Thursday, February 9, 2012

Two Steps Forward By One Step Back

“A lot of what we see in athletes that just train all the time and never give themselves adequate recovery is often portrayed as toughness. What I’ve realized over the years is it really is a weakness. It’s an insecurity that you’re not good enough to recover like other athletes: I’m not good enough to do that; I need to keep training; I can’t take time off; I can’t take easy days.” -Alberto Salazar

Sometimes you've gotta take some time off from the chase.
Today I realized that, after typing my fingers off in December and the first part of January, it's been three weeks since I posted anything.  I wish I could say that it's been performance art -- a witting illustration that, in blogging well as in racing, one can't go out too fast without risking a blow-up long before the finish line.   But it hasn't been anything quite like that.  I had no advice in mind.  Instead, I was just thinking about other things.

After training for 13 months nonstop, I took the month of December off by design.  I was mentally exhausted and physically broken from my bike wreck and subsequent death march in Cozumel, and I just couldn't imagine doing anything structured.  I'd envisioned taking a few weeks to goof off with step aerobics or whatever silliness struck my fancy before dialing things in once more starting January 1st, with an eye toward a solid 16-week training block heading into Boston.  Instead, I got to January and tried to crank it up, but it wasn't happening.  I'd get home from work and, instead of looking forward to a ride or a run, I'd really want nothing more than to read a book with a glass of wine.  I realized that it had been a very long time since I'd really had time to dedicate to interests other than training, and I'd forgotten that I have quite a few of them.  What's more, a close-order-drill of massive deadlines at work and some challenges in my personal life conspired to ensure that my mind was on anything but training.

Interestingly, in the last couple of weeks, I've gotten a couple of unsolicited emails from people who have been struggling with just the opposite problem: they've found themselves, in late January and early February, dead on their feet and displaying all of the classic symptoms of overtraining.  I can relate to what they're going through.  There have been many winters in the last few years when the last race of the season has only spurred me to buckle down twice as hard in the winter months to ensure that I'm poised for a PR-shattering season come the following April.  It's been effective to an extent, but it's also true that I plateaued for a number of years without understanding why.  In fact, it took me four years -- from June 2007 through July 2011 -- to lower my times at the half-Ironman and Ironman distances.   It was only after doing something completely different last winter by doing zero cycling or swimming for five months, and focusing only on running, that I was able to make progress.  Revealingly, despite that exclusive focus on running all the way through late April, when the summer races rolled around, I set PRs not only on the run leg of triathlons, but also on the bike and swim legs.  

I think the Salazar quotation at the top of this post is exactly right.  Unfortunately, it's the sort of quotation that many people will deem quasi-profound but won't actually embrace until they discover it for themselves.  "Rest is great!" they'll think, as they're on their way to the pool at 5:00 a.m. on a cold January morning, having slept for four hours.  "I could really use some of that, but I'm working my ass off, and that'll show come Ironman Wisconsin in September."

Maybe so.  But maybe not -- and at what cost to the rest of one's life?  Training for hours every day year-round, and adding extra credit beyond the training plan, ultimately is a form of mental insurance: If an athlete errs on the side of overtraining, he ensures that, if a race doesn't go his way, he at least can tell himself that he could have done nothing more.  Surely there's solace in that literal truth, but it misses the point that, in a more profound sense, he might have done more by doing less.  As Salazar said, it takes confidence and bravery to trust one's body enough to take rest as seriously as training.

At the moment, I suppose a mathematician might say that I'm testing the theoretical limits of the proposition that one gets stronger through rest.  I find myself 9 weeks out from Boston and struggling mightily on my long runs.  But I've stayed afloat through tough workouts for the last week, and I feel myself getting stronger by the day.  Who knows what'll happen come April?  Maybe I won't crack three hours, but that wouldn't be the end of the world.  Training is an important part of my life, but I refuse to make it the only part when my mind and body are telling me not to.  Epic races are terrific fun and wonderful motivation, but I won't make them golden calves.   And who's to say that the trick to taking a big step forward isn't first to have the confidence to take a small step back?