Training for adventure racing remains an inexact science. Photo: David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
Proper training is vital to success, as is proper recovery from both training and racing. Learning how to recover from training and racing is the key to remaining healthy and being ready for your next competition. Adventure racing is a demanding sport, especially for those competing in a mix of long and short races. For those entering the sport for the first season, a sensible approach to nutrition, training, recovery and sleep, should all help in reaching and sustaining good performance levels. Recovery should not be treated as rest when the body has reached a level of extreme tiredness or fatigue. Rather, it should be something that is incorporated into your weekly training and annual periodisation schedule. The following article may give you tips on how to gauge recovery for your own needs.
Since adventure races come in all guises, from 6 hour sprint races to 12 day endurance events, planning recovery between the events can be particularly challenging. However, no matter what the duration, frequency, and intensity of training and racing, it is important to recover fully before the next session. Endurance exercise places high demands upon the body physiologically and psychologically, and being able to recover properly will enhance your - and ultimately your team’s - performance.
Athletes often give little thought to recovery or why they may feel run-down, full of aches and pains and generally de-motivated. They treat recovery as either an after-thought to exercise, or something they have to endure once injured. However, a significant amount of research has identified the link between training and stress on the body's immune system. Hence, although exercise can clearly promote fitness, it can also have a negative effect on the body and athletes have to pay attention to the balance. As the demands of racing and training mount to match performance expectations, the reasons to incorporate recovery into the training programme become ever more important.
Multi-day adventure races such as the Isle of Jura race will require longer recovery periods than shorter, sub 24-hour events: giving yourself sufficient recovery time after big races is vital in ensuring your longer term performance doesn't suffer.
This article provides some advice on our awareness of performance and recovery. The focus is upon two main areas: the first concerns nutrition and the importance of maintaining equilibrium prior to, during, and after an event. The second is in terms of the physical approach to training and racing, i.e. effort output, tapering etc.
Fuelling Your Way to Recovery
All too often we hear or read about athletes who train hard for the season ahead only to drop in form near to, or soon after, a race. For many individuals this drop in form spirals towards sickness or injury. Many ailing athletes wonder if vitamins, minerals or protein supplements will help and begin the search for the illusive remedy.
However, although nutrition does play a crucial part in enabling the body to remain healthy and to stave off illness and disease, research has yet to confirm how much vitamins and minerals can help in recovery. Studies have shown that blood glutamine levels (a form of protein) do not significantly drop during endurance exercise and that there is little evidence to suggest a need for glutamine to be used as a supplement (Pyne, et al, 2000). Nancy Clark, nutritional expert and author of several sports nutritional guidebooks, emphasises prevention as the best strategy to enhance recovery. Hence, it seems that maintenance of a suitable training diet providing sufficient nutrients and calories is key to quick recovery.
One nutritional practice that does enhance performance, however, is maintaining a steady state of blood glucose, water and body salts during and between exercise sessions. This is especially important for adventure racers since the exercise period is so sustained. Hence, AR athletes should be replenishing their energy levels frequently by constantly scoffing jelly babies and sipping litres of sport drink. But how do they know they are eating and drinking enough of the right things both when training and racing?
Effective and properly maintained hydration is absolutely vital to racing success. Photo copyright Dave Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
Tips on Nutrition & Hydration
Team Littleton Bike in the 2007 Patagonia Expedition Race: ultra-endurance events such as this will require sufficient recovery time before returning to normal training. Photo copyright Nathan Ward / www.nathanward.com
Recovery as an Approach to Training
Traditional methods of training revolve around some form of periodisation, rotating small training cycles within a larger plan to work towards peak performance. Training programmes often focus on the work completed, and use intensity and duration as indications of progress, e.g.
Although most individuals include rest days and light sessions in their schedules, many pay little attention to whether these have really helped them to recover or not.
The most important thing to realize at the start of any training plan, is that you are an individual and progress is purely associated to your body, its genetic make-up and your approach to exercise.
To try and solve performance challenges by simply doing more training does not make sense. Working hard is crucial to achieving success, but so is the ability to maintain technical skill as well as the many other aspects that contribute to adventure racing.
Extended active recovery should be included as a form of light activity for the sole purpose of assisting recovery. It is performed at a low intensity - just enough to raise the heart rate somewhat and increase circulation without creating any undue stress on muscle tissues, joints, tendons and ligaments, and, importantly, not using up important energy stores. Although not confirmed, it is generally understood that increasing circulation improves tissue healing and general recovery.
Training with Recovery in Mind
Rigid training plans based on heart rate intensity alone can sometimes ignore issues like overtraining, fatigue, illness, psychological influences, etc. It is a good idea to pay attention to the way you feel even in very simple ways. For instance, use a very simple monitoring tool as a daily check on how you are feeling and how rested / recovered you are from your previous racing and training. e.g.
1. Cheery Faces
I feel great.
All is fine I feel just average.
I feel low and fatigued.
2. Take your basal heart rate (BHR)
This is a good indicator of how well the body is recovering from hard training and a tough competition schedule. It is typically taken when waking in the morning, as the body is calm and comfortable lying in a prone relaxed position. However, if athletes are training too hard and not getting enough rest, their resting heart rate will show an increase.
Sleep will be a premium during those demanding races. Becoming used to ‘power-naps’ will prove a useful technique in training and racing. However try to also get good quality sleep during training periods as it is the best opportunity your body gets to rest, repair and ready itself for further work.
Daily weight checks can be a good indicator of hydration. Any sudden changes could indicate some health problems so this is a simple way of keeping an eye on the body’s recovery.
NB: It is important to note that one of these signs may not mean anything at all. For example, their morning heart rate can be higher than usual if athletes have drunk a little too much caffeine the night before, gone to bed dehydrated or had a scary dream. However, two or three of the warning signs happening at the same time may mean athletes have a problem on the way.
When your training plan is built around your body’s ability to recover, there are many advantages, including:
The advice is to gauge rest on the ability to complete exercise workloads and the capacity to repeat further bouts, whether within the same or following sessions. The aim is to develop the ability to cope with work volumes that correspond with the typical competition environment.
Such training can also include preparing for those activities performed in an event. This is particularly important when it comes to recovering during exercise from very intense efforts that occur over a reasonably lengthy period: hill climbs come to mind here. In this situation the body is often working very hard to manage a higher level of lactate that, when too high, will limit aerobic capacity. By altering efforts and taking brief rests, the body is able to quickly reduce lactate levels within the blood, thus allowing the body to continue working. Regularly training under such conditions will help the recovery process, thus helping the body become more efficient (McCardle, 1999).
NB: The key focus for competitive athletes is to find ways of measuring their ability and capacity to perform training activities in each training session. The following factors are important to consider during the training cycle.
Overtraining syndrome is a state of prolonged fatigue and underperformance caused by hard training and competition. The athlete will experience an objective loss of form that will have lasted at least two weeks despite adequate rest and will have no identifiable medical cause. Symptoms of a minor infection, typically an infection of the upper respiratory tract, may recur each time the athlete returns to training after an inadequate rest. There is a gradual transition from overreaching to overtraining syndrome.
How do you know when you are training enough or overtraining? The guide, as discussed earlier should be how you are managing to perform for the volume of work expected to achieve for the respective event. Noticing a drop in form over several sessions may not be a worry but what if this continues to successive weeks or you find you cannot recover from a demanding race although you have already rested?
I knew I was suffering from overtraining when, four weeks before an expedition length race, I hit the wall, metaphorically speaking! My capacity to maintain the workload had pretty much hit the limit and although I could still train and compete in small events, my ability to recover felt almost non-existent. I became injured and needed treatment for a knee complaint, I developed a stomach infection that never seemed to go away and I was always lethargic, missing the enthusiasm for life I had four months earlier. Doctors and therapists tried to help put me back on the road to health in time for the approaching race.
The race itself was a difficult experience and I felt ill before, during and after it. However, I had really lost the battle on the day I started to prepare. I had set out paying no attention to the need for recovery. I had simply set out to complete the workload I had assigned myself without understanding how much or when I would need to reduce things. The fact that I tapered before the event had little or no affect.
Unusual fatigue is not always to do with over-training though – hence why it is particularly important not to just try to push through diminished performance. Ongoing fatigue may signify heart problems, exercise-induced asthma, Lyme disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome or any number of other maladies. Hence, if your normal training suddenly becomes much tougher, cut your mileage by 50 percent for a week, and don't do any hard workouts during that time. If you still feel fatigue at the end of a week or two, make an appointment to see your doctor since there may be more wrong than simple overtraining.
Naps of 20 – 30 minutes during expedition races allow our overused local [brain] network to enjoy the restorative benefits of sleep while the aspect of resting provides tired body some opportunity of restoring its’ energy levels.
This is often a sign of dehydration, a shortfall in carbohydrates or oncoming heat illness. It happens frequently in hot adventure races in which athletes are exerting themselves to the maximum for long periods of time. The only remedy is to sit in the shade and take in fluids. Beware that lightheadedness is very occasionally a sign of over-hydration but this is more common amongst the inexperienced!
These are most common among new runners or those who are pushing themselves to run farther-or faster-than usual. They often occur when food or drink in your stomach pulls down on the ligaments that attach your stomach to your diaphragm. This causes your diaphragm, which controls your breathing, to go into spasm. When a stitch strikes, concentrate on breathing from your belly on every exhale, then pull your abdomen and chest in on every inhale. After four full breaths, visualize the cramp and try to direct your breath to it, as if you were massaging it away. If this doesn't work after a minute or so, slow to a walk (or stop) and raise your arms over your head for several seconds. This should help the muscle to relax.
Localized bone pain
While shin splints result in pain over a broad surface area, pinpointed pain may mean a stress fracture. With a stress fracture, you can put your thumb on the spot and identify where it hurts. If you ignore this, the stress fracture can become a complete break, meaning more time healing and no time training.
Lumps and bumps on the lower leg
Runners suffer from two common types of lumpy masses: small nodules on the Achilles tendon where scar tissue forms and lumps on the side of the knee. Treatment for tendonitis usually involves physical therapy and rest; surgery is rarely necessary. Lumps or cysts on the side of the knee normally form in association with meniscus tears. In these cases, treatment consists of repairing the meniscus and letting the cyst dissolve on its own. In each case, seek professional help or you may be looking at a long term injury layoff.