Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Back to Ironman Part II: Why Take a Break?

Back to Ironman Part II: Why Take a Break?
By Gordo Byrn

Here's Part Two of my Ironman Brazil story. For me, this is the real story and, hopefully, you'll be able to understand why fifth place in 2006 is a lot more satisfying than second place in 2005. Often times we need to leave something to regain our passion for it.

Athletic Longevity
If you plan on racing Ironman for a long time then I think it is useful to take a 12-15 month break from ultra endurance racing every three to four years. In 2002 and 2005, I had long breaks from structured training - two and eight months respectively. If I'd rested more in 2004 then I might not have needed that long to regain my desire. Still, I don't think that there will be any long term impairment in my performance.

Whilst it is always painful to "lose" fitness, the truth of the matter was that I found myself unable (or unwilling) to do the training required to maintain my fitness, let alone improve it.

When a successful athlete loses training motivation then the coach should look to lack of recovery, rather than lack of dedication.

Both my breaks occurred after training and racing periods with the following characteristics:

* Life best athletic performance at the end of the previous season;
* An early season change in training protocol towards higher average training intensity;
* Short, or no, end of season break; and
* Training mistakes which resulted in significant amounts of work about functional threshold (hard to very hard intensity).

Taking each point in turn…

Life best performance requires life best recovery. The closer we are able to take ourselves to our athletic potential, the greater the rest required at the end of the year. Cam Brown is a great case study on steady improvement combined with deep annual recovery. Even when he "missed" Ironman NZ due to the shortened format, he stuck to his recovery plan.

Change within an athlete's program is a great way to stimulate new adaptations. However, don't make the mistake of neglecting to include what has worked in the past. Quite often, patience yields better results than additional training load.

At some stage in our athletic careers, we all nuke ourselves. Probing our limits is a natural part of the process of training for ultra endurance sports. When you are smoked, don't lose the lesson that it is a lot better to schedule rest than have your immune system pull the plug on you. Illness and injury have more to do with accumulated fatigue than bad luck. Even seemingly random accidents are far more common in fatigued athletes.

Finally, my two most common training mistakes within my program are "half level" and "hair shirt" training.

Half Level Training : As fitness improves, it is possible to do every single session "just a little" too hard. Endurance sessions become tempo training. Tempo training becomes threshold training. Threshold training becomes VO2-Max training. VO2-Max training becomes all out warfare!

For me, a good race performance is typified by:

Best training performance five weeks out from race day;
Increasing caution and reducing training load with the approach of race day; and
A concern about resting a bit too much in the last two weeks before race day.

Hair Shirt Training : Following a successful period of training, it is tempting to dust off the logs and rush back to hard training by chasing the "magic" sessions that resulted in great performance. Life best performance comes from life best preparation. The depth and breadth of your fitness platform is what enables you to absorb the 5-10% of your training load that actually challenges you.

The "magic" lies in creating the capacity to absorb tough training, rather than completing tough sessions.

Fitness Cycles
My triathlon career is in its eighth year of focused training. Before triathlon I spent four years as a recreational runner and mountaineer. Over the last six years, I've found that my body appears to work best on a three-year cycle, including at least one multi-month recovery period.

Within triathlon literature, there isn't a lot of focus given to training cycles longer than one year in duration. Sports and coaches with depth and experience in their Olympic programs have much to teach us about phasing an athlete's program over a three to four year cycle.

Why is this important? It's important because if you are only thinking one year ahead, you will be reluctant to take medium term performance "hits" to assemble the pieces required for breakthrough multisport success. Swimming is a good discipline for me to cite a few examples for you to consider.

I started swimming when I was thirty years old. Now it would have been easy for me to accept the conventional wisdom that an adult can never learn to swim well. Rather than accepting what others told me, I focused on technical improvement and working through the millions of meters required to become a decent swimmer. It took me seven years but I've taken over twenty minutes out of my swim time and reduced the effort required to get through the swim leg.

Related to the above, many athletes come to our sport from a swimming background. Because they are "good" swimmers and can hang in the top lane of their masters programs, they may think that they don't need to train their swim. A low volume swimmer pays a large metabolic price come race day. The breakdown that happens at the seven-hour mark often starts 200 meters off the beach.

Finally, if we really want to improve our overall endurance, or our single sport performance, then it takes up to eighteen months for the results to come through. The body doesn't operate on a 14-day fitness cycle.

With the help of Scott Molina, the changes that we made to prepare for Ultraman 2002 are what enabled outstanding results in my 2004 season. Only a few athletes and coaches have the vision to create a plan for long term performance. Left to our own devices, it is tempting to try to "peak" every quarter. My experience is that true breakthroughs happen every three to four years. Most people simply cannot sustain their focus that long - the persistent athlete having an advantage over the talented.

I'll be direct and simple.

Denial strategies don't work. Most athletes build their nutrition around denial. Denial of calories, denial of desserts, denial of recovery, denial of intake…

Effective nutrition is based on the creation of healthy habits and patterns. Find what works and stick with it, daily.

Debating brand names is a waste of time. My personal nutrition strategy is to eat food than enables me to maintain a stable weight, strong training performance and rapid recovery.

Challenges nearly always stem from three areas: (a) fasting; (b) binging; and (c) refined sugar. Create the habits and patterns that enable you to manage these three factors and you're pretty much there.

What's this worth in athletic performance? At my level, I reckon 20 minutes off my Ironman time. For the majority of the age group field you would measure the upside in hours, not minutes.

The benefits run far deeper than merely moving faster from A to B. Clarity of thought, self confidence, self awareness and self respect - all of these factors are enhanced by effective nutrition.

Reprogramming long term habits is not easy but the upside is massive.

Training Camps
Over the last six months, I used a series of twelve-day training camps to lift my fitness. I built three major camps into my schedule (January/ February/ April) and followed each with an extended business trip.

Training camps are the single most effective short term tool to lift fitness. Within your own programs, three to twelve-day training camps - away from home and office - are the best way I know to build race specific fitness.

On the tips page on my GordoWorld site, there is an article that will tell you more about this method of training. Aim for balanced, volume overload through frequent sessions and keep the intensity down. Keep it fun!

Emotional Swings
The most challenging part of my return to racing were the emotional swings that I experienced in the first three months of training. For most of December, I had three types of tendonitis in my knees alone!

At the beginning of this year, all my training memories were from when I was in rock star shape. There was a disconnect between my actual performance and where I thought that I "should be". I suppose that it is good practice for growing old because, ultimately, I was forced to accept where I was, rather than, where I wanted to be. Developing this humility served me well on race day.

I don't have much practical advice for you on the emotional swings. Even today, when I am caught within one, it is difficult until after I've moved past it. Here's where the support of your friends, family and coaches can be invaluable. My greatest resource was Monica encouraging me (monthly!) to wait another 48 hours before retiring for good.

Plan B
In 2002 and 2005, while my triathlon life was on hold, I was able to make progress and enjoy successes in other areas of my life. In 2002, my break set the stage for a fantastic couple of years of elite racing. In 2005, my break enabled me to find the love of my life and start a new business. Until I released Ironman, I wasn't able to grab these new opportunities.

There are many people in our sport who spend long periods resisting the signs that it is time for a break. As the song goes… "holding on to something that's already lost". The renewal of my athletic career wasn't able to begin until I completely accepted that it might be over.

See you at the races,