“Life is full of little ironies,” he said.
This wry observation was spoken by my father during a recent phone conversation between us. He’d called me to inquire about my health and to ask how my newly released book ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit was doing so far. The irony he pointed out was that, despite their disparateness, the two subjects—the state of my body and the status of my book sales—shared a common theme, which was pacing itself.
When runners think of pacing, they think of the skill they use to find the right intensity in workouts and to reach the finish line in the least time possible in races. Scientists define this form of pacing as “the goal-directed distribution and management of effort across an exercise bout,” and in my book I offer this less formal definition: “the art of finding your limit.” So, what does pacing have to do with health?
Fair question. I saw no connection between effort distribution and physical well-being either, until I developed long covid, a chronic illness that affects a small percentage of COVID-19 survivors. Long covid is a type post-viral syndrome that closely resembles chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. Although some people do recover from CFS/ME, at least partially, there is no cure and there aren’t many treatments. Indeed, the primary treatment for CFS/ME—and now also long covid—is (you guessed it) pacing!
According to the MEpedia website, this therapeutic form of pacing “is an activity management strategy to helpME/CFS patients limit the number and severity of relapses while remaining as active as possible. First described by health psychologist Ellen Goudsmit in 1989, it gives patients the advice to: ‘do as much as you can within your limits’. Pacing recognizes research showing an abnormal metabolic and immunological response to exercise in ME/CFS and offers patients a middle ground between post-exertional malaise and the negative consequences of inactivity.”
The differences between these two forms of pacing—the one runners do and the one chronic illness sufferers do, or as I like to call them, micropacing and macropacing—are obvious. If you push too hard too early in a marathon, for example, it’s game over (with rare exceptions). Having depleted your immediate energy stores, you can’t possibly replenish them in time to salvage a good race. With CFS/ME and long covid, however, you’ve got the rest of your life to bounce back from the often devasting consequences of doing too much (days or weeks of near-total incapacitation) and try again.
The similarities between micropacing and macropacing, though, are not to be overlooked. Both skills are cultivated through experience, for which there is no workaround. Simply stated, trial-and-error is the only way to get better at either. As I often say with regard to running, “The road to pacing mastery is paved with running mistakes,” and I can tell you from bitter experience that the same is true of macropacing.
I was a very slow learner when it came to pacing longer races. I was reduced to walking in each of my first two marathons, lost more than a minute in the closing miles of my third, and didn’t really nail my marathon pacing until ten years after my debut. So, I should not be surprised that I’m also proving to be a slow learner with respect to pacing for health. The biggest mistake I made in the first 18 months with long covid was failing to respect that mental exertion is still exertion. As an athlete, I was quick to recognize the necessity of curtailing my physical activity, but instead of conserving the energy spared by this concession I redirected much of it into my work as a writer, coach, and entrepreneur. The result was that my body forced me to slow down in general by ceasing to function. In particular, the symptom that many of us covid long-haulers refer to as “brain on fire” made it impossible for me to work, regardless of will.
The other big mistake I’ve made is getting greedy during periods when I’m feeling and functioning getter. It reminds me of something my wife, who has bipolar disorder, used to do. When she was going through a rough patch, she dutifully resumed taking the medication she’d been prescribed. Months later, feeling better, she stopped taking it again, thinking she didn’t need it anymore, only to come crashing down. Similarly, when I’m doing poorly, I slow down. After taking it easy for a while, I feel somewhat better, so I start doing more—a lot more oftentimes. It’s more than I can handle, and as a result I come crashing down, just like my wife. Indeed, as I write these words, I feel like death warmed over, having ridden the wave of a recent remission in my symptoms by launching myself back into the work I love.
That’s bad pacing! But I figured out the marathon eventually, and I’m confident I’ll get better at pacing long covid too. It sucks to be unhealthy, but I must say there is a compensatory satisfaction in embracing the irony of depending now for my very well-being on a skill that I previously took such great satisfaction in developing as an athlete.