I haven’t trained more than a couple of days in the last three weeks. I didn’t quit completely, I just scaled back. I exercised, but not every day. I didn’t go for as long, and I kept everything strictly aerobic, below my Maximum Aerobic Function. I knew it was time for a break, and showing that wisdom can indeed come with age, I actually took that break. How did I know that it was time?
If race times flatten or worsen, it’s a good bet you’re overcooked. I raced the Squaw Mountain Run in basically the same time as last year. I went for one last 8 hour mountain bike race, and only lasted four hours. I was crashing, cramping and suffering in the heat. (although I did solve the mystery of the Tahoe Trail 100 meltdown, wear the hydration pack!) I really wanted to race XTERRA Tahoe at Incline Village, so I cancelled other race plans.
Maffetone believes the objective data from a MAF test is the best, so if you plateau or regress it’s time to carefully evaluate what’s going on. I regressed in both formal and informal MAF tests. Time to back off.
Heart Rate Variability:
HRV should increase as fitness increases. Coinciding with my decline in MAF tests, my HRV never seemed to increase much past where it had been. There would be a big dip after a race from the anaerobic stress, but as I recovered, my HRV would only return to where it had been before, no higher. Kind of like treading water.
I didn’t want to race that last MTB race, but I had already signed up and paid, so I went anyway. Usually I delay registering until the last moment, just to be sure. But I thought it would sell out, so I put it on the calendar when it seemed like a good idea. Our attitude and enthusiasm is a great gauge of our fitness. If we feel flat or over cooked, most likely we are. Pushing on will just make things worse. So I pulled the plug on another race and rested instead, knowing the start of school would increase other kinds of stress dramatically. I ran a little, biked a little, and took days off. I wanted to be ready for Tahoe.
How to Know When to Jump Back In:
When you feel like it! When Tahoe came around, my motivation was mostly back. My extra rest brought back my enthusiasm, and I had a fun race, even though it was harder than I expected. With some extra recovery days after the race, I feel excited to train again for my next big goal, a marathon in December. That goal motivated me to take my break now, rather than burn out too late. My nutrition, which had also suffered as I gave into temptations, is now back on track as well.
My HRV has hit all time highs, both for a single day and average. My informal MAF test today showed several minutes of improvement. I now have motivation and a positive attitude toward my new goal. I’m cutting way back on racing and doing a run focus from now until the marathon. I feel confident that this time I won’t burn out early, instead I’ll make it all the way to my December vacation with increasing fitness.
Do you take breaks during your season? How do you when to stop and when to start back up?
Three days after a disastrous race that lasted over eight hours (I’m still processing why I feel good about a disaster) I feel ready to head back out on the trails and train for the next one. I used a little active recovery, which meant walking the dog, but mainly I recovered. And ate. And ate some more. My heart rate monitor estimated that I expended over 4,000 calories during the race. And because of serious GI issues, I didn’t eat much that day. So the strategy was Passive Recovery. I modeled my behavior on the dog. She is nearly always very well recovered and rested. And fed.
These are techniques that take minimal effort, and are designed to enhance rest. Passive is the key word. Set it up and rest. You only get stronger while recovering. Sleep is the most important aspect, but there are other ways to increase the amount of rest.
Let’s see how Passive Recovery can affect the main recovery issues:
Nothings beats feeling tired like a nap right? Fatigue exists on both physical and mental levels, and sleep is the most powerful way to deal with it. Don’t get enough quality sleep and all manner of health problems manifest. Or you could go temporarily insane.
Muscle Soreness and Damage
The body heals itself constantly, and that includes muscles beat down by racing. But we can’t consciously control the process, so the best strategy is just get out of the way. Improving delta sleep, the deepest level, seems to be the best way to help with tissue repair.
It’s not just the muscles that take a beating from a race, the brain does too. Stress hormones rise and stay up for quite awhile. The need to concentrate fatigues the brain considerably even when not physically active. Add this brain drain to muscles that are fading, and plenty of sleep is needed. Improving the dreaming part of sleep, REM sleep, where theta brain waves predominate may help the brain process all the day’s experiences into the appropriate memories. Think about all the cognitive effort of a race as well as all the strong emotions. The subconscious has serious work to do, and it needs the conscious to step down for awhile.
If you don’t move around much, you don’t need to expend much energy. So the healthy food (and maybe a treat or three) will be stored. Once carbohydrate stores in the muscles and liver are restored, the muscles can repair and rebuild, and the brain can relax, no longer sensing a threat to its survival.
The stress hormones of a big race are a serious “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system response. A lot of important physiological systems are put on hold. It takes time to rebalance. Perhaps its hormonal, or maybe neurotransmitters are depleted or imbalanced, but the physical organ of the brain needs recovery too. Fortunately, mood is an excellent indicator of recovery. Another very useful tool is to measure Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which gives a good indication of whether the sympathetic “fight or flight” mechanism is in charge or the parasympathetic “relaxation response” system has taken over.
Here’s How I Put It Into Practice:
- Go to bed early. I don’t stress over sleep quality the night after a race. Sometimes it’s like a rock, sometimes not.
- Take a nap. After long workouts (weekends) or races if possible. I elevate my legs to help blood flow.
- Meditation/Visualization/Relaxation– I may combine this with a nap, or separately. Invoking a relaxation response and turning off the arousal of a big effort gets the healing going.
- Compression Gear– My new favorite! Nothing but sleep is more passivethan putting on my compression socks and letting them help my circulation get out the metabolic waste and deliver nutrients. A good rule of thumb appears to be twice as long in your compression gear as time on the trail. Next I’m buying some tights, and when I save enough spare change some active compression boots.
Next up: The Two Most Important Ways to Recover Well
The standard for endurance coaching is periodization: dividing the year up into distinct training periods with specific goals. The theory is that you can only make progress for a while in a particular type of training, then you plateau. Plus, you need periodic breaks to allow for recovery and to absorb the training before hitting it again. In a way, you flirt with overtraining, although coaches will call it “overreaching”. Right before edge, you pull back and recover, with the body getting stronger. The Eastern Europeans devised and perfected this method, getting great results. Amateurs can be divided into two groups: those who organize, periodize and peak, and those who don’t.
I’m not a periodizer. In the past I tried to periodize by changing my training to prep for ski season, and then again for summer endurance sports, like mountain biking. Now that endurance racing is more important than skiing, I don’t bother with periodization. I just try to improve fitness and race when I feel like it. But I have races that I want to improve in, and that suggests that I should periodize by tapering and peaking for a big event.
Here is what Joe Friel, a fantastic coach and author of the “Training Bible” series of books says about peaking:
“When a true peak comes about, you will experience several physical changes that combine to create a performance that borders on astonishing. These changes include inreased leg power, reduced lactic acid production, increased blood volume, a greater red blood cell concentration, and increased fuel storage. Top these physical transformations with sharper mental skills such as concentration, confidence, and motivation, and you are truly in top race form. All of this, and no illegal drugs are needed.”
(The Triathlete’s Training Bible 3rd edition, p. 33 )
“Creating that moment when racing seems effortless makes months of hard work and sweat worthwhile.” (my emphasis)
What?! Months! That means lots of planning. Right, not for me.
I prefer to fly by the seat of my pants. A “pantser”, if you will, when it comes to training and racing schedules. And I like to race a lot, which makes peaking harder. What to do? What I did do was just give up and wing it. Then I discovered the Maffetone Method.
Maffetone has this to say about peaking:
“The concept of ‘peaking’ as it’s been used through the years, isn’t healthy for endurance athletes. As I’ve seen it in practical application, it usually involves a gradual overtraining. In this first stage of overtraining, performance can actually improve just before more common signs or symptoms of overtraining begin. However, this increased performance window is short, and athletes quickly enter the second, more serious stage of overtraining where injury, ill health, and performance loss occurs.”
(The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing, p. 79)
So what I do is combine the methods a little:
- Schedule a Priority Race
- Develop the best aerobic base I can
- Take the last few days before the event to cut way back and rest up
- Take some easy recovery days afterwards
- Race again!
I think this approach fits my personality. I have suffered numerous times from overtraining, and while I never dug myself as deep a hole as many racers, I lost a lot of enjoyment.
Benefits of Pantsing:
- Flexible scheduling
- Easier planning (none!)
- Less stress
- Easier recovery (if workouts are aerobic)
- Lower performance
- Slower times
- Less progress
- Less recovery (if fatigue keeps building without adequate recovery time)
One thing that I have learned from the periodizing planners:
It’s far better to go into a race over-rested and under-trained, than the opposite. You’ll probably be faster, and you will definitely have more fun.
One Thing Maffetone Got Right:
Minimizing anaerobic training makes it much easier to go into a race rested and ready, because aerobic training is lower in stress.
One Thing the Periodizers Got Right:
If you’re aiming for a specific, high stakes goal, like a qualifying spot for Kona or Boston, may require you to peak for it even with the risk of overtraining.
What about you? What have you tried? What worked? What broke? Any good ideas?
Arright, hands up, who has raced hard enough to have to walk down the stairs backwards? Yeah, me too. When that happens, it seems like the most important thing to do for recovery is find the nearest couch and stay planted. Forever. Or at least until all the ice in the beer cooler next to the couch has melted. What is definitely counter intuitive is the idea of active recovery. Active?! Sounds ridiculous, but then I tried it. And the coaches are right, it really can help.
How I Used Active Recovery to Learn How to Walk Again
The run course at XTERRA Tahoe CIty is hard. You start climbing a steep, paved road that switches to steep, rocky singletrack. There is a brief respite at the top, then what goes up, must go down. A steep, quad smashing descent on loose, rocky road and pavement. Of course, that all follows a couple hours of mountain biking. My legs were done. My left knee started to really hurt during the descent, and trying to compensate, my imbalanced gait hurt my right calf, already stressed from the climb. Delayed onset muscle soreness had no delay for me. I hurt at the finish line. But three days later, I was healed. Fighting the instinct to collapse was the key.
The following day I went for a walk. About 30 minutes. A little shorter would have been better, but my knee and calf required a slower pace, and maybe trails were not such a good idea. But the forest was good because of the trees. They have been proven to help brain function and mood. I felt refreshed physically and mentally. The second day after the race I repeated my recovery walk. Maffetone describes walking as an ideal cross training tool for racers because it can help recovery. The third day I went for a short walk/jog keeping a close eye on heart rate and muscle soreness, which was quickly decreasing. It worked OK. A bike ride would have been better, but I ran out of time after my afternoon recovery nap. More on passive recovery later. The next day I got back on the bike for an easy 90 minute spin. It felt great, and I successfully resisted the urge to do more. Now I’m ready to train again. Even my sleep and HRV have returned to normal.
Why I Think it Works
Using the Recovery Issues:
For some people 30 minutes of exercise is a lot. But if you race, a 30 minute walk is very easy, so it does not add any fatigue to what you’ve already done.
Walking directs more circulation to stressed muscles. More nutrients and less waste products from metabolism and repair means faster recovery than doing nothing.
Like fatigue, there isn’t enough activity to deplete storage carbohydrate, which means it won’t take any longer to rebuild the stores emptied by a long race.
If you take your walk in a place of natural beauty, you can benefit even more. The brain likes blood nutrients, and oxygen, so a walk in the forest, or anywhere there is a lot of O2 producing vegetation can help a lot.
It’s very refreshing to be doing something, but the lower intensity relieves stress, especially if you have a mild addiction to exercise.
Other Forms of Active Recovery
Swimming in the way that walking is different from running would also help. Maybe more like floating around. I didn’t try this because drifting around in the freezing water of an alpine lake did not appeal. If you’re a fan of cold therapy, it might help. But in a warm climate, or a pool…
Yoga if done in a restorative manner could help. I was too sore to want to risk stretching stressed muscles. If I had been practicing regularly, I could scale it back.
Foam rolling would be the same as yoga. Helpful if you already know what you’re doing. I don’t, so I’m saving it for later.
In the end, I’m not going down the stairs backwards. Instead I’m motivated to train. Enough blogging, time for a nice run in the forest!
What Needs Recovery:
- Muscle Soreness/Damage
- Glycogen Depletion
- Mental/Nervous System
- Stress Response
These are the elements of recovery. The difference in length and intensity between a race and a regular workout affects recovery. A long run that goes further than ever before will need more recovery than an easy run you’ve done a million times. A race that puts you at threshold for an extended time requires more recovery than an interval workout. Work or family stress impacts training and racing, requiring more recovery. Here’s what I learned about recovery recently.
The longer or more intense the workout, the more fatigue produced. The more volume over days, the more fatigue accumulates. This fatigue must be “unloaded” in order to move forward. This can happen voluntarily by taking time off, easy days, or getting more rest, or your body can force it on you with illness or injury. I’ve neglected fatigue, covered it up with caffeine, and run myself into the ground. The best solution I’ve found for fatigue is passive recovery, emphasizing quantity and quality of sleep.
Muscle Soreness and Damage:
Cycling doesn’t leave me as sore as running. Triathlon is worse than running alone. So after a short cross country race or regular long run, the soreness isn’t bad. I can train easy until recovered. But a trail race or triathlon can leave me so sore that walking is uncomfortable. That’s where I am now after XTERRA. I have had to take three days off with walking as my only exercise while my muscles heal themselves. Soon I will add some yoga and foam rolling, but to this point I’ve been too sore. I experimented with amino acid and proteolytic enzyme supplements to help speed recovery, and believe I have benefitted.
This is easy. Following the starch based diet of Dr. McDougall makes replenishing storage muscle glycogen as simple as following my appetite. Most of us have heard of the “window” of opportunity following a workout where enzymes peak, making glycogen replenishment easier. I can tell when I’m depleted by my low energy level and high appetite. Those two factors tell me when I’m recovered. The day after long glycogen depleting races, I’m hungry more often. Then, as I recover, my appetite decreases due to less activity, even though I am still sore. Using the Maffetone Method for training helps as well, since I have trained my body to rely more on fat for fuel. Before Maffetone, I would be really wiped out after a long ride. I could literally feel my recovery progress along hour by hour as I ate more. By using more fat as fuel during exercise and eating a high starch diet, I recover faster. Taking in calories during the workout or race helps, because then there is less that must be replenished.
Often I’ve felt like my body was recovered, but my mind was unwilling to go on. There are some possibilities for why this might be: depleted neurotransmitters, hormone imbalance, low levels of amino acids, or just lack of fuel. From my experience, it seems to be tied directly to glycogen depletion. Since the brain runs almost exclusively on carbohydrate, if levels get too low, the brain puts on the brakes to conserve energy. As my storage carbohydrate returns to normal, I can feel my brain come back online.
Overall Stress Response:
The body’s stress response gets engaged by non-physical events. Which is why someone can be so tired by mentally demanding, yet sedentary work, or emotionally stressful circumstances. This same stress response is responsible for getting you ready for another race or workout. The mistake I’ve made in the past is not considering life stress as equivalent to training or racing. I’ve always thought, “Hey, exercise relieves stress, right?” Well, yes, and no. My recent race at Laguna Seca, the Hammerstein, showed me this phenomena very clearly. School had ended only two days prior, and while I had decreased training to rest, the life stress had peaked. I had a very tough race. One week later, with school stress gone, I raced better. Any stress reduction techniques could help here. I think the best option is meditation, because one has the potential to learn how to control the stress response and decrease the energy cost by retraining the brain.
I think I’ve finally gotten a firm grip an what needs recovery, and some good techniques to use. A little research and using myself as an experiment of one with three weeks of big races have taught me a lot. What do you do for recovery? Any secrets or effective protocols?
How do you recover from those epic days? Boundary pushing long runs or bike rides? A long or intense race? Anything that pushes you “to boldly go where” you haven’t physically been before requires attention to recovery afterwards.
Personally, I have failed epically at this in the past, burning myself out in many creative ways.
Racing each Saturday for 4+ hours each time for the past three weekends was exhausting, especially for those of us in the back of the pack. How can I best recover between each event and not blow a fuse this early in the season? In the past, recovery to me meant plenty of couch time with a good book, or going to bed a little earlier. But I wanted to develop some better skills so I can get faster. And have more fun. So I even bought the book, The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery, by Sage Rountree to see what more I could learn.
So What Have I Discovered about Recovery?
Three broad categories, and a lot of subtlety about timing.
Easy exercise- encourage circulation to speed nutrients to damaged and tired tissues. Example: a 30 min. walk.
Doing nothing physical, but getting the deepest rest possible to rebalance hormone levels and allow for repair. Example: the treasured afternoon nap.
Replacing the nutrients depleted by training and racing. Example: a post-workout recovery drink.
- Difference between recovering from training and racing
- Mental/nervous system fatigue
- Glycogen depletion
- Muscle Soreness/Damage
- Overall Stress Response
Unfortunately, I could not find the easy formula I wanted. Recovery seems to be more Art than Science. While the physiological processes are scientifically clear, there is tremendous individual variation. Which means trial and error. I want the plug and play version, and instead I learn that a lot of tweaking is necessary.
My first big racing block is over, and my experiment with what I’ve learned about recovery begins. Today’s recovery protocol will be: a walk in the forest, meditation, a long nap with brain wave entrainment, and a few supplements. Tomorrow will probably be a repeat.
The Hammerstein is over. And while I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, it’s time to move on. I experimented a bit with recovery supplementation, and it appears it paid off. While the two days following the race were filled with a lot of fatigue, I wasn’t really that sore. And the first couple of days after the school year ends always fill me with fatigue as the emotional let down sets in. I usually camp out on the couch with a thriller to read or watch. So I did the same this year: nothing a little James Bond and an old Travis McGee novel can’t fix. And naps. Two hour naps both days.
But now it’s time to get back in the saddle, literally. An easy road ride of 90 minutes, or maybe two hours. I’ll see how the legs feel. It will be strictly aerobic (MAF) with no climbing. I took the last two days off with only a couple of easy walks to get the blood flowing and help recovery. It seems to have worked as I feel good now. Post school year partying with friends is over, and it’s time to get back to the MWL eating disciplines in search of that elusive race weight. Farmer’s market veggies and rice on the training table for today. I must get back to correct nutritional practice for recovery since restaurant food, even with great company, won’t cut it. I will add to the experimental recovery mix some yoga and foam rolling. I have practiced plenty of yoga in the past, but not lately, so I must ease back into that. I’m new to foam rolling, and talk about being late to the party. I think I may very well be the last endurance athlete to incorporate foam rolling into their routine.
Can’t go too crazy though. Next race is Saturday’s 8 hour mountain bike race in Tahoe.
Many thanks and a great big shout out to Global Biorhythm Events for the awesome Hammerstein mountain bike race at Laguna Seca over the weekend. Everything went off well and it was a great day (or two!) of racing on trails made legendary by years of the Sea Otter Classic. There were categories for 8 hour, 24 hour, team and solo racing. I chose to race the eight hour solo and see how long I could go before I fell off my bike. I lasted five and a half hours, then the lights went out. So it was bittersweet. I had hoped for more. But it was a swell way to end the school year, riding myself into the ground on some sweet Monterey singletrack. I used this race as a training race, experimenting with some fueling and supplementation, and thanks to Thursday’s Splash ‘n’ Dash race, I even had some lingering soreness in my legs. Recovery from this race is paramount, and that is part of the experiment. I recently reread The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery to help figure out the best protocols to use. Along with suggestions from the book, I decided to experiment with supplementation ideas from Brendan Brazier and Ben Greenfield. These guys are like mad scientists when it comes to nutrition, so I put the principles of MWL on hold to race my bike and try to recover in time to do another 8 hour race in a week’s time.
Awesome course! Bomb singletrack descent! Singletrack climbing as well as dirt road. Plus it was cool to watch the race cars on their track too. I rode double what my longest ride has been so far this year. I basically crammed an entire week’s worth of cycling into one afternoon. Six months ago I was dying of pneumonia, Saturday I was racing lap after lap. I could be surfing the interwebs or watching TV, instead I raced my bike. Score.
I had time to ride one more lap. I couldn’t do it. I wanted it, but the lights went out, and nobody left at home. I asked a race official a procedural question and could barely form a coherent sentence. It was the right thing to do, even if it was disappointing. The disappointment comes from feeling like I’m fitter and faster than last year when I raced Northstar, and there I rode for seven and a half hours. But I know the reason, and that is that I have not done enough long rides. I have trained consistently, but not often enough past two hours. More saddle time!
Nothing really. It was a great day. Oh wait. The wind. That was UGLY. Long dirt road climb on an exposed ridge into a stiff headwind that came right off the Pacific and funneled through the Salinas valley. That hurt.
I tried more solid food this time for fueling, which worked well. I steamed some baby potatoes and kept them in my cooler in the pit area. Between laps I munched on some. They tasted great compared to the engineered sports nutrition I usually use. Next time I will eat more since I tolerate it well. My usual approach of Hammer’s Sustained Energy, Hammer gel and HEED worked just fine.
SUPPLEMENTS: Pre and Post Race
Before, during and after I used my usual cocktail of Hammer’s Endurance Amino and Anti-Fatigue products which helped some. This time I added Mito Caps. I don’t know if they helped or not, since I just started them. I changed up the pre and post race routine by trying Brendan Brazier’s Vega pre and post drink mixes. The tastiest and most convenient yet. Plus, I like the vegan ingredient list.
I also scored for planning ahead a post race dinner of soba noodles, wilted spinach, cucumber, red pepper and baked tofu. Tasted great, went down easy and fueled me up for the drive home. I ate half after the race, and the rest when I got home.
SPECIAL RECOVERY SUPPLEMENT WIZARDRY:
The really big supplementation change I made was to try taking proteolytic enzymes and Master Amino Pattern (MAP) to speed recovery. The enzymes when taken on an empty stomach can help with systemic inflammation, essentially speeding the healing process along and decreasing soreness. MAP consists only of the essential amino acids, helping protein synthesis along, but without being a digestive burden. Two days later, when soreness usually peaks, I feel better. Not as sore as I expected. I’ve also been sucking down the tart cherry juice, and taken all together, I’m not as sore as usual. I am tired though.
MORE ON RECOVERY:
A nap after lunch on Sunday that would make a sloth jealous. Seriously, that took some real skill. Two recovery walks, one in the morning to the Farmer’s Market, and another around the neighbourhood in the afternoon. Woke up this morning thinking a recovery spin on the road bike ould be a good idea. Nope. Still a lot of fatigue. In the future, I need to make sure I have high nutrient meals ready to go in the fridge or freezer. Cooking anything was almost too much for me, and temptation almost won out. Today will be another double recovery walk, one before lunch. and another to meet friends for dinner. Tomorrow I will ride again.
Another two hour run today in preparation for a marathon. The whole run, except for a mad dash across six lanes of waiting traffic to make a light, done at a brutally slow MAF pace. The good news: I went further and faster than the last attempt two weeks ago. Unfortunately, I missed last week due to being out of town for an all day weekend workshop. I think this led to the bad news: a sore and very grumpy left knee about 90 min. into the run. It was just the muscles that control the knee and power my stride. They will get stronger and if Maffetone is correct, keeping the aerobic metabolism exclusively engaged, the correct muscles for endurance are getting stronger. So here are my secrets for recovery since tomorrow I have a two hour ride planned.
Post Workout Nutrition
NUtrition timing is over rated. The research seems to show that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s solid or liquid, consumed within 30 min. or 60 min. What matters is that you eat sooner rather than later. I used to be serious about drinking a commercially prepared “recovery” drink with the trendy ratio of highly processed carbs to high refined protein immediately after a long workout. I still do that after really long races, like an XTERRA, because I can’t stomach solid food for a while. But I am trying as much as possible to get away from the processed calories and instead eat whole food sources. So I time my long workouts to end within an hour of a real meal, either lunch or dinner. Today I finished my long run with a bottle of sports drink because I needed fluids and some calories. But after I cleaned up I ate my lunch, an enormous bowl of soba noodles with stir fried veggies and tofu.
Post Workout Rest
Rubbed magnesium oil into legs for relaxation.
Take a nap. Nothing helps recovery like sleep. Ad who doesn’t like a nap after lunch?
Post Workout Chillin’ Like a Villain
Reading an old Travis McGee novel
For extended recovery, I’ve got basic black beans in the slow cooker. They’ll go with quinoa, homemade fresh salsa and avocado. Does it get any better? I’ll save you time spent on research, it does not.
What works for you? Any special rituals put mind, body and soul back together after a long effort?