One often hears this bandied about: You can’t be really fit and be healthy at the same time, they’re different things.
Part of this statement is correct and another part is only partially true. They absolutely are different things and attaining a high level of fitness for a specific sport can be detrimental to your overall health. However, they are definitely not mutually exclusive, they simply require a separate focus on each. Let me explain.
Fitness is defined as the ability to perform a task. So, if I want to run a marathon, I need to get fit to run a marathon by running. It’s perfectly possible to achieve this without reference to my health at all and there are multitudes of people whose bodies are a testament to this.
I’ve written a lot about fitness for your event on this blog, not least this post about specificity.
The irony is that many, if not most of us got into endurance sport as a way to improve our health. At some point though, the health befits started to wane as we went after better and better performance (fitness). I’d argue that it’s possible to get back to that original intention without sacrificing the performance aspects we’ve become so accustomed to chasing.
Health, on the other hand, can be defined as the optimal interplay of the organs (and I’d add organ systems). Being healthy doesn’t require much fitness at all. It does, however, require that you look after a myriad of other things. These are often the same things that our busy lives, made busier by our devotion to endurance sport, cause us to neglect.
We come to accept so many things as normal, "because we're athletes" when they simply aren't. Sore joints are not normal. Recurrent muscle tears are not normal. Frequent upper respiratory infections are not normal. Disturbed sleep is not normal. Constant irritability is not normal.
Also, while these can be symptoms of overtraining, they can simply be the result of a lower than normal level of overall health.
I’m not going to explain each item in the following list because explanations for many can be found elsewhere on this blog. In looking after your health, you need to consider...
- A degree of cardiovascular fitness (not a problem if you’re an athlete)
- A degree of strength (a big missing link for many endurance athletes)
- Recovery time
- Relationships (We need friends and family who support what we do. Few things are harder than trying to achieve a goal that runs contrary to what significant people in our lives want.)
- Other hobbies and diversionary activities (Fixating on your sport 24 hours a day is not good for your mental health.)
I’d like to encourage you to reflect for a moment, first on why you started your sport in the first place and then on what areas you need to address in order to be truly healthy alongside being the athlete that you most certainly are. A healthy athlete is one who can continue to be an athlete for the long term.