After my last race, I spoke to being tired and wanting to take a break and rest up. Some people assumed this meant laying on the couch watching DVD's through the long winter months. No, it simply meant I would be taking a break from races and training competitively. I will continue to work-out, but it will more much more relaxed. There will be no "OMG!" moments when I miss a work-out and fear that will equate to dropping twenty minutes on the bike.
The best rest. And they do it well. Of course, they have the best coaches charting this all out for them. Take Mr. Armstrong. His coach Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has helped Lance spring back to world-class form in short order...with nary a breakdown.
For an elite athlete like Armstrong, Carmichael not only inserts rest days into a training schedule, he also prescribes rest weeks, even months. After every three days of hard training, he instructs all his elite athletes to take a 24- to 48-hour break. After every three weeks, he recommends one week at half the normal training volume and intensity.
This was something that I learned from Mario Minelli this past season. I had trained my ass off last winter trying to get back to the level I had been at before my 'retirement' from the multi-sport event arena in the early 90's. I had scheduled a bunch of early warm-up races in the form of 5K's in which I was going to us them as speed workouts. Two blown Achilles and one blown hammy later and I was scratching my head wondering what the hell I was doing wrong.
It was all a case of over-training. When I started to incorporate an easy week every third week into my training regimen, the results became obvious. Look at my results from the later part of the year:
8/2/2009: Waseca Triathlon
4th overall (134). 1st in 45-49 (6)
8/15/2009: Young Life Triathlon
5th overall (215 total). 3rd in 40-49 AG (27 total)
8/30/2009: Minneapolis Duathlon
35th overall (813 total); 1st in 45-49 AG (44 total)
9/12/2009: West River Triathlon
3rd overall (44 total); 1st 40-49 (5 total); fastest overall bike split
9/26/2009: Plymouth Firefighters 5K
3rd overall (297 total)
It is this type of regeneration period allows your body to recharge not only your energy stores, but also your mental focus. You start fresh, with a more positive and confident outlook on what you want to accomplish. And one can't argue with those results.
So, I have learned to look for obvious signs of over training now. Especially as I get older (I'm 48), it helps to be able to recognize your body’s warning signals. Here are some of the most common indicators that suggest you need to take a step back, along with strategies for when and how to step it up again.
Symptom No. 1: You’re feeling tired, strung out and crabby.
What your body is trying to tell you: It may be maxed out. Generally, exercise should make you feel better, not worse. But when you’re clocking 80-hour weeks or planning your son's summer soccer schedule, intense exercise can become one more stressor in your already-stressed-out life. It can also further destabilize your body’s levels of amino acids and neurotransmitters. A lot of busy people find time to exercise by cutting back on sleep, but it’s during sleep that your body repairs and restores itself.
What to do: Focus on quality rather than quantity. Instead of training six days a week, switch to an every-other-day schedule. Or just shorten your work-outs. Sometimes I'm a mile into a planned six mile run and I know I just don't have 'it' that day. So the six mile run becomes a three mile run. Rest and recuperation will reduce cortisol levels. It’s better to have three good workouts during the week than to have five or six so-so workouts.
Symptom No. 2: You’re sick — again.
What your body is trying to tell you: If you’re getting sick a lot, it’s a sign that your immune system is struggling and that it may need more attention than your workouts for a while. Regular (moderate) exercise usually boosts immunity, but intense sessions, particularly those that last two hours or more, can lower it — especially if you don’t rest adequately between sessions or you aren’t getting adequate nutrients.
What to do: Take stock of your illness. It’s OK to continue to exercise through a cold, as long as you lower the intensity and duration. Go at a slower pace and hold yourself to just 30 or 40 minutes, max. Don’t overload congested or infection-weakened lungs, though. As a rule, if your symptoms are below the neck — or you have a fever, are vomiting or have diarrhea — stay in bed. Exercising with a fever will raise your body temperature even more, putting undue stress on your immune system and allowing the infection to flourish.
I recently posted a story from the New York Times on the effects of H1N1. The effects of flu or other illness may linger long after your fever subsides. During your first week back, train at no more than three-quarters of your normal intensity and duration. After a week, if you feel energetic during and after your workouts, resume your normal training load. During longer sessions, consume some carbohydrate in the form of a sports drink, energy bar or energy gel. Research suggests that regularly ingesting carbohydrate during endurance training can bolster immunity by stabilizing blood-sugar levels.
Symptom No. 3: You’ve hit a stubborn plateau.
What your body is trying to tell you: After six to nine months on any exercise program, everyone hits a plateau. In many cases, this indicates the body needs a new challenge. But in some cases, it’s a sign that you’re pushing too far, too fast, and not giving your body’s repair systems a chance to keep up. Remember also that your maximum muscle size and metabolism are both partly genetically determined. Trying to overcome genetics by cranking up the intensity and duration of your workouts can backfire by suppressing immunity, which in turn suppresses your metabolism. High cortisol levels also increase appetite, which may interfere with weight loss.
What to do: Evaluate your periodization schedule to see if you might be overtraining. Look at how much support you’re offering your body in return for the demands you’re placing on it. Consider adding more rest days or recovery workouts to your schedule. Also consider switching to a different fitness pursuit. If you were running, try stair climbing. If you were cycling, try the elliptical trainer. In the weight room, switch up your regular routine. Mixing it up can often provide enough of a change to stimulate weight loss and increase strength. It’s like slapping your metabolism in the face and waking it up. It keeps your body adapting.
Symptom No. 4: Your workouts aren’t making you happy.
What your body is trying to tell you: A negative mindset is often the first sign of overtraining syndrome. With a symptom list that includes grumpiness, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia and low immunity, overtraining syndrome results from going too hard and too often without adequate rest.
Keep overdoing it, and you can expect to see stress-hormone levels rise, testosterone (the hormone in charge of muscle building and repair) levels fall and immunity plummet. You may feel tired as soon as you roll out of bed in the morning, or get more short-tempered as the day wears on.
What to do: If you have the bummed-out mindset — but without any physical symptoms — exercise at one-half your normal intensity and duration for one week. If your physical health is already suffering, you may need to stop exercising altogether for one or more weeks. If your physical symptoms have lasted for only three or four weeks, then a week off should do the trick. If you’ve been dragging around for months, take three weeks off, going for easy walks and doing yoga, or light stretching when you feel like it.
Also, consume more brightly colored fruits and vegetables (at least eight to 10 servings a day), fatty cold-water fish like salmon (at least twice a week), and healthy protein, such as beans, chicken or turkey breast (at least twice a day). These foods will help bring down cortisol levels, reduce muscle inflammation and help bolster immunity. I'll have to post my recipe for Cedar Plank Salmon one of these days.
Exercise every other day at half your normal training volume. Do this for two to three weeks, and then begin adding intensity and duration to your workouts. Keep rest days a regular part of your schedule. For every three days of hard training, take off one or two days.
Again, I won't be shutting down. I just won't be studying my times. I won't be worrying about missing a day, or two, or three as the holidays roll around. I will continue to exercise at a lower intensity and duration until after the holidays. When I start to earnestly look at my possible race calendar for 2010. And by then, the competitive juices will be starting to stir again.