Functionality vs. Fitness

From time to time, I hear this complaint from my athletes, “I am just not that fit right now.” Indeed, I, myself, have uttered those very words, especially since dealing with this rib injury over the last few years.  I have come to realize that there is a difference between fitness and functionality and lack of functionality will mask itself as lack of fitness.

What do I mean by functionality? I believe functionality encompasses a breadth of factors that can affect performance: general health, sleep, muscle balance, injury status, strength, flexibility, bike fit, stress, technique. These are just some examples as I realize that the concept of functionality is a complex network of elements. A body can handle a few chinks in the network, but start combining several of these items and suddenly the system breaks down.

Certainly, there can be an obvious collapse to the system. Illness or traumatic injury present themselves quickly, are usually self limiting, and resolve themselves in due time usually not affecting the overall balance between the athlete and training or racing.

Often, though, the breakdown begins with subtle changes, not even obvious to the athlete. It could be a traumatic injury that lingers. Muscle imbalances that an athlete can no longer overcome but has not presented yet as an injury. An athlete may have a chronic illness that has wandered out of control or the early stages of chronic fatigue. All of these will start to manifest themselves with slowly diminishing performances.

The first signs will be inconsistencies in training. Whereas an athlete may have been able to hit 90% of the target workouts, now it is only 70%. Racing performances will suffer. Recovery will become slower. But, it doesn’t happen overnight, conflating the issue of functionality and fitness. It is much easier to blame training as the culprit to worsening performances than to understand the truth of the matter, that the body is failing.

In the mind of an athlete, it is simple to fix a training problem. Do more. Go harder. Smash oneself day after day. Train with reckless abandon. All of these things should reverse the problem of diminished performances, right? Not if the issue is one of functionality. Dysfunction coupled with increased training load will only exacerbate the problem of poor performance. If muscle imbalance is the issue, for example, then training harder will only amplify the imbalances.

Here is my own experience with functionality vs. fitness. My rib injury has caused periodic problems with breathing. I often have run workouts or races in which my times are slower than normal. I start doubting my ability to run and question whether I have the proper fitness to accomplish the given tasks. When a cycle of “slower” times ends and I start to run faster, I realize that the problem was never fitness; my breathing was compromised by the rib injury (I have been working extremely hard to improve functionality, but more on that in another post).  The brute force method of trying to run through it has proven unsuccessful, and I have learned to cut my losses when it just isn’t my day in an effort to increase the chance of having a good workout on the next attempt.

The point is this: sometimes it is hard to look at oneself objectively and determine the root cause of lackluster performances, whether in training or racing. A one off crappy workout or race can often be attributed to situational factors. But, if the one off miserable performance turns into a string of them, take a step back and be honest with yourself, is it really fitness, or is it functionality?

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