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The Upside To Downtime

  • By Torbjørn Sindballe
  • Published May 23, 2014
Kienle at the 2013 Ironman World Championship. Photo: John David Becker

Chronic Fatigue

What then is the cause of chronic fatigue? During heavy training the body is under a lot of physical stress. Some of it comes from the mechanical breakdown of muscles and tendons, or use of energy stores, but there is also a great deal of what is called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress stems from byproducts of metabolism called reactive oxygen species, or ROS. You may know some of them by the name “free radicals.” Their effect on the body is much like what happens to an apple when you peel it. The antioxidants in the apple are all in the skin, so when peeled, the flesh is exposed to the reactive oxygen species in the air and hence starts a breakdown process shown in the gradually brown color of the flesh. This happens in the body as well. When training at more normal volumes, the body adapts by producing antioxidants to combat the effect of ROS. During heavy or drastically increasing workloads, the body has a hard time keeping up, so getting enough antioxidants from foods such as dried fruit, berries, colored vegetables and fruits as well as dark chocolate, wine and certain teas is important to maintaining good health.

When training at extreme volumes in addition to ultra-distance racing, these processes are accelerated and may account for some of the staleness and chronic fatigue witnessed in professional athletes or age groupers with busy lives. Noakes says oxidative damage is greater when eating a high-carbohydrate diet as favored by many professionals and top age groupers. A high-fat diet may be important to reduce overall oxidative stress on the body. While studies at the University of Copenhagen have shown that athletes are unable to maintain high-intensity training when adapting to a low-carb diet, Noakes says he has also found that there are great variations in how athletes handle a diet low in carbohydrates. Most athletes can get by on as little as 200 grams of carbs a day and still maintain quality in training, he says, far from the 400 to 700 grams of daily carbs preferred by many athletes and sport dietitians.

Aside from the oxidative stress, it is also important to look at the brain itself. Much of Noakes’ scientific work points to the critical role of the brain in regulating fatigue, hence anything that affects our brain function will also impact our physical performance. Heavy workloads or high life stress often compromise sleep quality, which is paramount to brain recovery. You can recover physically during the day, but the brain only truly recovers at night. Lack of quality sleep will then, over time, affect your body´s most basic level of function.

Keys to Recovery

The idea is that forced rest improves performance in athletes who have a form of chronic fatigue. We can distinguish between short-term fatigue linked to the body’s day-to-day carbohydrate stores and long-term fatigue linked to fatigue in the brain, changes in the hormonal system as well as micro-tears in tendons, ligaments and muscles. Long-term fatigue can result in injuries, in illness or in more severe chronic fatigue due to adrenal or hypothalamic burnout. Noakes’ personal experience is that it takes at least six weeks with complete rest to recover from chronic fatigue, and much more if the case is severe. As a result, for athletes with excessive training volumes, it may be a meaningful investment in athletic longevity and performance to take longer periods of the year where rest, good sleep and light alternative activity replace constant swim-bike-run training.

An example of how to do this comes from one of the greatest triathletes of all time, Mark Allen. In the ’80s and ’90s, he dominated the sport in all distances and, once he cracked the code in Kona during the famous 1989 Iron War with Dave Scott, he won it a total of six times, tying Scott for the overall record for most victories by a man. While Allen’s training philosophy is well described, his rest and recovery plans are not always given the same attention. What did he do during the off-season?

“I actually had a very long off-season that lasted from the day Kona was won in October until the first of the year in January,” Allen says. “That is over two months of unstructured training. During that time I was not sitting on a couch. I would surf most days of the week, run about every other day for about 30 minutes and get on my bike about two times a week for about an hour. So I was active but not doing anything that was focused on gaining fitness. In fact, the focus was to recover and regenerate from the tough training and racing that I did. Most of my competitors were taking about two to four weeks easy after Kona and then hitting it again in the hope of getting a faster start to the next season. This worked, of course, in the very early part of the next year when they would be in much better shape than I was. But they would peak in the early part of the summer, having their best race of the year in June or July. My focus was to have that race in October. It is impossible to be at your peak for 11 months of the year and to train for your peak for that long. You must decondition, and then, when you are out of shape, go through the tough process of gaining fitness. But this is actually easy for someone who has a few years of training in his body. It is just tough mentally to let your peak fitness go long enough to actually be fresh enough to go to the next level the next year.”

Both Kienle and Crowie rest for four weeks in their off-seasons with a little alternative activity. After that period of inactivity, they build back up. That might seem like enough rest, but for a top-level pro, a six- to eight-week period of rest would be more appropriate, as Allen has shown. Allen also took a full week completely off in early August, just eight weeks prior to Kona, something that would leave most athletes insecure so close to the most important race in the calendar. He would use this week to balance body and mind, and work on his strength of character.

So what can you, the serious athlete, learn from all these people with a rich experience in triathlon and ultra-endurance sports? Quite a lot if you ask me. On page 51, I offer some suggestions for how I believe age-group athletes can use rest and recovery in their quest for a peak performance this season.

The guidelines are simple; the mystery is, why are athletes afraid to rest? The logic of rest and recovery is simple. As Allen puts it, “No amount of training will do someone good if they cannot absorb the benefits of it.” Yet many, many athletes get injured and somewhat burned out as their season progresses. The overtraining culture in triathlon is massive, and very few have the confidence to go against it. Allen and two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack are among the few top-level pros who embraced full rest for sufficiently long periods of time in their off-seasons. Not surprisingly, they are also two of the most successful triathletes of all time.

RELATED: What’s The Quickest Way To Recover From An Ironman?

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