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Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Give It A Rest

  • By Jesse Thomas
  • Published Nov 20, 2012
Illustration by Matt Collins.

We all know resting is important. So why is it so hard to do?

It was Monday, July 8, and I was on FIYAAH! My expectation-exceeding performance at Rev3 Portland was the perfect final confidence builder for the 70.3 world championship, just nine weeks away. The plan was simple: Take a one-week break that would set me up perfectly for my last build into worlds. I was on a high, confident and stoked. Taking some time off to relax and celebrate sounded ideal.

I cruised through Thursday without a hitch. I enjoyed time away from training, caught up on important Picky Bar business, spent extra time with my wife Lauren … and watched nine episodes of “Boardwalk Empire.” I still felt fit, and I knew my body needed the rest.

By Friday, I started to get antsy. The weekend approached and the weather was awesome. My buddies posted epic long rides on Strava, taunting me with their KOMs. On Saturday, I tried to sneak out, but Lauren caught me in the garage. “You better not be going for a bike ride,” she said. “I’m not,” I replied. So I mowed the lawn in my bibs, jersey and helmet.

On Sunday, I freaked out. My endorphin addiction hit full withdrawal. I hadn’t sweated, I’d eaten poorly and I wasn’t sleeping as well. My subtly emerging four-pack had regressed to its original mini-keg. I was certain I’d lost all my months of fitness in seven days of “Boardwalk Empire” binging.

Luckily, training started the next day, and my coach, Matt Dixon, had a plan: For the next five to seven days, I would take it really light, and slowly build back into some work. By Day 10, my body would be ready to go—that’s when the real prep for Vegas would begin.

On Day 1, I went out like a shotgun. I had pent-up energy—I was excited and eager to get back at it. So instead of a 3K easy swim, I swam with Nemesis and the other high-school kids. 5K on fast is no big deal, right? I’ve got to get ready for worlds! Instead of an aerobic two-hour ride on Day 3, I met up with the local cyclists for their Thursday Night Bust Your Balls race (might not be the actual name). No big deal, right? I’ve got to get ready for worlds! And instead of my Day 5 gradual build long run, I finished with 4 miles at race pace. No big deal, right? Gotta finish fast at worlds!

By Day 7, I felt a little more tired than usual. One day isn’t a big deal, right? On Day 8, I struggled on what should have been a fairly moderate bike ride. Hmmm. Maybe I’m a little tired? Day 9 even my usual running strength seemed gone. Uh oh. On Day 10, when “real training” was supposed to start, my normal swim intervals felt all-out, and I wasn’t making them.

In a surreal, out-of-body epiphany, I floated high above the pool and looked down at struggle-drowning Jesse and said, “That poor soul. He’s cooked like an overdone turkey trying to flap his way to 1:20 100’s. Stop, Turkey Jesse! Stop!” Luckily, I listened to Weird Floating Jesse and I stopped. I got out of the pool, utterly defeated, and hit the showers.

I called Matt and told him what the deal was. I feel pretty tired, yeah, I can’t make my intervals, yeah, I guess I’m super tired, actually, I guess I’ve felt that way for a few days now, yeah, maybe I worked a little too hard on that ride, that swim, that run, yeah, actually, this is pretty bad.

What I’d done became so clear and so obvious while talking to him that I almost laughed at myself for being so stupid. Over the course of my first nine days back after a week off, I’d completely ignored the plan, crushed myself and disregarded serious signs of fatigue.

Matt paused, and responded in the only way he should have. “Yes, you are buried. You need a lot of rest. No workouts today or tomorrow. Sleep and relax, we’ll build you back in. By the way—you did this to yourself. It’s OK, we’ve got time, but learn from this one.”

Here’s what I learned:

Mistake No. 1: Doubting during the break  When I first made the decision to take a break, it was easy. I was coming off a high point in the season. I was obviously fit and healthy—I’d raced above my expectations! I was confident in my fitness, had a post-race high and felt like I deserved some rest and celebration.

But just four to five days away from that feeling, the doubt started creeping in. Am I getting out of shape? I haven’t done anything in a while. What if I lose the fitness I had last week? I feel fat. You couple these doubts with the fact that I wasn’t getting my typical endorphin release, and it’s like a depression cycle feeding on itself.

Mistake No. 2: Coming back too fast and “prove it” workouts

In all honesty, when I started coming back after my break, it wasn’t “extra energy” that made me go harder than I should have; it was insecurity. I felt out of shape because I hadn’t exercised. I felt guilty because I’d eaten and drank less healthily. Even though it had only been seven days, I felt heavier, slower and less fit. And in just eight weeks I wanted to be at the peak of my game!

So I immediately started overworking and challenging myself. I had to prove to myself that I was still fit. It’s OK, as long as I can still make my interval or hold my target wattage. It was insecurity that brought about a need for validation. And even though it was a shock to my system, my body was fit and rested enough to handle it. That is, until things came crashing down.

Mistake No. 3: Not listening to the signs
What did I do when I first had the signs that I was overworking and things were going poorly? I kept going! This is just a little fatigue setting in, and I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ve got to get ready for worlds! Yeah, this hurts more than normal, but it’s for worlds! I’m really flailing now, but I’ve got to do it to get ready for worlds! I stayed fixated on that mantra, and used it as a reason to stop listening to my body.

Having the confidence to rest

I’m no physiologist, but from what I understand, resting is when you actually get faster. When you load your body with a stimulus, it strains it, and decreases its ability to react/respond/hold an effort. And it’s only after rest that your body “bounces back” and is able to hold that effort better and stronger than it could before. So if we all know that resting is important, why is it so hard to do?

For some messed-up reason, our athletic egos still feel that we only get faster as we pedal harder, run quicker and swim stronger. It’s athlete psychology—all of our confidence is built around the times that we actually destroy our bodies. But it’s only the rest afterward that makes our bodies stronger.

Because of this psychological dichotomy, when and how long to rest is the hardest decision to make as an athlete. It takes a level of confidence above even the level necessary to push your body to the limit. You don’t get the endorphin release, the feeling of accomplishment, and the external and internal praise and satisfaction. All you get are feelings of losing your edge, getting out of shape and nervous anticipation.

So the next time you need to rest, whether it be for a midseason break, post-big race, or just an easy day or two between training blocks, remember that it takes confidence to rest. Remember that it is just insecurity and a lack of endorphin release that makes you feel like you’re getting out of shape. Know that when you decide to rest, you’re making the right call—the better, smarter decision. Feel good and confident about it. You’ve done yourself a favor—you have literally just made yourself a better athlete.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a second-year pro and the 2011 and 2012 Wildflower Long Course champion. He lives in Springfield, Ore., and is the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

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