Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rest and Recovery

It has been a long run. It began all the way back on 17 February 2012 and nearly 15 months later my body has had enough.

I've read a lot about the dreaded plateau and posted  about it. I have been looking at it as a global plateau. It's inevitable all runners slow down at some point. I remember when my father was at his peak between 1995 and 1998. It was a golden period that took in about three years of solid and often improvements (2:56 to 2:45 to 2:30 over 3 consecutive marathons!). Preceding that was about three or four years of consistent if unspectacular performance. I always saw this period for his as a gradual period of improvement from ~1991-1995 and then the astonishing ramp that saw him go from a consistent ~39 min 10 km runner to a 31:58, and even more spectacularly a 3:05 marathon to that 2:30:40 at the 1997 Flora London Marathon.

Of course the reality was that it was all carefully managed, with periodized training that revolved around a spring and autumn marathon and the build up that took in winter/summer base followed by almost obsessive speed development and a transition of that speed into half marathon and then the marathon. My father was incredibly focused and systematic with his approach to training as well as racing, and that comes through with his coaching as well.

He likes to remind that I'm still a rookie of sorts despite the great results I have had and a reasonably brief block of running. It will be two years in June, not a lot of time really in the context of a lifetime worth of running that seasoned runners accumulate. The transition has been from an every other day runner to a consistent runner, to a competitive (with the self) runners, and I am now able to tolerate varied but specific training, and a commitment to delivering the goods on race day. And a few strategic mishaps aside, I'm glad to be at this statge with a 36:13 10 km PB, aware of the fact that almost exactly 18 months ago on 16 November 2011 I had run a 48:00 at the Rowlin National Brokers 10 km night race, breaking 50:00 for the first time.

As this graph illustrates, from the preceding race the Vodacom Country Challenge where I recorded 51:19 three months earlier there has been a pleasing downward trajectory in my 10km times.

Progression of 10km times: 19 August 2011 to 6 April 2013
As I broke 37:00 for the first time late in February I had dreams of heading into the 35s before winter. As I neared the milestone however something happened. My robust immune system fell apart. I got ill as I felt myself reaching my peak. Then while down in Cape Town, in between the 36:13 (sub-par) performance and a 29:01 8km, my injury free body started to creak. I took a couple of days off, and once back on the highveld I managed a solid 10km, just one second short of that coastal PB at what should have been my peak race. On the day however I felt short of something, despite the great performance on paper. Having paced myself for a negative split race, the wheel just wouldn't turn from 7km onward. While most wouldn't quibble over a 12s positive split it was the first warning signs.

I had stupidly entered the Slow Mag half marathon, a silly decision if I had remained healthy and niggle free but after the March I had I should have been smarter and switched to a 10km on the day. The PB duly came but a cost. Cramps and a return of the niggles from Cape Town. The following Wednesday my club held a time trial challenge and the awkward experience of falling apart at 3km in a 5km race should have been the final warning.

I had peaked and was now on a mini plateau. I had spent so much time focussed on that far away global plateau that I forgot the principles of periodized training, that the body cannot respond indefinitely to a stimulus and the stress will take it's toll. At this point the stress will overwhelm the body and the stimulus must change, mostly by reducing it. Once stress is reduced below a certain point the body can be introduced to more stimuli that produces stress and adaptation and improvement. It's basic exercise physiology!

But runners are stubborn and I soldiered on, with a one final push for a glory run penciled in. I had a stellar training week after the poor time trial. On the Sunday long run however all the stress finally culminated in a truly horrid run that had me taking a walk break almost every kilometer  It was the final stanza of Soweto all over again. I had hoped to do Wally Hayward as a training run, then Colgate 15km and the Jakaranda Centre 10km to finish off the season but alas it was not to be. I stayed away from Wally and the horror show of the Sunday long run was repeated as I attempted an easy run. And despite a slim desire to continue with Colgate and Jakaranda, I feel like I'm one run from breaking point and so have decided to do something I should have done at the conclusion of the Mazda race.


Articles like this Peak Performance (an excellent resource) one on the importance of scheduled recovery for athletes are bread and butter for me. I know this stuff, I understand the theory and how to implement it. I've spoken about this with my father and other runners, and will volunteer this kind of valuable information to new runners who ask me for advice. I somehow forgot to implement it in my own training.

This year I really wanted to focus on specific periods in my training, stressing the right system and ultimately coordinating the training to culminate into a briefly sustainable but high impact period of peak performance. I got greedy though but at least have arrested this before I succumbed to injury. My greed escalated to the point where I was chasing PBs in 15km and half marathons despite barely averaging 40km per week. The volume itself is not important but the components contributing to that volume were not appropriate for racing those distances. And then I plateaued and simply believed training harder would get me further!

Lesson learnt!

The plan now is simple. After Soweto I barely rested. I was off my feet for 3 days before doing some running albeit very gently at 5:45-6:00/km. Two weekends after the marathon I was racing again and immediately went into high intensity training. Save for a couple of weeks of reduced volume and unplanned breaks due to illness and niggles, essentially after a 26 week marathon program (base+ marathon specific phase), I trained for a further six months without barely skipping a beat. Those 6-8 weeks were some of my best I put in but in hindsight a break would have been a better choice.

So I'm giving my body a break, fully 18 days of absolutely no running whatsoever (backdated to my Wednesday run). The last time I did that was back in December 2011, curiously also after a block of hard training that left me exhausted. Though that break ended up being two months, this time I am motivated and with an annual plan in place over and above the micro goals, I am still as motivated as ever. The plan is to return on 20 May to begin some light running before embarking on a formal base training program from 3 June. The block of training, health and fitness aside is scheduled to last until 16 November, for the Kollonade Retail Park 10km, 26 weeks of a four phase periodized plan.

In the meantime though, whatever will I do with myself?

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