The other day I asked Chris if he would be ready to race this weekend.
He just laughed.
I only asked because for the past 3 years, we have gone out to Arizona to do an early season duathlon that always takes place this coming weekend. This year we decided not to go. For no other reason than it was time to stop expecting our bodies to race 9 months out of the year and because we both needed (and enjoyed) a much extended period of recovery.
I don’t know about you but I can’t wait to do my first race. Like in 3 months. When I’m actually fit. Until then I’ve realized I don’t need reminders that I’m not fit. Trust me, I’m not super fit right now. In contrast, last year at this time I was approaching way too fit too soon. You learn a hard lesson once and then you do everything you can not to make the same mistakes again. So here I sit, unfit, a little heavy, counting down the training cycles until my first big race.
Anyways, I was talking to some athletes last night about why we don’t do sustained (meaning, you can go there but you really shouldn’t sustain it for extended periods of time) high intensity go go go training and racing at this time of the year. Why? Because it’s so damn effective. Give yourself 4 – 8 weeks of going going going and I’ll show you close to peak fitness. The problem is when you go too much, don’t include enough recovery and then don’t back off to regenerate after that peak you keeping pushing over the edge of too much, too early and….you’re done.
Last year I was done in April. I just didn’t know it. Or didn’t acknowledge it. All of the symptoms were there and had been there for awhile. The funny thing is that I found a million other reasons to explain away the symptoms. I was a slacker. I was not drinking enough coffee. I was eating too much, too little. I was hormonal. I was not mentally tough. I was not working hard enough. Symptoms waved like flags in front of my face every single day....
Fatigue (tired all the time no matter how much sleep, caffeine you get)
Feeling washed out/looking washed out
Always hungry - even when resting, when I woke up, all day, especially for sugar
Frequent upper respiratory infections or illness
Loss of motivation
HR too low or too high for perceived effort
HR high at rest
Decreased performance despite continued training/effort
Frequent bouts of not being able to get heart rate up despite increasing effort
Comparing how I feel now and how I felt all of last year I cannot believe I ignored myself for so long. I was thirsty – always. Unusually thirsty. Like you could drink 3 glasses of cold water and still want more. I wanted coffee – always. I was tired – ALWAYS. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was getting night sweats when asleep but always cold when awake. I kept putting more and more in and getting less and less. Not only that but I would show up to races completely useless. My legs were flat. And I kept thinking the reason was – of course – myself. I wasn’t good enough or taking this seriously enough. I was weak.
Once I went over the edge, I tried rest but never really got out of the valley of fatigue. I would climb out a little and think I'm ok! But then I would fall right back in again. And then would need to take more rest. Blah. I cannot tell you how many weeks I just had to sit out during the summer. And how bad that sucked! When the weather in Illinois was finally good enough to GO outside, I was stuck doing nothing. REST. Complete rest until I was no longer thirsty, no more night sweats and my resting heart rate went back to normal. Even then I wasn't healthy. It took me nearly 6 weeks of nothing at the end of the year to feel normal again.
Many athletes constantly flirt with the edge. The edge is exciting and feeds our need to “do” training. The tricky thing is that the edge is where you can make big fitness gains. Yes, you need to overreach at times to make progress. You should be on edge at the end of a training block. But then you must take big recovery. Even throughout your training block you should find yourself able to get recovery. If you keep applying more stress, you will go over the edge.
What happens over the edge? Worse than injury is being overtrained. You can usually wait for an injury to heal. There is generally a timetable for recovery. Overtraining could last for weeks. Months. An entire season. You cannot tell.
So in that time for me I learned big lessons last year about recovery. I thought a lot about the why and the how I got there. One thing stood out: underrecovery. Ending two seasons with an Ironman and taking only 3 weeks off each. 3 weeks? Going 12 weeks last year without a day off. Always doing something.
Where was the recovery?
Recovery is where you actually absorb the work. It is a lesson I learned very hard myself. You can do loads of go go go workouts all week long but if you don’t recover from them you might as well not be training. Trust me, when you learn lessons in recovery the hard way you learn to distinguish between what is truly recovery and everything else.
This year, I take one day a week off. No active recovery/light easy...whatever. If you want to recover then by all means - REST! Yup, that kind of stinks. I love to workout. I hate to “not move” for a day. But I have learned (the hard way) that this is the most important day of the week. It’s the day where I recover and recharge my energy. Not everyone needs a day off but in working with different athletes I have found the one thing in common is that they could all use a little more recovery. If you recover too little, well once you teeter close to that edge of recovering not enough…you are on a very slippery edge.
Recovery is also more than just getting rest or taking a day off – it’s about nutrition. Most importantly the nutrition you get before, during and after your training. How often have you heard this “I don’t need calories when training because I’m riding indoors or because it’s winter or because I want to drop weight.” WRONG! Every time you skimp out on calories before, during and after training you dig yourself into a hole a little more. Do enough of this digging and you find yourself so far in a hole that it takes major, true rest to bring you back. And major true rest is usually more than 1 month.
How much is 1 month of training worth? What about a whole season?
Recovery is also sleep. 7 is a minimum. 8 is great. 9 is sometimes necessary. I know - that's a lot! But so is training for something like Ironman. Your body will tell you how much sleep you need. You should wake up feeling rested and energized about the day. It’s normal to need a little coffee but if you need multiple rounds it might be time to review your recovery or your overall nutrition (in my experience, people do not eat enough which causes even more fatigue).
Recovery is de-stressing. Stress is stress is stress. If you are balancing a million things and going from workout to job stress to personal stress to….stress is stress. If you live a stressful life or you are going through a stressful situation, step back on the training. The training is yet another stress. You cannot recover if you are always going from one stressful situation to another – work – kids – training. Add to that poor nutrition, little sleep and you get no recovery.
You cannot gain fitness without recovery. Sometimes I see people cramming in workouts – sacrificing sleep or recovery so they can get in their training. Might as well stay in bed and relax. Training done while on the edge is risky training. Not worth it. Sure you might not feel the effects of underrecovery immediately but add up enough of the factors (poor sleep, stress, nutrition, too much intensity too soon, inadequate rest) over time and you find yourself a few months later wondering why your HR won’t go up. Or why you have plateaued. Or why you have an injury.
Best thing I ever did: take recovery very seriously.
I’m not super fit right now. There is nothing race ready about me. But for the first time nearly a year I am healthy. My heart rate responds. I am not fatigued. I feel like a normal person. I am doing quality training and recovering from it. And I’m gaining fitness at a rate my body seems to be able to handle. It’s never quick enough and damn I would love to feel fast and light right now. But alas it’s February.
Smart training is not about working hard and pushing yourself all of the time. It's about working hard at the right time and getting adequate recovery. I am doing my best to train smart. Will it all be worth it? You never know. But I will tell you that feeling healthy, feeling “normal” again is worth more than any race result.
So, can you sacrifice a need to “do something” or work hard every day for what an entire season’s goals are worth? Sometimes our need to always do something 7 days a week or train more or work harder costs us fitness, performance, injury. Your health is a very delicate thing. Train at the appropriate pace. Follow a periodized plan. And include ample recovery. When you think you need to do more, do less. When you know you’re going harder than you should, back off. And when in doubt – opt for recovery. Don’t keep pushing too close to the edge. Listen to your body and trust what it needs. True recovery – health, nutrition, rest, relaxation so you can be at your best. By all means enjoy the view from the edge but then back away and look at something else.