It’s the summer, the weather has been amazing, and whether you are training for the event of your dreams, training to reach an important goal, or just to engage in hardcore weekend warriorism, chances are you’re feeling tired and run down at times. I still laugh when I recall an epic fail of a swim workout that occurred one morning in mid-May. My legs kept cramping up to the point where I couldn’t even kick, so I had to drag along behind everyone with a pull buoy between my legs the entire time. My swim buddy, a nationally ranked Ironman triathlete and rock solid when it comes to holding a pace, couldn’t make an interval to save his life. We were both completely useless, a slightly discouraging sentiment as we were both mid-training cycle for various races.
What was going on here? For most athletes, who tend to be high achievers, demanding of themselves, and used to working through pain and fatigue, the immediate instinct is self flagellation. “I haven’t been doing enough, I’m not pushing hard enough, I’m not eating right, I’m not focused enough, how could I be so slow today? I’ve got to get in a few extra training sessions and deal with this ASAP” frequently is the stream of consciousness in this situation.
The reality is that we were tired and overtrained. I swam 4000 meters and ran 12 miles in the heat the day before. My training partner had trained approximately 4 hours, also in the heat, the day before, including a 50 mile bike ride and 13 mile run. And both of us are parents and have physically demanding jobs as well. The antidote to this scenario is the best advice I’ve ever received, from a fellow Master’s swimmer 3 years ago, and it’s very simple: “Eat more and sleep more.” It is amazing how much of a difference this makes. Now is not the time to be counting calories. Fill yourself up on healthy food at every meal and have a couple of snacks on hand in between. Keep them in your workspace, in your car, and in your gym bag. Try to get to bed a little earlier every night, and something I do that I think works wonders is to take a power nap. I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes in the late afternoon when I can, tell the kids not to wake me unless the house is burning down, and crash out on the couch.
What I find, though, is that this strategy does not come naturally to an athlete. He or she needs to be told these words of wisdom, as if they need permission from someone they trust to give themselves a break. I was treating an ultra runner a while back, and I still can visualize the look of relief in his eyes when I told him that he was well trained enough and could take 10 days off from running and cross train in order to rest his foot. He exclaimed, “No one’s ever told me that! My coach didn’t even tell me that!”
This scenario also is where having a training partner is invaluable. I have friends I run with, friends I swim with, and friends I mountain bike with. They are in the category of my favorite people on the earth, I love them all madly, and I would trust them with my life. They have seen me in my best, worst, and most disgusting moments and are qualified to look at the big picture. They can give me an objective opinion on whether I need to do more or less, whether what felt like a poor performance was actually that bad and an isolated event, or part of a downward trend. Plus, training with a fun friend combats the mental fatigue resulting from training sessions that, solo, might otherwise become lonely and monotonous.
Do not discount the extra training you receive if you have a physically active job and/or are a caretaker of young children. If you are on your feet all day, frequently bending, lifting, doing housework, finding fun outdoor things to do to keep your kids occupied and happy, and pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion, you need to factor this into the training picture. If you are trying to cram in prolonged or double workouts on crazy, tiring days, you are setting yourself up for overtraining and injury by increasing muscle fatigue and the catabolic process by which muscles break down, as well as increasing circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol which also contributes to muscle breakdown. As a very wise athlete client of mine said earlier this summer, “Frequently your life is good training for an endurance event.”
And let us also not forget the importance of a rest day. I don’t care who you are. You need a rest day. “But I can’t take a day off, I need to move,” moan some people, as if a rest day means lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling, which it can if that’s what you need. A rest day also can mean doing something fun. Go for a walk or low key hike and look at the beautiful scenery. Take your kids for a swim or a bike ride. Try a gentle yoga class with a friend. Do something that takes the pressure off and helps you enjoy life a little. Try not to lose sight of the fact that this entire process in which you are engaged is supposed to be fun. Right before a race, to calm myself I smile and tell myself, “This is going to be fun, it’s going to be an absolute riot,” and then I find myself grinning and enjoying what is going around me during the actual event, whether it’s the scenery or crowd support or other hilarious competitors. Think about trying this technique when training too, which also will help you assess whether or not you need a rest. If you find that there is absolutely nothing fun whatsoever about several training sessions in a row, more often than not it is time for a physical and mental break.
–Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.