The Upside To Downtime

If you already train hard, extended recovery can be the key to peak performance this season.

Photo: John David Becker

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Last September, spectators witnessed one of the small miracles that make triathlon such an inspirational sport: Sebastian Kienle won his second Ironman 70.3 World Championship title in record time on the challenging Las Vegas course. The miracle, in my opinion, was not that he won or set the record. The miracle was that he won despite battling a ruptured ligament, a month-long bacterial infection and knee inflammation during the five months leading into the race, which left him with a preparation and sense of confidence far below his normal standards. Kienle somehow overcame the odds and triumphed. And despite only running once every three days in the five weeks between Las Vegas and Kona, he also fought his way onto the podium at the Ironman World Championship last October with sheer heart and will.

The rules of training to achieve your peak will tell you that performances such as Kienle’s should not be possible. Those rules say peak performance requires relentless commitment over many months and endless hours of training. If you look at any training book or ask any coach, they will tell you that consistency is the No. 1 rule of peak fitness, and that a high peak requires a big base. How then is it possible to come back stronger than ever in a season that has offered more than a fair share of health issues, setbacks and injuries eroding the base of consistent miles you typically rely on? Is it the body responding to a welcome break? Is it a reinvigorated hunger to win? Or is it a sense of urgency to perform?

Kienle’s stellar comeback after his forced rest was something I experienced in my pro career. In fact, many other high-profile athletes have demonstrated in recent years how forced rest can lead to an all-time best performance. In 2012, Leanda Cave and Pete Jacobs came back from injuries that sidelined them in the first half of their seasons to win Ironman Hawaii. Cave even won the 70.3 world title the month before, becoming the first female athlete to win both titles in the same year. These are useful lessons for every pro triathlete to heed. But as an age grouper, can forced rest help you achieve your own peak performance? And if so, how do you apply it wisely to make a difference in your “A” race this year? Let’s look more deeply into this issue with a few other examples.

Crowie’s Peak Year

To me, the most spectacular example of the positive influence of forced rest came in 2011. During the winter of that year, Craig “Crowie” Alexander prepared for Ironman Australia. Two weeks before the race, he was diagnosed with a respiratory infection that had him coughing constantly for three months. He took three weeks completely off from training, and then eased back into it, one session a day for a week, then two for another week, before trying to resume close to a normal load. A subsequent injury occurred six weeks after the initial diagnosis when he cracked a rib from the incessant and constant coughing. He raced the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in pain and got his broken-rib diagnosis the following week. In late June, off a very limited training schedule, he validated his qualification slot for Kona at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Despite the limited and disrupted build-up, he managed to break the course record. He then took two weeks off before starting another six-week course of antibiotics to remove the respiratory infection. It was not until the end of July before he could start his preparations for Las Vegas and Kona. Six weeks later, he won his second Ironman 70.3 world title, and in October he had the race of his life, taking the Kona crown in a record that stands today—8:03:56.

I experienced a similar performance boost after injury in 2004, when I tore a ligament in my pelvis at the end of January but still managed to win the ITU Long Distance World Championships in early July. The pelvic injury forced me to rest for almost two months, and it was spring before I could resume training. Despite the many months of rehab, my body responded to the training like never before. Over the following three months I could literally feel the progress day by day.

At the world champs that July, I was well prepared on the swim and bike and hit T2 with a seven-minute lead. On the run I felt the fatigue early on from lack of preparation. By the first lap of four, the chasers had cut my lead in half. When I got the split, I just started sprinting to the next light pole up the road, and I willed my legs to go faster. I picked myself up every few hundred meters, faster and faster. I was hungrier than ever, fighting odds that were not on my side. By the halfway mark, my lead was down to 2:15. By the last 7K lap, Jonas Colting brought it down to a minute, and with 3K to go he cut it to 45 seconds. One kilometer from the finish both my calves cramped up. I tried all the tricks in the book, but nothing worked. If I wanted the world title there was only one thing to do—run the last kilometer with calves in ripping pain. I did and made it to the tape first with my first world title, just 20 seconds before the fiercely chasing Swede.

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Health is the Key to Fitness

With all we know about training, these examples should be surprising. We know that two to three weeks of tapering leads to improved performance, but two to three months with a drastically reduced training load should be detrimental to performance and require much more than a month or two to build back from. Says Alexander about his experience in 2011: “Being healthy is as important as being fit. I think this is an important distinction. For the first time in four months I was healthy. In addition, because I rested adequately, my body responded well to the training. I was fresher at that point later in the season than I had been in previous years, and mentally I gained confidence from how good I felt as soon as my big buildup began. I also felt that the media left me alone due to the illness, and this removed a lot of pressure from me.”

Kienle’s explanation is slightly different, yet with some similarities. “Physically, I think it depends a lot on the stage the athlete is in during his career,” he says. “An athlete with a long time in the sport and a very good base could be forced by an injury to change the routine, which in that case may be good. I had 15 years of uninterrupted training before last year, and the added rest did me good. On the mental side, it might also be a relief from the pressure the top athletes put on themselves. You have an excuse if the race ends badly, and so you race with less pressure. Going forward the past season helped me not to freak out about injuries. I know that sometimes injury might even have a positive impact.”

An injury typically exposes a weak link somewhere in your musculoskeletal chain. For example, low back dysfunctions typically stem from weak and poorly controlled abdominal muscles. The body will spend lots of energy compensating for such instabilities. Taking time off to recover and restore function with treatment, strength and stability training will allow you to tap into your body’s full potential.

Being rested is an important part of being healthy. A body that has gone through half a season of training and racing will not respond as quickly and effectively to training as a fully rested and balanced body. In this regard, Kienle’s point about the years of training is relevant. Age groupers with a year or two in the sport will most likely not experience a similar jump in performance after a longer layoff. Their base is simply not yet there. But for a pro or experienced amateur with many years in the bank, a mid-season hiatus may be the most important thing to strong injury-free performances in the later part of the year. For them, being relaxed is also important. Both Crowie and Kienle looked at their injuries as a relief from pressure, not the opposite. That’s not the case for inexperienced pros. For them, getting injured will add to their pressure, due to lack of income and sponsorships that are connected to their results. For a top-tier pro, on the other hand, an injury can be the opportunity to get out of the limelight for a while, spend time truly resting physically as well as mentally, and then rebuild. In the first races back there is less pressure, which, again, facilitates greater performances. It’s a pattern I have seen many times. And many age-group athletes race under self-imposed pressure that can lessen when coping with a gap in training. Most athletes race their best under the radar when coming off of a sub-par performance or an injury; few are able to deliver when the expectations (or perhaps fatigue) are at their highest.

Declining Performances

Timothy Noakes, the legendary South African sports physician, physiologist and professor at the University of Cape Town with a long affection for running and ultra-endurance sports, has studied the human body for many decades with a particular interest in how the brain regulates fatigue and hence affects human performance. According to Noakes, no controlled studies have been done on forced rest, and what he offers is speculation. But in his extensive work with top runners, he has identified a similar pattern to what I described among top triathletes. Case in point is the Australian runner Robert de Castella, who set the marathon world record of 2:08 in 1981. He maintained this level for some years, but faded later on, barely making it into the top 10 in major marathons, Noakes says, because his body was simply worn down. He then rested a full year, built back up and repeated with another stunning 2:09 marathon in Rotterdam in 1991, providing an impressive example of how the body is affected by deep chronic fatigue, and how effective complete rest is in curing itz

What happens to pro triathletes during their racing seasons are probably early symptoms of the same chronic fatigue, Noakes says, adding that most athletes today are far more conscious about recovery than athletes were back in the 1980s. As a result, they exhibit fewer cases of severe chronic fatigue. In 1981, Noakes did a study on chronically fatigued athletes with adrenal or hypothalamic burnout. In such a state, an athlete is unable to secrete stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are responsible for raising blood glucose levels, or mobilizing fat for energy. Remember that these hormones are part of a naturally functioning body and are needed when exercising, training hard or racing. Noakes’ research team injected insulin into the subjects to get their blood glucose levels down and watched what happened. In a chronically fatigued state, their bodies were unable to get blood sugar back up, which is a critical stress response in sports and in daily survival. The take-home message from his study: When chronically fatigued, your body’s ability to produce hormones required to function normally is suppressed, and you will more or less be forced onto the couch.

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Chronic Fatigue

What then is the cause of chronic fatigue? During heavy training the body is under a lot of physical stress. Some of it comes from the mechanical breakdown of muscles and tendons, or use of energy stores, but there is also a great deal of what is called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress stems from byproducts of metabolism called reactive oxygen species, or ROS. You may know some of them by the name “free radicals.” Their effect on the body is much like what happens to an apple when you peel it. The antioxidants in the apple are all in the skin, so when peeled, the flesh is exposed to the reactive oxygen species in the air and hence starts a breakdown process shown in the gradually brown color of the flesh. This happens in the body as well. When training at more normal volumes, the body adapts by producing antioxidants to combat the effect of ROS. During heavy or drastically increasing workloads, the body has a hard time keeping up, so getting enough antioxidants from foods such as dried fruit, berries, colored vegetables and fruits as well as dark chocolate, wine and certain teas is important to maintaining good health.

When training at extreme volumes in addition to ultra-distance racing, these processes are accelerated and may account for some of the staleness and chronic fatigue witnessed in professional athletes or age groupers with busy lives. Noakes says oxidative damage is greater when eating a high-carbohydrate diet as favored by many professionals and top age groupers. A high-fat diet may be important to reduce overall oxidative stress on the body. While studies at the University of Copenhagen have shown that athletes are unable to maintain high-intensity training when adapting to a low-carb diet, Noakes says he has also found that there are great variations in how athletes handle a diet low in carbohydrates. Most athletes can get by on as little as 200 grams of carbs a day and still maintain quality in training, he says, far from the 400 to 700 grams of daily carbs preferred by many athletes and sport dietitians.

Aside from the oxidative stress, it is also important to look at the brain itself. Much of Noakes’ scientific work points to the critical role of the brain in regulating fatigue, hence anything that affects our brain function will also impact our physical performance. Heavy workloads or high life stress often compromise sleep quality, which is paramount to brain recovery. You can recover physically during the day, but the brain only truly recovers at night. Lack of quality sleep will then, over time, affect your body´s most basic level of function.

Keys to Recovery

The idea is that forced rest improves performance in athletes who have a form of chronic fatigue. We can distinguish between short-term fatigue linked to the body’s day-to-day carbohydrate stores and long-term fatigue linked to fatigue in the brain, changes in the hormonal system as well as micro-tears in tendons, ligaments and muscles. Long-term fatigue can result in injuries, in illness or in more severe chronic fatigue due to adrenal or hypothalamic burnout. Noakes’ personal experience is that it takes at least six weeks with complete rest to recover from chronic fatigue, and much more if the case is severe. As a result, for athletes with excessive training volumes, it may be a meaningful investment in athletic longevity and performance to take longer periods of the year where rest, good sleep and light alternative activity replace constant swim-bike-run training.

An example of how to do this comes from one of the greatest triathletes of all time, Mark Allen. In the ’80s and ’90s, he dominated the sport in all distances and, once he cracked the code in Kona during the famous 1989 Iron War with Dave Scott, he won it a total of six times, tying Scott for the overall record for most victories by a man. While Allen’s training philosophy is well described, his rest and recovery plans are not always given the same attention. What did he do during the off-season?

“I actually had a very long off-season that lasted from the day Kona was won in October until the first of the year in January,” Allen says. “That is over two months of unstructured training. During that time I was not sitting on a couch. I would surf most days of the week, run about every other day for about 30 minutes and get on my bike about two times a week for about an hour. So I was active but not doing anything that was focused on gaining fitness. In fact, the focus was to recover and regenerate from the tough training and racing that I did. Most of my competitors were taking about two to four weeks easy after Kona and then hitting it again in the hope of getting a faster start to the next season. This worked, of course, in the very early part of the next year when they would be in much better shape than I was. But they would peak in the early part of the summer, having their best race of the year in June or July. My focus was to have that race in October. It is impossible to be at your peak for 11 months of the year and to train for your peak for that long. You must decondition, and then, when you are out of shape, go through the tough process of gaining fitness. But this is actually easy for someone who has a few years of training in his body. It is just tough mentally to let your peak fitness go long enough to actually be fresh enough to go to the next level the next year.”

Both Kienle and Crowie rest for four weeks in their off-seasons with a little alternative activity. After that period of inactivity, they build back up. That might seem like enough rest, but for a top-level pro, a six- to eight-week period of rest would be more appropriate, as Allen has shown. Allen also took a full week completely off in early August, just eight weeks prior to Kona, something that would leave most athletes insecure so close to the most important race in the calendar. He would use this week to balance body and mind, and work on his strength of character.

So what can you, the serious athlete, learn from all these people with a rich experience in triathlon and ultra-endurance sports? Quite a lot if you ask me. On page 51, I offer some suggestions for how I believe age-group athletes can use rest and recovery in their quest for a peak performance this season.

The guidelines are simple; the mystery is, why are athletes afraid to rest? The logic of rest and recovery is simple. As Allen puts it, “No amount of training will do someone good if they cannot absorb the benefits of it.” Yet many, many athletes get injured and somewhat burned out as their season progresses. The overtraining culture in triathlon is massive, and very few have the confidence to go against it. Allen and two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack are among the few top-level pros who embraced full rest for sufficiently long periods of time in their off-seasons. Not surprisingly, they are also two of the most successful triathletes of all time.

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Torbjørn’s Recovery Tips for a Peak Performance

Take lots of time off.
I am convinced that most athletes take too little time off at the end of the season and need to shoot for something between six and 10 weeks, depending on their training background, volume and load of training. More intense mid-season training mandates a longer break. In those weeks, the focus must be on restoration and recovery of body and mind, doing only short, light alternative activity interspersed with a little jogging. This is important for your longevity as an athlete.

Use micro-breaks in rest weeks and week-long mid-season breaks.
All athletes can benefit from frequent micro-breaks, with two to three days of doing nothing. These could be placed during the rest weeks most athletes have every three to four weeks. In addition, most athletes can benefit from a mid-season break with at least a full week off. This is paramount to late-season health and performance.

Sleep well.
Quality sleep is the key to brain recovery. Many age groupers cut into their sleep so that they can train, a strategy that has diminishing returns.

Eat more antioxidants and experiment with fewer carbs.
Eating a diet rich in antioxidants and experimenting with whether or not you can maintain training intensity on a mid- or even low-carb diet may help you combat some of the ill effects of high training loads and reduce the oxidative stress on the body. But keep in mind that carbs are necessary to support heavy training, so be cautious in cutting back your carb intake.

Torbjørn Sindballe is a former pro from Denmark who won the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championship in 2004 and 2006 and was third in the 2007 Ironman World Championship.

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