Purposely losing fitness, and learning to be OK with it: The importance of rest in an annual training plan
It's the off-season, an important part of an annual training plan (ATP) that is often overlooked. I am in my third week of my 4-week planned rest period, and yes, I am losing fitness. It doesn't mean that I do nothing: I have been doing a couple easy runs a week, I go for a long walk with my dog and play catch, and I teach a spin class. What I am not doing is planned training, and ideally no training at all. As Greg McMillan writes:
Great athletes build annual breaks into their training year. Not a reduced week or two of training every now and then, but weeks of complete rest. They don’t only rest, but they gain weight, too. Some add 5 to 15 pounds to their normally light frames while they enjoy time with their families, take vacations and generally do things they normally can’t because of their training.
So why would you do this? The answer is simple - to rediscover your desire, motivation, determination, and passion to be the runner or triathlete you want to be - but actually taking time off is surprisingly difficult. I miss the routine of training, I miss wearing my favorite jeans, I miss the confidence I feel after a hard workout or a long ride, and I miss analyzing metrics, but these are not the things that motivate me to train. But let's not fool ourselves with trying to maintain a high level of fitness all year long. Complete time off is the only healer.
The downside to having the ability to track and analyze your training and performance is having data that confirms your loss of fitness. Above is a snapshot of my fitness decline. I have to admit, it is difficult to see and does not make me feel confident. As a coach, my primary objective in building a training plan is to develop an athlete's confidence in their ability to achieve a specific race goal. Many athletes, myself included, struggle with taking time off because it lessens our confidence that we will be able to achieve our goals. Taking time off does decrease your fitness, but only temporarily, and what you gain from complete rest gives you much greater opportunity to achieve your goal.
A triathlete's way of life is perfectly expressed through our physical training, but we also need to balance training throughout the year with rest. Here are some tips to remember while you are 'losing fitness':
All training programs have an overarching philosophy or worldview, and this impacts the structure and feel of the program, and ultimately the effectiveness. My previous post addressed the basics of training as a mindful practice or habit, and this post will begin to move towards the specifics of training for performance. As noted, a planned performance training program is defined as the “timing, sequence and interaction of training stimuli to allow optimal adaptive responses in pursuit of a specific goal" (Vern Gambatta), and most training programs are structured with similar components. Before we get to putting those components together in a structured training schedule, we need to address a common mistake that can sabotage your success: a training program is useless without belief and trust in it. Therefor, it is important to make sure that the program fits with your worldview. Even if you are self-coached, it is possible to create a program that you can't trust in, so building a program requires self-reflection.
My overarching philosophy in sport has changed with experience, but what has remained the same is beginning with a performance goal. Five years ago, my worldview was "what ever it takes" and this got me through difficult workouts and personal struggles. Now, my outlook has evolved to "for the love of sport". The point I want to make is not to say one worldview was better than the other, but that the philosophy of the program matched my beliefs at the time, and both were successful in achieving my performance goals. One thing we can't change, is that extensive training is necessary to build an endurance athlete, especially in triathlon where mastery of three distinctive sports is needed. An overarching philosophy impacts decisions made on the timing, sequence and interaction of training stimuli, and this is what individualizes a training program.
Here are some tips to build, or adapt, a training program that you can trust in:
Here are common examples of why some programs fail, even if it was created by a successful athlete or known coach:
The shift in my overarching training philosophy came when I could no longer convince myself to do more. Telling myself "what ever it takes" wasn't convincing enough to get outside my comfort zone and train at or beyond threshold on hard days; I found myself changing or skipping hard workouts altogether. It took some time for me to figure it out. Although I still have doubts at times, I can ask myself "am I still having fun?", and a bad workout turns into another experience that maintains my love of the sport, and ignites my desire to do more.
If you want to improve as a runner, your training practices (how you approach your training) is just as important as your training program. As a coach and triathlete, I am often faced with the question "how do you train?". Most runners are intelligent and familiar with various training methods. Coaches use common principles and practices, but the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method to the individual and being able to make effective decisions regarding training varies. So, when I discuss training 'programs' with an athlete, I switch the conversation to effective training practices that improve your training: you can not follow someone else's training program.
A planned performance training program is defined as the “timing, sequence and interaction of training stimuli to allow optimal adaptive responses in pursuit of a specific goal" (Vern Gambatta). In running, most training programs have similar training stimuli because they rely on similar physiological principles and have similar contextual objectives (i.e.: complete a marathon). Training programs do vary in volume (distance), frequency (how often), and intensity (how easy and hard, and we can differentiate between different theories or programs based on these difference. The task of a coach is to apply these principles, planning stimuli for the predictable adaptive responses, though this is more intuitive than we let on to our athletes. Pete Pfitzinger's coaching reflection on his coaching beliefs is a wonderful example of how coaches use tacit knowledge, not necessarily a theory or model, to guide their decisions. There are plenty of options regarding planned performance programs, so don’t feel you need to train a particular way. Though we hope to narrow down the best timing, sequence and interaction of stimuli for optimal adaptive responses, after years of running and coaching I realize that it is most likely that different programs result in the same outcomes.
The key action in the definition of a planned training program is ALLOW, and what becomes an important is trusting in your training program and believing in your goal. Before I create a training program for someone, or for myself, I ask that the person give a fair and honest assessment of their current ability, racing and training history, racing goal, and the reason(s) why they want to achieve this goal. Beyond outlining how much time they can dedicate to their goal, I also ask that it is not a program that the person is committing to: you are giving yourself every opportunity to follow your goal by prioritizing it and behaving consistently in a way that supports that goal. A successful program requires that you are consistently achieving the training targets, your training practices are important to successfully achieving your goal.
Once you have a best fit training program, I believe there are 3 common training practices that can help you make the most from your training:
1. You need to train hard enough to put stress on the body so it will adapt to even harder training. In other words, don’t train harder than you need to.
2. You should progress gradually to avoid injury, burnout, loss of interest, inconsistency and failure to progress. In other words, don’t train more than you need to.
3. You should be training with variety, using different training intensities, stress and rest, so that your body will adapt to its maximum potential. In other words, you need to listen to your body.
The reason why I focus on training practices, as opposed to training program, is because I know that most people struggle with being adaptable, flexible and confident in their training program and staying positive that they can achieve their goal. Advice I give as a coach (and to myself) is to continue to see the big picture, don’t get caught up in the details of weekly miles, average pace, or number of workouts. Most of all, don't compare the work you done to others: always trust in yourself!
"To keep from decaying, to be a winner, the athlete must accept pain--not only accept it, but look for it, live with it, learn not to fear it." ~ Dr. George Sheehan
I’m admittedly a stubborn person, refusing to let discomfort stop me from getting in my planned training. I have been running competitively for decades, and I have accepted that discomfort is part of running. I have recently been struggling with a running overuse injury, Achilles tendonitis, which has now developed in both legs. Unfortunately, Achilles tendonitis is also stubborn. The Achilles tendon is the thickest and strongest tendon in your body, connecting your calf muscles to the back of your heel. Virtually all of the force generated when you toe off the ground during running is transmitted by the Achilles, and this force can be as much as three times your body weight. As such, 12% of runners are prone to this injury, particularly those who do a lot of speed training and uphill running (my two favorite things, seriously)! Is training injured helping or hindering recovery? Is some pain OK?
Before this injury, life was simple and running was easy!
While I don’t think it was my stubbornness that caused my injury, I am sure my persistence to train through it probably didn’t help. What started out as a dull ache at the beginning of my run turned into something much more severe over the course of a couple weeks. I remember pacing a couple runners with the track team that I coach, and by the time we finished up the 400m repeats, I could barely walk. Intense, shooting pain radiated from both Achilles. I took a couple days off, and reduced my speed work, as the faster running sessions gave me more pain and limitation on my ability to finish the workout. Some mornings, I debated wether to crawl on all fours until the pain subsided!
Knowing that no amount of ibuprofen was going to make this pain go away, I finally went to see my trusted physiotherapist Curt at Premier Therapy. It took a mere 5 minutes of me trying to balance on my sore foot, and unable to do more than 10 calf-raises for him to see I was in trouble. Finally my body was saying “Enough!” and I had no choice to listen. Realizing I had pushed my body beyond it’s breaking point, I started a physical therapy regimen, and this would required some pain.
Our bodies feel pain for a reason: to tell us when something is too much, when to back off the training, and when it’s safe to push onward. However, pain does not mean you stop.
The diagnosis and cause
Achilles tendonitis typically starts off as a dull stiffness in the tendon that gradually goes away as the area gets warmed up - it might hurt and the start of a run but disappear after 5-10 minutes. But, it typically gets worse under specific conditions - running faster and running uphill. In most cases, the pain is in the midpoint of the tendon. Unfortunately, mine was insertional Achilles tendonitis, which occurs within an inch or so of the heel bone and tends to be more difficult to get rid of (lucky me). Additionally, the bursa, a small fluid-filled sac right behind the tendon, was irritated as well.
Causes of Achilles tendonitis is related to excessive stress being transmitted through the tendon. Weak calf muscles, poor ankle range of motion, and excessive pronation have all been connected with the development of Achilles problems. In my case, I had chronically sore and stiff calf muscles, normal ankle range of motion, and normal pronation with a mid foot strike - what was 'off' in my running form was a lack of forward lean at the hips, landing in front of my body weight, which was putting even more strain on my lower leg. This along with training quantification (volume, speed and duration) resulted in damage to the tendon.
The short-term and long-term solutions
I was still able to run during the recovery period, but only if my Achilles did not flare up while doing so. Pain was my guide for training. The recovery is about a 6-12 week period. I am about 4 weeks in and have noticed significant improvements - I even raced with minimal pain! Here is a breakdown of the two main foundations for recovery (I will cover them in greater detail in following posts).
Running with some pain was necessary. The strategy and exercises are designed to cause some pain. I was encouraged to continue doing it even with moderate discomfort, but should stop if the pain is excruciating. Luckily, there is a clear difference between the two, discomfort vs. excruciating pain, and running injured was made simple.
First things, first: Running with minimal pain
Compression socks – they aren’t just fun fashion statements; they can be used for a necessary purpose. In my case, I needed them, badly! I recently had the opportunity to try a new compression sock made by Tiux. Although not a treatment for Achilles Tendonitis, wearing compression socks helped me continue to train and do the exercises with minimal pain. As far as I am concerned, they are an must have tool in your running arsenal.
Why Wear Compression Socks?
All these benefits played a key role in my injury recovery. In the meantime, read more about why Tiux Compression socks are different here.
IM Kansas 70.3 will go in my books as one of the best races to do! The terrain was much hillier than I expected, but beautiful, and the people cheering on racers (including 11xIronman Champion Lisa Bentley) were amazing! I am feeling stronger at this distance, and my performances continue to go in the right direction. I am excited and gaining confidence for World 70.3 this September.
Over the past 6 weeks I have been busy coaching Track & Field at Gross Catholic High School, and this race really snuck up on me: just when I was ready to focus on my training it was time to begin tapering! I was a little concerned because I had not given the focus to my training that I wanted to give, especially in the disciplines of swimming and cycling. Since New Orleans 70.3 in April, I had only been in the water a total of 4 times. It showed in my swim performance. I started off feeling strong and was with a solid group of swimmers up until the 500 to 700 meter point. I was swimming with a long, smooth stroke but found myself using a choppy, broken swing as I fell off pace. I also started swimming with my head up to track this apparent train wreck - I could see the group I was with was now a full buoy or more ahead and the wave behind was quickly catching up. I tried to stay with each swimmer that passed, but with no success. I came out of the water in a disappointing 39 minutes. I have no excuses for my weak performance, and consistency in the water will be a high priority this summer.
I also did not have the race I hoped to have on the bike. Again, no excuses but also no regrets. I chose not to do the training to achieve the results I desire, but I am moving in the direction I want to go. In a nutshell my volume and intensity has remained stagnant since mid-March. I felt powerful until the 45 mile marker, the longest ride I had done since my last 70.3 in April. I was exchanging positions with another cyclist Allison - I would pass her on the uphills and she would come along on the downhills. This back and forth kept me motivated. But I had to use every mental strategy I knew to get me through the last 11 miles. Positive self talk was key during the final stretch on the bike, to get me to the run, where I am most confident.
My run was solid, a sign of the consistent training and coaching I've been doing in the sport. My form was smooth and light, and I quickly moved passed hundreds of runners struggling on the hilly and winding course. The cheers and high-fives from kids helped, of course. Many friends and families of racers were camped out in Clinton State Park, and kept all of us motivated with music and cheers. Though I've had bibs with my name printed on them before, spectators made an effort to cheer you on by name. It was nice to hear "way to go Melanie! Looking strong" from people I have never met. Pretty incredible support crews. My husband Jeff was also out there cheering: I think he ran just as much as I did moving from various check points along the course. Even though he thinks I didn't hear him because I didn't react, I had my game face on, but it meant everything to me that he was there.
Finishing Time 5:13, 4th Place 35-39
Some important benchmarks to note, however, I am over the awkwardness of being on a bike and have now returned back to my aggressive position on my triathlon bike. It is amazing how quickly you can lose something that was second nature only 2 years ago. It's slowly coming back. Also, my body has physiologically adapted to the demands of this distance, and I feel I have a solid foundation to ramp up my intensity and volume in my training moving forward. The best part of racing is learning the finer skills necessary to race better.
All-in-all things are coming together nicely. My next triathlon race will be the Omaha Triathlon on July 20th, with a couple 5km and 10km road races here and there. I am looking forward to these races because I get to train for and race them with Jeff!
Then there are the phantom ailments that crop up only during taper. There's nothing like not running to make me realize (or imagine) how much could be wrong with me. I've got a weird click in my Achilles, my hammies are tight and my knee feels crunchy--and that's just from taking out the recyclables. Every taper I have a run of less than 5 miles where I get so winded I have to walk. Talk about a buzz kill! ~ Glen Freyer, Taper from Hell
You can't really be strong until you see a funny side to things. ~ Ken Kesey
I had a bad race, it happens. My approach to training is based on a creative application of scientific information, basically I learn the hard way through "trial and error", so I know how important this reflection can be to improving my performance. Though I am a coach, I am self-coached and believe that all runners and triathletes can be their own coach (with proper guidance). What did I learn from a bad race? Does a bad race necessarily mean bad training?
I waited a couple days to write this race report. I was disappointed in my performance. That's OK, it was a disappointing performance, and it happens. The disappointment has lessened with the reality of the situation: I am starting over, and this is a good start. I see that my disappointment is because of my high expectations, but training is a process not an outcome. My goals don’t need to change, but my training could use some changes. I am just not there yet, but I am not afraid to keep trying.
Though it was not the race I was hoping to have, I am happy to have taken on this challenge: I have a habit of learning the hard way. I was 12th overall in 5:33 and 2nd in my age-group. Key West was a beautiful place to visit, and I am so very thankful for the support (and humor) of my travel partner and husband, Jeff. His comment in the end "you did just as bad as my best race: I think you did OK. Don't be so hard on yourself.".
Let’s face it: training inside sucks! Treadmill and trainer workouts do have their benefits, not simply to avoid the winter elements or getting in a run/ride at home while the kids are sleeping, you can also do key workouts to boost performance. Interval workouts are perfect if you find treadmill running and indoor cycling boring!
Interval training is simply short, hard bursts of speed (work) followed by a brief period of recovery (rest). Changing the work and rest period improves both the aerobic and the anaerobic system, and it is thought that interval training helps to adapt our bodies to handle longer and harder workouts more efficiently. A recent study found that intervals ranging from 3 to 5 minutes were most effective, though I've done sessions ranging the work from 1 min to 12 min long. I use interval training to practice running at my ideal race pace, without the stress of doing an actual race. The best thing is that interval sessions can be done in a short amount of time with significant benefits. When pressed for time, I can squeeze in a 35 minute interval session (10 min warm-up, 3 x 5 min with 1 min rest, cool-down for time remaining). Interval training increases aerobic and anaerobic capacity, improves running/cycling form, increases speed and endurance, and can boost your training confidence.