this morning excited to run. It wasn't fast and it wasn't necessarily pretty, but it felt good to move my legs again. Aerobically I felt fine, but my legs (particularly my hips) felt like they had to work out some kinks. My calves are also pretty sore right now. I suspect another couple days of easy running will have my body feeling back to normal.
(Note: I saved this next one for last because I talk about weight and numbers, in case that is triggering for anyone)
Expectation #6: I would lose muscle/gain weight
Data: Renpho Smart Scale
Reality: I lost "weight"
Something that absolutely breaks my heart is when I hear someone say they are worried about taking necessary time off because of weight gain. First: it's completely unsustainable to be at "race weight" year round (if you believe in race weight; I personally don't). Second, it's completely natural (and healthy) for your body to fluctuate.
Personally, chronic inflammation has been something I have been fighting for the past couple years, for various unrelated reasons. I didn't feel like I looked my fittest standing on the starting line at the Trials, and a big reason was because my body was pretty inflamed from fighting my cellulitis infection. (if you look at photos, you can even see some cellulite showing up in my calves. In this instance, the cellulite/skin puckering is a clear sign of inflammation)
For the month leading up to the Trials, I had a membership at the National Institute of Fitness and Sport (NIFS) in Indy to use their sauna to heat train. Something NIFS promotes are DEXA body scans to give a true look into your body composition. I was intrigued, especially after reading this blog post written by Jen Rhines. It's not really in my budget to have regular body scans, so I invested in the next best thing: a smart scale. Knowing my inflammation level (as measured in water weight against my baseline) will go far in helping me make informed decisions regarding my training and lifestyle. What surprised me is that my body fat is much lower than I would have guessed, particularly based on how some of my clothes have been fitting me.
Based on my height/weight, my body fat% was estimated to be 25%. The true data shows that I'm much lower, and this is something that I will need to keep an eye on because dipping too much lower for a woman can lead to amenorrhea. Knowing that even after 3 weeks off my inflammation levels are still on the high end is very useful for me in that it will help me make informed decisions in how quickly I will ramp my mileage back up.
From the day after the Trials to now, I lost about 3 lbs in inflammation. I find this data extremely empowering, much more so than just seeing a number on a scale.
I'm excited to get back into training, especially after identifying so many areas where I could have done better and could have made different choices. I want my main focus this training cycle to be about informed decisions based on what's going on inside my body. I want to disarm the data. I think in the past, I have been worried about seeing data that proves I am not as fit as I would like. I still sometimes have that knee jerk response, but am learning to reframe it and see it as an opportunity. I'm feeling very excited about training because it feels like an experiment again, which is how I approached my best couple years of running.
I just don't know what I'm training for at this point (does anyone know?). I'm hoping - just like everyone else - that we will have answers sooner than later and that this will pass with as little damage as possible. Please stay safe. Please wash your hands.
Please stay home, and know that if your running takes a back seat right now you'll be okay.