One of the most challenging aspects of high-level training for endurance sports is how to recover properly to avoid overuse injuries, fatigue or illness. Those us us that have pushed the envelope too far know the pain and difficulty of the outcomes. We get a cold from overtraining, pick up an injury from too much intensity or volume, or simply get a case of the blah’s where motivation disappears along with energy.
As if that isn’t hard enough to manage, there is also the problem of delayed reactions and side effects. During peak training years, I abided by advice from the Marty Liquori book “Guide for the Elite Runner.” It held a bit of wisdom about the dangers of coming back too quickly from a hard workout or race.
Liquori promoted the “Day After the Day Lag Rule.” That means it is two days after a workout when the body is most at risk from overuse and injury. That meant when I was training on my own after college, speed training and other types of hard effort were done on Mondays and Thursdays on weeks when there was not a Sunday race on the schedule.
On weeks when there was a race, I’d recover (some) on Monday and Tuesday, then come back with speed or hard distance on Wednesday. Some months this would be the cyclical schedule because I’d race every week. It is a conflicting reality of endurance training that participants walk a line of perpetual risk. There is no way to improve without pushing up against the edge of maximum performance. But it’s the delayed reactions and side effects that one must learn to recognize if one hopes to succeed in the long turn.
There were many exceptions to the Day After the Day Lag rule, but it tended to apply 80% of the time. Yet even that delay between hard workouts was a radical modification from college years when we hardly ever took true recovery days. We trained at 6:00 pace nearly all the time, even on supposedly “slow” days or shorter runs. During track season, we even did a workout of 3 X 3-miles at under 17:00 pace.
But that type of workload cost many of us over a 10-13 week season. Our concept of ‘training tired’ was stretched to the maximum with weekly averages between 70-100 miles and 1-2 four-to-five mile races each week. We’d also sometimes have dual meets during the week as well.
And going back to the high school schedule, we competed Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday on many weeks, and never with less than two meets per week. All that racing made us fast and tough. We also ran hard workouts the day after races and even trained hard immediately following a race, the same day!
What we sometimes failed to comprehend is that while the training and racing in that way worked “in the moment,” there was a background effect taking place in our bodies that was hard to detect. Racing hard every week from late August through the end of October simply has a cost. If you time it wrong, the racing peak would come too early. That left you grasping for strength in the late season meets that were most important: Conference, District, Sectional and State.
Wise coaches knew how to avoid this propensity to peak too early, and so did wise athletes. So the opening races of the season would be treated as group efforts or hard training opportunities.
For example, we raced against two perennial All-Americans from St. Olaf. We’d kick their butts in early season meets. But when it came time for nationals they’d turn on the gas and finish in the Top 25. I always admired that. They delayed their peak fitness until the timing was right. That’s a good kind of delayed reaction.
By contrast, I achieved my racing peak about three weeks out from nationals. And while I managed to hang on through nationals to bring our team home as fifth man and earn a Second Place overall, those last two meets I was close to that “running on fumes” feeling that an athlete past his peak can suffer.
Delays and denial
Endurance athletes also have to deal with delayed reactions related to diet and nutrition. An athlete who eats the wrong foods may enjoy early success in a run or ride but are not properly fueled for the long haul. This can happen easily on a longer bike ride. Forgetting to eat or drink early on can result in a bonk when the body runs out of fuel.
It is true that many distance runners of the late 70s and early 80s did not drink much in terms of fluids during hard or long efforts. Many of us did 20-milers at 6:30-7:00 pace with no water. Perhaps our bodies grew used to using what they had during those long runs. We once even ran an 18-mile run climbing from 6000-9000 feet of altitude and back down with no water during the entire out and back course. That was tough, but none of us collapsed. We just denied that we couldn’t do it.
It is likely our bodies suffered the actual effects of that effort a couple days later. But by then we were riding back across Nebraska to Iowa in a beater van with one bad wheel. We just toughed it out on every front.
This all came to mind this morning as I sat using the bathroom following a couple days of ingesting painkillers and anti-inflammatory meds following meniscus surgery. The nurses warned me that some constipation could occur. Those meds dry you out inside, and the result is stiff stools that can take some work to release. If you’ve ever experienced the urgency of a blocked colon and a stretched rectum due to constipation, you know it can be a hurry up and wait proposition. The same thing can happen from training without sufficient hydration.
But it all tends to be a delayed reaction. You think you’re home free and then things get tricky. Some drugs work by accumulation in your system. Thus it can take as long for them to be expressed through waste products as it does to be absorbed by your cells.
I well recall trying to train on the bike when I was using a drug called Lorazepam for anxiety treatment during all those years of caregiving for my late wife. The drug helped alleviate anxiety in the moment. But it wore off with time. Then it was back to square one.
The benefits of that drug were like a short-term investment. The dividends were immediate, but long-term it was more about finding answers to the source of the problem than repeating the treatment cycle over and over. But sometimes we just need to survive in the moment. And that’s forgivable.
There were also some withdrawal effects when it came time to quit the drug entirely. That meant whittling the dose down from a full pill to just granules toward the end of two weeks. But finally, I’d be drug free. I will confess that was sometimes a scary period. It truly helped having a crutch substance during periods of such high stress.
Thus it was a strange thing moving away from the comfort zone of that drug. It protected me to some degree from adverse reactions to the situations I was in. Often there were pressures from all sides as I was also caregiver for a father who was a stroke victim. All the chores of finances, healthcare management and family obligations wore me down.
Yet I still kept running and riding, because those were my true salvations. Granted, my efforts were full of shortcomings. At times, I had no will to compete on the weekly group ride and would simply fall back, too tired and depressed to care if I was anywhere near the top dogs. I had to swallow some ego many of those weeks. Sometimes I’d get angry, pissy or moody along the way. That had its own value. Since I couldn’t really afford to get angry with my patients, it helped to curse the winds of destiny, be they headwinds or crosswinds. That’s both a literal and metaphorical analogy.
So the lessons I learned about delayed and stress reactions have helped me understand psychology and the risks of postponing reality a little better. It’s not that I ever avoided taking care of problems. That was not the case at all. But ultimately I learned better ways to view situations in a fuller context. That enabled me to grow out of ruminative thought patterns that only make situations worse.
We all need to learn how our bodies and minds react to stress. Understanding the scope and degree of our delayed reactions and the side effects of thought and physical stress is important to managing ourselves in a healthy way.
It really helps you know when it is logical to forgive yourself if workouts need to be postponed, or recovery takes longer than you think it should. These workarounds are vital to your long term health. Because when we ignore the warning signs, the delayed reactions and side effects are seldom good. Thus an active and aware approach to our lives is critical. It can mean the difference between experiencing success and something else entirely.