Go Big or Go Home? What You Need to Know

Nothing exemplifies the innately American slogan “go big or go home” quite like our society’s relationship with exercise.  We, apparently, either binge-watch “The Walking Dead” while slumped on the couch gorging on bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed-crusted pizza or we are fanatically addicted to CrossFit and Ironman training.

Yes, somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of us are overweight or obese.  But, at the same time, 2011 saw a record half-million runners complete full marathons in the United States and USA Triathlon had its membership swell to over 500,000 in 2012.  And how about this shocking fact?  Nearly 2 million people competed in at least one triathlon in 2011, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. (American Council on Exercise, ProSource, May 2015)  Consider these statistics don’t take into account participants in shorter-distance but more numerous running, cycling and swimming events and the mushrooming of CrossFit boxes (the unique term for their facilities) from 13 to 7,000 in just ten years, it seems we truly are either going big or staying home.

As a fitness professional, I wish it weren’t so – on both counts.  No surprise I wish we didn’t have so many chronically sedentary adults and kids suffering from a whole host of lifestyle conditions and diseases.  But, similarly, I worry the rest can’t seem to find motivation and enjoyment from a more moderate, less risky approach to fitness.  Yet, wishing it weren’t so doesn’t help anyone.  So I decided this post should meet amateur endurance athletes where they are rather than try to affect a change of behavior.  Believing that knowledge is power, here are the essentials of what you need to know if you are going big on exercise.

There is growing scientific evidence that extreme endurance training contributes to serious cardiovascular problems.  While some studies have soberly concluded that extreme exercise contributes to early death in nearly the same numbers as it does for sedentary individuals, other studies have been less alarmist, but still concerning, in their recommendations.  The sweet spot for apparently healthy adults appears to be 30 miles of running per week.  More than that, these studies have shown, significantly raises the risk of heart damage.  If you are pre-disposed to cardiovascular disease, either genetically or from existing health conditions, I strongly recommend consulting an appropriate medical specialist, such as a cardiologist, before engaging in any endurance training.

Going big on exercise raises risks for acute injury, chronic pain and overtraining.  Endurance training combines three factors that contribute the most to these issues: repetitive motion over great distances and with a large amount of force.  If one suffers from any of these three training problems, prolonged rest is the least invasive remedy.  In some cases, surgery is the only option and sometimes permanent, irreparable damage occurs.  This inflicts a devastating blow to the individual.  Not only is she likely to be sidelined from competition, throwing her hard sought-for goals out the window, but she many never recover mentally from it.  Burn out, over-whelming fear or self-pity can set in and she is in danger of joining the sedentary team.  Here are 3 ways to reduce your risks of injury, chronic pain and overtraining:

  • Rest & Recovery: No one should ever exercise 7 days a week.  A minimum of one day of total rest per week is required – no cardio, no strength training, no heavy-duty stretching.  One to two other days should be recovery days and they should immediately follow your most intense training days.  A recovery day could be a short-distanced, moderately paced cardio workout, a circuit-based strength training session (less than an hour and not high intensity) or a mind-body session, such as yoga.
  • Maintain your equipment: Check your footwear, performance attire (including sports bras) and bicycle weekly for signs of wear and tear.  Replace (or repair) questionable items immediately.  If you’re a runner, consider the surfaces you train on.  I’m a big proponent of using a mixture of surfaces for training – pavement, track, trail and treadmill or elliptical.  But if you prefer, or must use, only one here is a fantastic blog post on the pros and cons of pavement versus trail running.
  • Strength & Flexibility Train: This is a must.  Running as your only training method for a marathon is like sautéing as your only training method to be a chef.  Click on your training discipline to link to my customized strength and flexibility training workout: running, cycling and swimming.  If you train in multiple disciplines, cycle through the workouts each week.

Fueling, Hydrating and Acclimating: These are each hefty issues in their own right and depending on your discipline, distance, location and season the recommendations for each of these variables is different.  The important thing is to do your homework to find the right balance for your training.  A few things to keep in mind:

  • Fueling: Unless you are medically required to avoid certain foods or food groups, highly restrictive or food elimination diets aren’t a good choice for endurance athletes.  Yes, avoid highly processed, low-nutrition foods but don’t eliminate whole foods.  An endurance athlete requires a full complement of macro and micronutrients and cutting out entire groups of foods makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to meet the minimum of what you need for training.
  • Hydrating: I put sodium in with the category of hydration.  We lose water and sodium when training hard or in high heat.  Make sure you’re getting enough of both before, during and after your training sessions and events.
  • Acclimating: Even the most conditioned professional athletes need to acclimate themselves to drastic changes in temperature, humidity and elevation.  Depending upon the individual’s conditioning and how drastic the environmental change is, it could take a couple of days, weeks or months to fully acclimate.  Generally speaking, acclimation means taking more rest and recovery days and reducing one or more of the speed, distance and frequency variables of your training workouts until your body has fully adjusted.

If you’re a go big or go home person: you go, Girl!  But do it with full knowledge, disciplined training and a smart approach to reducing your risks and you can be going big until your 80s and beyond.

Related posts: Fueling & Hydrating for Endurance Training; Exercising in High Heat/Humidity; Exercising in Extreme Cold


  1. […] has spurred an increase in participation in endurance races and people fighting over space in group exercise classes.  […]

  2. […] Voice: I chronicle the steps that should be taken to endurance train safely in “Go Big or Go Home? What You Need To Know” and I link to some of the latest studies on this […]

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