Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Pain Part One: Fatigue

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I was casting around for ideas for my next blog post when my coach (twitter: @gobi_one) suggested I explore the concept of pain. No surprise to hear that suggestion from a coach, perhaps. After all, they must enjoy creating pain; why else would they be coaches?!

But his point makes sense; what have I learned in the last six months of training that has altered my views on different types of pain and how have I reacted to that both physically and mentally?

BIG, BIG DISCLAIMER TIME! I am not a doctor or therapist of any type, so don't even think about suing me after reading any of the following! Apply your own common sense to any of the following thoughts and advice!

As I've thought about it more, the pains I have experienced generally fall into three core categories (again, there may be other more scientific names for these): Fatigue, Exertion and Hurt.

These are quite large topics, so I thought I'd discuss them in three different posts. This week, let's take a quick look at Fatigue.


Having upped the volume of my training from 34 hours a month in August 2010 (the month before I started receiving coaching) to 56 hours a month in January 2010, it's unsurprising that I have experienced new levels of fatigue in my body.

It has become uncommon to not have some level of stiffness somewhere in my legs or shoulders. The learning process has been to understand why this is happening, to accept it and to moderate my expectations for training while in a fatigued state.

If you think about it, even the shortest of triathlons is normally still an hour or so long (and thus technically still an 'endurance' sport), so learning to cope with fatigue has to be a good thing. Honestly, if you haven't got tired legs before you hit the run at the end of a Tri, you probably haven't been working hard enough, right?!

Similarly, you can't avoid fatigue in your muscular system if you want to make the gains in your aerobic system. Yes, we could train exclusively in Zone 1 all winter (I'm sure many do) and avoid any lactate build-up or strain on the muscles, but is that really giving us a good basis for the next season?

So I now accept that long runs the day after a power session on the turbo are going to feel slow and my legs are going to feel heavy. To be honest, it's taken a while to adjust to this and not get pissed off that I am not performing at my peak every session. I've also started to get better at differentiating 'niggles' caused by fatigue from strains or other 'Hurt' types of pain that can't/shouldn't be trained-through so easily.

Over the last six months, I've come to better understand that fatigue accumulates and so you must at some point ease back off to give your body time to recover so that it is stronger for the next step up in intensity. I tease my coach for not giving me hard enough sessions some weeks, but I am coming to (reluctantly) accept that easy weeks are not so much a cop-out as a chance to recharge before the next stage of pre-season training.

To help cope or counteract fatigue, there are several strategies I have learned along the way. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is sleep! Your body needs sleep time to repair muscle damage and revitalise for the next session. I was also introduced to D-Ribose by Kim Ingleby (twitter: @kimingleby), which promotes recovery and helps muscles cope with increased training volumes and intensities. I know supplementation can be a hotly-debated topic, but from what I've read and experienced, Ribose is a no-brainer for anyone with a high training volume.

I've also recently started using a foam roller in the evening, after the day's training is done (those of you who also 'roll' will know that's a whole 'nother type of pain!). No, it's not nice - in the same way a sports massage isn't 'nice' - but it can really help loosen up muscles that naturally stiffen with all the run / bike training we do. At £15 for a decent one, it's also a hell of a lot cheaper than a massage! (Sorry Kim).

So that's muscular fatigue. What I haven't covered yet is mental fatigue. In my opinion this is actually far more serious and something you can't 'train through'. Spotting the onset of mental fatigue (or Burn Out, if you prefer) is difficult - at least it has been for me. Sometimes it manifests itself as a continuing doubt that you are getting the results you want, sometimes it's as simple as procrastinating about training sessions you know you really should be doing, but have no enthusiasm for.

When this happened to me the first time, it needed a third party to point it out and give me a reality check. So don't be surprised if you can't see it yourself.

In terms of coping strategies, I can suggest two. The first is rest; sometimes you've spent so long focusing on training religiously and cramming in every last minute you can muster that you've forgotten to enjoy training and to realise that training is training - fatigue and all! A week off (especially off-season) is hardly likely to make much difference to your fitness and could make all the difference to your mental wellbeing.

The second strategy is to mix it up. Do something in training you wouldn't normally do - maybe go for a cross-country run instead of your usual road-based routes, try mountain biking, go on the rowing machine instead of the treadmill, try kettlebells or maybe even yoga or pilates. The options are endless, but as they say, sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

So there we go. To me, there are two distinct kinds of fatigue - physcial and mental. I've learned (and continue to learn) how to accept physical fatigue and realise that even if I am not quite hitting the run times or bike HRs that I'd like, I'm still benefitting my overall fitness and ability to cope with a tired body. I've also learned that mental fatigue is a far more dangerous situation and that backing off or switching things around is not a failure, but simply giving my mind a chance to recharge and re-build my enthusiasm for this amazing sport.

I'd be interested to know if my ramblings above strike a chord with anyone, or indeed whether anyone strongly disagrees with my thoughts.

Next week I'm going to take a few moments to mumble about Exertion, the next of my three pains. Till then, happy training!

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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs