Monday, October 28, 2013

Training for Life

After the finish of the big hike in September, I had this bizarre idea that I was invincible. I thought "Hey! I'm in great shape. My endurance is off the charts! I'm gonna put that endurance to good use and run a marathon in October! It'll be cake!" Afterall, when you are used to putting in 20 + mile days back to back, one unweighted 26 mile day on flat ground seems like nothing.

Plus, I figured that since I was used to working out for 10 to 12 hours per day, it would be very easy to transition over to much shorter workouts with a much higher intensity. I'd keep the weight off, build some muscle, and increase my speed, strength, and power. By the end of the year, I'd be like an Olympic athlete. No problem.

There were a few flaws in my plan. Aside from the glaring oversights that 1) very few people have even the remotest of chances of becoming an Olympic athlete and 2) at age 43, my window of opportunity for Olympic-like status has pretty much closed, I had also forgotten about two very important concepts of fitness training: specificity and recovery.

Specificity refers to the concept that the way you train will determine the physiologic changes that take place in your body and thus the functional improvements that result. When training for speed, your training activities will be performed at a high velocity and intensity so as to produce improvements in the type II muscle fibers. When training for endurance, your activities will be more of the long slow distance variety targeting type I and type IIA fibers for improvements of aerobic capacity at lower speeds. In other words, train like a sprinter and become a great sprinter. Train like a hiker and become hiker trash.

So...yeah, I was used to putting in 20 mile days back to back and one unweighted 26 mile day on flat terrain would have been easy. If I were walking. Running 26 miles on the other hand? Would take some training. In running shoes. While running. No marathon for me in October.

And the high intensity, lower duration workouts I jumped into? Left me really, really, really sore! It was like I had never worked out in my life. Because essentially, as far as my muscles were concerned, I hadn't worked the elements of high level force production and power in 6 months. I may as well have been sitting on the sofa, eating Doritos. (Ok, not really. But I was essentially asking my muscles to perform in a way I hadn't asked them to perform in 6 months and wondering why they were protesting)

And speaking of protests, my feet were protesting even louder than my leg muscles! For the last --oh -- month of the hike, my toes were completely numb and my feet swelled up at night. I had gone up one full shoe size because of the chronic swelling in my feet. Even with my nightly use of compression socks, icing, and self massage. When I got home, I said "I'll wait until the numbness in my feet goes away, and then I'll be ready to hit it hard!"

It reminds me of treating patients after sports injuries or surgeries who would see that their swelling was down and assume they were ready to go back to unrestricted play. "Oh, no!" I'd tell them. "That was just step 1. The acute swelling is down, so now we have to rehab the underlying injuries and the muscle imbalances that contributed to the injures -- step 2. Then we work on conditioning to get you back in shape for your sport --step three. Then you work with your coach and athletic trainer to go from practice and scrimmages (step 4) to unrestricted play (step 5). You can't skip the steps! You run the risk of getting re-injured!" (Wow, I thought I was informative, but in actuality I was a little self-righteous, wasn't I?)

When it came to me, I completely disregarded my own recovery! That 6 week long inability to feel my toes? Was an overuse injury. (Metatarsalgia to be exact. With a pinch of plantar fasciitis. And a dash of achilles tendonitis.) I waiting until the swelling went down, and then tried to jump from step1 right to step 5. Without the proper strengthening and conditioning. (Wow, I thought I was being diligent, but in actuality I was being a bonehead, wasn't I?)

Even in the absence of an injury, a recovery period is a vital part of the training program. Triathletes don't complete an Ironman and then do speed workouts the next day. Runners don't finish a marathon and plan for hill repeaters in next week's training regime. Olympians don't step off the podium with plans to hit it hard the next day. And for good reason. Good athletes know that they need to recuperate, both physically and mentally from all the hard work of training and the hard intensity of their event. Post event workouts are more generalized, less intense, and at a much lower volume in the recovery period. It give the body a much needed rest and prevents burnout.

Luckily, even though I can act like a complete bonehead sometimes, I am good at listening to my body. So even though my head was saying "In hiking the intensity is so low!" my body was saying "Yeah, but the volume is so high!" My body needed rest.

So this October, there was no marathon. There was trail running, walking, and road running. There were bootcamp style workouts and there was rest. My really, really, really sore muscles were allowed to take the day off instead of pushing through the pain and fatigue.

I let go of my illusion of being like an Olympic athlete by the end of the year. (But no my plans to watch the winter Olympics when they are on next year!)

In November, I'm striving for more consistency and building on a nice, solid fitness foundation. Life off the trail takes a lot of athletic prowess!

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