Posted by: Dean Hebert | December 11, 2008

Training: Are side aches, heart rate and anxiety related?

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

Todd Green a veteran of three marathons writes in to ask us the following question:

I just finished my third marathon and unfortunately the same thing that happened in my first two marathons. I suffered from cramping at mile 14, and struggled to finish. The interesting thing is that I don’t suffer from any cramping at all during training, but I always have serious issues during the race. I also train in Florida, so the weather was very pleasant. The other thing that I notice, is that my HR is always 15-20 bpm higher at the same pace that I run during the race vs. what it is in training. For instance, the day before the race, I ran 3 easy miles at a 9:40 pace with an avg. HR of 140. During the race, that same pace would translate to a 160-165 HR. I believe this is leading to my cramping and not being able to complete the race like how I do in training. Have you ever dealt with people that struggle with maintaining their nerves in check and have their HR do crazy things during the race? I started the race so slow, but it still wouldn’t go down.”

This is a great inquiry. It illustrates of course the fallibility of heart rate monitors.

First, there is no known relationship between heart rate and a leg or side cramp. They are two completely separate systems. Second, heart rate is also not well correlated at all to pace. That would be like saying if you maintained a HR of 150 you will run a 3:30 marathon. This is absolutely false. Cardiac drift is just one effect that makes that impossible… as you run longer your HR naturally moves upward. So, maintaining 150 early in the race would necessitate slowing your actual running pace later in the race to reduce (maintain) your HR to 150. If you let HR dictate your pace then you will most definitely run slower times. That is simply a physiological fact.

Indeed, your race times would indicate that you should be able to easily (ok, relatively easily) run a sub-3:30 marathon. So, we have to look deeper. Your training program may be lacking in any number of areas: long runs, speed work, goal paced runs, foundational running-specific strength work, insufficient taper to the race (3 weeks needed).

It could also be that you change your routines from what you do during a training long run and race day. You’ll need to look at nutrition and hydration for sure. You may be taking in too much fluid or not enough. You may need electrolyte drinks instead of water. Very carefully look at the few days leading up to the race and analyze every aspect possible.

The fact that you bring up performance anxiety as a possibility indeed is interesting. The answer to this is yes, it is possible. Here again, there are so many more questions. As a certified mental games professional we use a comprehensive assessment to figure out if this is an issue with athletes. There is no doubt if you are stressed, up tight, tense or have very high expectations there can be a corresponding muscle tension due to the emotional tension.

You cannot fake out your muscles. Biofeedback devices can measure the emotional tension demonstrated in your muscles. And of course, tense muscles do not function as well as non-tense muscles. So, there could be a corresponding issue of cramping with performance anxiety (unlike the heart rate issue). By the way, as an added point, stress can increase your heart rate.

So, you ask what appears to be a simple question but it only begets more questions. Without seeing detailed workout logs and interviewing you it would be hard to pinpoint a single cause. Diagnosing why someone doesn’t perform well when everything in training has gone well is difficult. Beyond the longer distance similarities look for other commonalities or trends: travel, eating habits, pre-race nervousness, hydration, rest status, general mental outlook, weather, terrain, running surface, taper weeks training, wearing different or overly worn shoes.

If you would like a comprehensive mental aptitude assessment drop me a line.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News


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