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Stair Syndrome

It’s T-minus 60 minutes till your next practice session and suddenly you are overcome with fatigue. You feel so tired that you just can’t move — let alone get to the pool. If this sounds familiar, you might have Stair Syndrome.

Stair Syndrome can strike at any time of the day or night, but it strikes most often about one hour or so before your next hard workout. The most common symptom is: One minute you feel fine and the next minute you feel so tired that you can’t keep your eyes open. Side effects include not being able to get out of bed (despite a good night’s sleep), lack of enthusiasm for any form of athletic endeavor, and increased desire for ANYTHING (like a double cheeseburger with fries or an emergency root canal) that will keep you from having to go to practice.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE I first encountered Stair Syndrome when I lived in New York City, and was competing each year in the Empire State Building Run Up. To train for this race up 1576 steps to the 89th floor of the fabled skyscraper, I would do a weekly stair workout in my apartment building. Every Tuesday morning, without fail, I would do nine climbs to the top of our 30-floor building. It took three minutes or so to go up the stairs — 90 seconds to get back down via the elevator. Every workout was 40 minutes of mental and physical torture.

At one point, I started to notice that on Tuesday mornings I would be unable to open my eyes, no matter how much sleep I’d had, or how good I’d felt the night before. When the alarm went off, it was as if I’d been drugged. My eyelids had lead weights in them. My muscles felt limp. It was all I could do to drag myself out of bed. Just the THOUGHT of all those stairs and all that oxygen debt was making me tired.

Now, granted, there are days when you wake up tired because you are over-trained or ill or didn’t sleep well. That’s not Stair Syndrome. That’s Time To Take a Break. Stair Syndrome is anticipatory fatigue. It’s your mind telling your body to feel the symptoms of exhaustion, even when you aren’t exhausted.

In order to diagnose Stair Syndrome and differentiate it from Time To Take a Break, you have to REALLY listen to your body. And you have to take into account how your mind is affecting your physical state. Are you REALLY fatigued — or are you just feeling fatigued because you have a big workout or big event (like the 400 IM or 200 Fly) ahead of you?

If it’s true Stair Syndrome, and if you push through it and actually do The Big Thing that’s ahead of you, you will most likely experience the very enjoyable flip side of Stair Syndrome. You will feel exuberant and pumped for the rest of the day. At least that’s how it usually worked for me. When I eventually got dressed and got going on the stairs, things would always start to click. It was hard and exhausting for sure, but when I got through the workout I always felt GREAT afterwards –because I’d tackled something difficult and because the workout got my blood pumping down to the smallest capillaries.

I now live in Vermont and don’t do a weekly stair workout any more, but Stair Syndrome has followed me. It lurks. It flares up whenever I know there’s a particularly hard workout ahead of me at the pool — or a particularly gnarly assignment in the office or in my personal life.

There may never be a total cure for Stair Syndrome, but the way to beat it is to be aware that it may be affecting you. The cause and the cure lie in the power of your mind. Is your mind controlling your body and holding you back? Or are you using it to help you accomplish great things?