The Upside To Downtime

  • By Torbjørn Sindballe
  • Published May 23, 2014
  • Updated May 3, 2016 at 4:49 PM UTC
Sebastian Kienle at the 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Photo: John David Becker

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.

RELATED: How To Tap Into Fat For Fuel

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