Triathlon is a draining sport and too often I see professional and age group athletes racing and training at a high level year-round, day in and day out, year after year. This is not healthy or sustainable.
Humans have since the dawn of time advocated a Sabbath or time of rest. Religion has always seen a benefit in integrating mindful rest into our lives. In addition, our earliest industry, agriculture, saw the benefit of taking a break to allow for rebalancing and rejuvenation. Allowing the land to go fallow lowered yield in the short term in exchange for keeping the land vital for years to come.
In today’s fast paced world, whether in triathlon or in our outside life, we are unwilling to rest and only do so as a last resort once we are sick, injured, or burnt-out. Instead of preserving our long-term health, we chase the short-term performance.
Stuck in a vicious cycle, the modern athlete refuses to take the time to recover that both our body and mind require. Constantly in a state of exhaustion, it is not possible to rebuild without taking time away. The toughest challenge in the world may be to take the step back and rest taking a Sabbatical from the constant stress of the chase.
I would advocate every seventh year a break from high-level long course triathlon racing or at the very least an offseason every year. The professional athletes with highest career longevity take the time each year to rest their mind and body. Likewise, as you see the current crop of women triathletes taking a sabbatical to expand or start a family, I would venture to guess you will see many of these top performers come back stronger in the next five years as the time of unstructured training has allowed both their mind and body to rebalance.
Trying something different over the off-season, means you stay fit and continue to have fun.
We can all learn from our ancestors that rest is a vital part of long term development. Rest doesn’t need to mean sitting on the couch, it can mean enjoying some shorter races or doing an xterra or trying a new sport rather than chasing a Kona qualifier that year. But do give your mind and body a break from the constant struggle of long course racing. Taking a step away to restore your body and your passion for the sport whether for a month or a year will allow you to return in a healthier happier state ready to attack the next season.
Mary Beth Ellis is one of the USA’s most decorated long distance triathletes. A member of the US National Team for 4 years, during her career she was an elite ITU racer as well as Top 5 Ironman World Championship finisher. Mary Beth Ellis runs her Trisutto.com coaching program in Andover Massachusetts in the USA and speaks English.
Join Mary-Beth at her triathlon training camps on the Ironman Mont Tremblant course in July http://trisutto.com/camps/#tremblant
At January’s 70.3 Dubai (also the opening race of this years Triple Crown), the Angry Bird, Daniela Ryf flew just high enough to win. Many picked up on a pre-race piece I had written that she was quite ill leading into this race. The question some were asking is ‘If she was sick, why would she start?’
Rather than defend our decision to start, let’s discuss how it may be possible to salvage a race and the loss of possibly quite expensive entry fees, while being advised by others to ‘not risk our health’.
There are several levels and types of sickness that are usually all labelled with the same tag – ‘you are sick so you will not be able to compete‘. However, I have witnessed some of sports great performances produced from athletes who have been deemed sick.
Let’s look a little deeper…
If an athlete is in the middle of a viral infection, or is in need of antibiotics the day before a race, we do not, I repeat DO NOT Start! You will not overcome that infection in a sport that lasts any length of time over 20 seconds and more importantly you will hurt your recovery in doing so. Racing in this condition can have an adverse effect on your race performance later on in the season, and possibly your health, this I’m sure of.
However, it is important to distinguish this from a bout of sickness that can be caused by food poisoning, or cold without a virus. This can be managed in such away that will not hinder performance. At Trisutto if the sickness happens between 2 weeks and 3 days before race day, we assess with medical help if the illness is viral. If it is not, we stop training there and then, and go into race preparation mode.
Depending on the severity of the illness and it’s ability to incapacitate, we can have between 3 and 7 days of absolutely no training at all. None. The key is not to panic, but to mentally believe in the work we have done. As the race draws closer and as we feel better, we gradually build steady work into each day right up to and including the day before the race – but all completed at a low heart rate.
In Daniela’s case, the 4 days before race day we did no training longer than 45 minutes. Before this virtually nothing as we also had to fly in to Dubai and the added stress of this travel.
A champion athlete I trained in the 90s / 2000s Loretta Harrop suffered from asthma her whole life, which would occasionally lead to hospitalisation if she had a serious asthma attack. During her recovery from this she would train one aerobic training session every 3 days. To keep her bike power this would be one short bike, big gear reps for a workout of no longer than 45 minutes. Her heart rate kept 50 beats below her maximum, with rest between reps to allow her heart rate to drop to 100.
During this period in the pool she would use large paddles and pull bouy, no swimming without, for the purpose of keeping heart rate down and muscle strength up. Many thought she would be out of competition for 6 weeks, yet only 6 days later she had won a World Cup (the equivalent of todays World Triathlon Series), and had lead the race from the start to the finish line.
The Drop Dead Taper
While these cases are rare, age group athletes can also assess the type of illness through their doctor. If it’s not a virus, the key to giving yourself a real chance is to then have the courage to stop what work you are doing. Stop it completely. I see many who keep training for fear they will lose all fitness in this period. By continuing to train, even if slower than normal, they are in the grey zone, they are not allowing their body the chance to fight and get on top of the illness.
We call this the drop dead taper. Initially do no training. Then gradually build into the race, with low heart rate training, producing zero lactate. This will give your body the best chance to fight off your sickness, while also preserving race day power, which is also essential for any sort of performance.
Racing with control and patience after a bout of sickness, Daniela was able to achieve a great result in Dubai.
Very importantly, once in the race, we take great care to build into it. No tearing it up early if we are not 100%, otherwise we have just sabotaged our race right there! If you are able to look back at the Angry Birds race and the race commentary, it was ‘She is not as dominant on the bike as we had thought she would be‘ then on the run, “this is not the Angry Bird we know tearing it up”.
Daniela’s race tactics were developed because of, and for her sickness.
The objectives planned before the race were to complete the swim as easy as possible. On the bike to keep it very very easy and heart rate low, and if at 70km into the bike if traveling ok to apply pressure to break up the competition. On the run to simply negative split if she had anything left to run with.
The Angry Bird followed the game plan like the champion she is, and was repaid with a result!
It doesn’t always workout like this, and also requires great self discipline. However, you too may have an excellent race with the above approach.
You’ve got to be in it to win it!
I recently received the following question on overtraining:
Would you consider publishing an article about recovering from overtraining/chronic fatigue/energy deficit type problems? There is so much conflicting info on the internet and not much about what to do if it is serious (i.e a month or more and still not better yet).
This is an excellent point as while there is a lot of information about avoiding it in the first place, there is very little on the best way to return to training after a bout of chronic fatigue.
To give you our take on how we work with athletes at Trisutto.com:
The first thing we do is advise athletes to seek and follow medical advice.
Then, once you have been given the green light to start training from your doctor, we begin with very light once-a-day work outs. Keep these very short and most importantly at a very low heart rate.
Let me clarify what we mean by ‘very light heart rate’.
I personally don’t care what the maximum HR is. We stick to 100. That’s our deal for athletes on the way back. Yes, I have athletes saying ‘but my heart rate goes above that even if I go up a slight incline’. Good. The advice is then ‘No problem. Walk up it.’
I think this is critical for rehabilitation.
Once we are feeling better we don’t immediately lift the heart rate, but instead add another session. Again very short, very low intensity.
30 minute swim. 30 minute run. Maximum 1hr bike ride. Yes, that short.
When we are capable of doing the two short workouts at 100 heart rate with no ill effects, we don’t start to go longer, but rather up the heart rate up to a whopping 120.
I cannot stress how important it is not to push through the rehab period.
Our next step after we complete short sessions at 120 with ease is to add strength work – or more to the point specific strength work to the program.
Not more volume.
We may take the swim to 45 min and run also in this period, but until we cope with the strength work we do not lift volume.
It’s my belief that volume, even at a low heart rate, creates stress on the immune system. And it is a big reason a lot of coaches fall flat with athletes on the comeback from serious illness or overtraining.
When we can handle two sessions with power at low heart rate – then only then do we revert to a normal work out.
We do not do return to the high heart rate stuff until we can do our previous volume. I’m pleased to report that in my squad we have had very little of this type of sickness. I believe it’s large part because of a factor that I use when planning my workouts.
Coach Cam with camp athletes at the Sunshine Coast.
We do not do back to back long work outs.
Just don’t do that. If you are going on a 3 hour or longer work out make sure that the previous work out is no longer than 1 hour 30 or the following work out is also no longer than 1 hour 30. In most cases at Trisutto.com out of those three workouts one of them will be very small. Only up to 1 hour max.
We believe this helps combat the onset of overtraining.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
At the 70.3 World Championships. Athletes are competing competitively for longer.
As more and more people stay longer in the sport of Triathlon or decide to try the sport for the first time at an advanced age, then recovery can become an important consideration. In some ways age may or may not be the amount of birthdays you have had, but the amount of training years you have behind you. The more training years you have, can have a positive effect on the age of the athlete.
Less than 40 years ago it was commonly thought that being over 30 was ‘too old’ and athletes should retire. Not only in contact sports but also endurance events. Swimmers rarely reached the age of 20 and continued competitively in the sport. Runners would sometimes hang around a bit longer, but then a Portuguese runner named Carlos Lopes broke the Olympic record to take the Gold Medal in 1984 at 37 years of age. A record that stood 30 years later!
In the sport of triathlon we don’t have to look far for excellent age group performances. Dave Scott finishing 2nd behind Greg Welch at Hawaii when over 40 years-old being one stand out.
Craig Alexander, 3 times Hawaii Ironman winner and record holder in his late 30s now at age 43 has just won at least four competitive 70.3’s in the last 6 months. The list can go on, but the point is I don’t consider 40 as being ‘old or ‘non competitive’. The two guys I mention had been around triathlon for over 20 years and other related sports for another 10.
While the amount of time that Craig Alexander puts into his training now is probably 50% of what he did in his Ironman glory days, he is still a super competitive athlete. He can do this because he has put the miles in previously; his arms and legs have a memory bank of thousands of kilometres. While he still carries out slower rides and runs, he does not do as much. When completing higher intensity efforts he tries to ensure he stays injury free. I remember reading an article back in the 90s where Dave Scott mentioned much of the same.
So I find it highly amusing that some triathlon magazines or coaches will give an example of a triathlon legend’s training program to a “newbie” athlete and intimate that if you follow this workout you will somehow be as good as the legend. Unfortunately it does not work this way.
Training, intensity and recovery is not dependent on age, but time in sport and more specifically time in triathlon. If a coach is not aware of that factor then how can they plan a suitable program? Here at Trisutto.com we as coaches set daily programs so that “triathletes can train today so that they can train tomorrow”. It is self defeating if the program on one day is so brutal that the triathlete can’t face up to training the next day. Sure we have recovery days of lighter activity or just a session of swim, but frequent consistency and effort are two important principles of our training.
1984 Olympic marathon Champion, Carlos Lopes.
So, how much intensity and how much recovery is enough? Well that depends on the individual in question. Age is just one factor in many that has to be considered. What I can tell you is that from my own personal experience at 65 years-old, I find that the higher the intensity of the training sessions or the race, the longer it takes me to recover. If I race (Standard Distance) on the Sunday and when I front up for interval training on a Tuesday evening, my legs are still tired and lacking of what speed they may have had. I still do the session but I do it slower! If I race a 70.3, the following 10 days I am still recovering, but I keep training albeit lower intensity, less running and more swimming.
The swim session is used extensively at Trisutto.com for a number of reasons, but one being recovery. You can still get a medium to high intensity cardiovascular workout when you are tired without any more stress on your already tired legs (use a pull buoy) and the legs usually feel improved and less fatigued after.
Two other things I have found with ageing are the longer time it takes to get over an injury and how little use stretching is. Two topics I will leave for another time as I know people’s opinion can vary.
Rob Pickard is a former National Coaching Director and High Performance Manager of Triathlon Australia. He is an Age Group Triathlon World Champion.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
Nicola Spirig in the water today.
Thank you to all our supporters sending messages of hope for Nicola in this very difficult time. Also for all the inquiries about Daniela and the 2016 schedule.
I thought best to give our followers a clear update rather than have people guessing on the basis of social media.
Nicola had surgery on her shattered hand. In the end she needed three plates and 20 screws to rebuild the damage. However, what will delay any decisions on the short term future will be the stress fracture and ligament damage to the opposite shoulder.
This will obstruct many innovative approaches to training. We are lucky to have access to an AlterG treadmill and and some low impact running has been taking place. We want to take the first three weeks steady to promote healing. We will keep all her fans updated as we move forward as fast as the healing process allows, but today showed promising signs.
No injury concerns for the Angry Bird.
Daniela is fine and has no injury worries, but she was given an extended break. Last season was a fantastic year, but also a tremendously physically and mentally stressful time for her. As people will come to appreciate even more with time – taking out Kona and the Triple Crown in one year is no small feat.
As Daniela had not just completed a fairytale season, but two fairytale seasons back-to-back with training non-stop for the last three years, it was decided that now would be a great time for her to take time off and let the body fully recover. Ironman is often not given the respect it deserves on how tough it is on the body.
Trying to juggle university studies, time constraints with media and learning how to deal with all the press commitments in a positive way – a rest and reboot for a more relaxed 2016 will be great for her long term sporting career.
So why the training updates on Twitter? Dannie found taking a full-on break nearly as stressful as full time training, so we are bringing her back on for an April 1 start to training. She will then head to our St. Moritz camp to start Kona preparations and we will ascertain her form and whether to make the trip to Australia for the 70.3 World Championships.
This year will be about repositioning the Bird for the next three seasons.
So our Swiss stars begin the climb in 2016 all our age group athletes face at some point – building back residual fitness. Best wishes to everyone as they look to climb their own Everest.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.
Coach Mat O’Halloran on deck at Gran Canaria this week.
When most athletes think of injuries, they think of shoulders, back, hamstring, etc. However, in the world of triathlon, one of the most important, overused and under-cared parts of our body are our two feet. Even when we are not training, they are at work in our daily lives. The reality is that they can be rudimentary to various pains in the rest of our bodies. They can be the root of a small but significant discomfort and antagonise other injuries due to overcompensation.
Organised foot care goes back thousands of years. There is proof that even Pharaohs in Egypt and noble men in southern Babylonia took care of their feet using golden tools. Beyond the modern aesthetic and part of good grooming (feet, toes and nails) – once upon a time, a small issue with your feet, could quickly escalate into a full blown life threatening problem. Most especially if it compromises one’s ability to hunt or escape danger.
Egyptian & Babylonian nobles knew the value in looking after their feet!
Once foot pain arises, it may compel athletes to put more pressure on the other foot or to land on another part of their foot, of which can quickly cause soreness or strain on another area of your lower leg. As the reality is that we take 10’s of thousands of steps each day. Then, since triathletes are exposed to various environments at the pool, racing/training sockless or being in extreme outdoor situation, the risk of infection with an open wounds is greatly increased. This is especially true when using multiple types of foot wear that might accumulate various bacteria over time.
The solution not probably associated with High Performance triathlon programs?
Investing in a monthly pedicure can help prevent ingrown nails, blisters and toe numbness. By removing dead skin, calluses, warts and corn, it increases circulation and makes the skin smoother. This will help to lessen friction with any outside surface and prevents ‘pockets’ to form. Particular since it’s an area with little muscle and fat, the thin skin and prominent tendons, make topical problems more likely. The major idea, if to PREVENT these problems.
Beyond the basics benefits of a pedicure, many end with a short foot massage, of which can give great overall health benefits and relaxation to the whole body or mind. There’s plenty of literature on foot reflexology that shows the existence of a connection with various internal organs.
Here are additional various tips to maintain healthy feet:
- Clean your shoes regularly
- Always wear clean socks and buy those of superior fabric
- Get a pedicure once per month, but not before a big workout or race
- Wear properly cushioned foot wear to walk around after big workouts
- Self massage your feet before bed
- Soak your feet in warm salt water when you feel blisters coming or before cutting your nails
- Pop and drain blisters sooner than later, sterilize and let them breathe at home but cover when outside
- Don’t walk barefoot in foreign or potentially dirty areas
Another critical aspect, is to avoid wearing flip flops too often or for extended periods. Especially after a workout, when you have any foot/lower leg issues or open wounds. It’s proven that your gait or walking style is altered when we wear flip flops. Our toes are forced to curl and grip the sole as we lift our feet, this can put extra strain to our arch, Achilles or calf. All the while providing little to no arch support. All this can trigger tendinitis or increase inflammation in various areas of our lower leg.
In fact, a 2009 report on the Today Show, according to the University of Miami, they once found a single pair of flip flops with 18 000+ different types of bacteria.
I’m not saying avoid flip flops, simply limit your use of them, especially before/after workouts, before races or when you know you will be on your feet for extended periods of time. If you do live in a very tropical, hot or humid country like I do – definitely invest in top end brands like Fit-Flop, Reef or if it’s your thing, Crocs. And of course, keep them clean by washing them regularly!
In the end, keeping our feet healthy is a fundament part of our health, wellbeing and history. While modern civilization permits our feet to be under used and become a bit weak, for triathletes it can be the source of many problems that go beyond ugly feet. So invest a little, take the extra time and get your feet taken care off, to see for yourself, the overall benefits of superior foot care!
View Coach Mat O’Halloran’s full profile here.
Trisutto.com triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.