To those of you out there struggling with fatigue, weight loss, anxiety, sleep disorders and/or performance plateaus, consider sleeping more to allow your body to recover and rebuilt naturally. There are no short cuts. High intensity and high volume will destroy you unless you have the time to sleep and eat enough to ABSORB what you do – plain and simple.
Sleep Project Overview
For the last 20+ years, I have asked all my clients to train with a heart rate monitor to keep them from training too hard on their easy days leaving them fresh for their high quality days.
This methodology has been challenged by many coaches and athletes for many reasons: “grey zone”, “wattage”, “perceived exertion”, etc. I have personally watched clients leave to go to a another program with more volume, more intensity, calorie restriction, etc. only to become injured (sometimes career ending), have a performance regression and/or become exhausted mentally and physically resulting in creams, injections or oral supplementation to turn their “symptoms” around. Sad but true.
In addition to having my clients train with a heart rate monitor I have required all my clients to maintain a Body Analysis spreadsheet to evaluate their body’s feedback to training volume, intensity and frequency along with ensuring that they are consuming enough quality calories and fluids to support their training loads and life’s other stress sources (work, family, etc.).
To prove my theory I conducted a sleep study over an eight month period where I asked 10 clients to wear their Garmin strapless heart monitor for every workout as well as when they sleep. With the permission of one of these clients, I have documented her sleep data averages and performance results below.
Sleep goal: 9 hours (difficult but necessary)
Food: raw fruits, vegetables and clean fats; eaten every 2 hours
Training: 7 Hours a week
1 hour per day Mon-Friday
1 complete rest day per week – Saturday
2 hours on Sunday
2 hours anaerobic
5 hours aerobic
Sleep Log Observations/Take Away
Hours of sleep: increased from 6 to 9 hours
Deep sleep average: increased from 23 min avg to 1 hour 40′
Light sleep average: increased 3 hour avg to 5 hours 17′
Deep sleep allows the body to rebuild NATURALLY
Light sleep allows the brain to rebuild NATURALLY
Swim Time Trial: 17 seconds faster
Bike Time Trial: 36 seconds faster / at a lower HR of 8 beats
Run Time Trial: 18 seconds faster / at a lower HR of 5 beats
Body Fat Percentage: decrease of 4%
Note: body fat, not muscle or dehydration
Numbers don’t lie.
As we exercise, our bodies burn the calories that that we consume (i.e. carbohydrates, proteins and fats). It is the breakdown of these calories and muscle movement that causes heat to build up and raise our core body temperature initiating the demands of the body to maintain its ideal body temperature of 98.6 degrees. There are several ways that the body dissipates heat (skin and exhalation for example); however, the most complex system involves your ability to sweat.
Simply put, water molecules evaporate from your skin removing heart energy, leaving water molecules on your skin making you feel cooler. The endothermic process of converting liquid to a gas is beyond the scope of this article; however, the ultimate goal is to maintain your body’s ability to efficiently dissipate heat throughout exercise. What makes it difficult is dealing with elements that we don’t have any control over – heat and humidity.
On hot days when there is little difference between the skin’s surface temperature and the ambient air temperatures, the skin provides only small cooling benefits – increasing the importance of sweating to maintain your internal core temperature. In fact, above 95 degrees Fahrenheit you lose no heat at all from your skin – evaporation must do all of the work. Humidity decreases your body’s ability to evaporate sweat because the air is already saturated with water vapor, slowing the evaporation rate. Though you and your clothes may be saturated, it is not helping you in your cooling process – sweat must evaporate to remove heat from your body – plain and simple. It is this concept that makes hydration so important; if you don’t have enough fluids to produce sweat you will over heat guaranteed (along with the adverse side effects – performance and health wise).
On average, endurance athletes lose approximately 30-35 ounces of fluid per hour of exercise (the actual amount varies by body size, intensity levels and heat/humidity levels). There are numerous formulas floating around in the sports nutritional world regarding ideal food and fluid intake; however, keep in mind that there are three things that we need to evaluate regarding ideal performance nutrition: water intake, electrolytes and calories. It has been our experience working with hundreds of athletes that the best way to formulate an ideal nutritional strategy is through trial and error. This formula requires good documentation on behalf of the athlete to track what is consumed, your workout duration and intensity levels along with average paces and heart rate levels.
Here are a few tips for training and racing in the heat and humidity
- Avoid over-hydrating on plain water
- Train at times that are relevant to your race (i.e. if you are going to start your run at 2:00 pm during a race, then practice running at this time dealing with the heat, humidity and sun burn)
- Wear only clothes that facilitate the evaporation process (avoid cotton at all costs)
- Cold fluids absorb faster than warm fluids; use insulated bottles
- Backing off of the intensity every so often and pouring cold water over your wrists and neck will help relieve your body of internal heat
- Pay attention to body signs that things are not going well: dry chills, becoming lightheaded or queasy are all indications to stop. Be smart!
Exercise is a great habit to have within your daily life; however, when it becomes an obsession it can actually become counter-productive to your overall health. Excessive training (in the form of volume and/or intensity) without adequate rest causes the body to become “numb” to external indicators of over training such as mood swings, simple sugar cravings, interrupted sleep, loss of sex drive, loss of body weight, suppressed appetite and an elevated resting heart rate.
Research indicates that after 12 weeks of consistent training, Cytochome C (a mitochondrial enzyme involved in the production of energy at a cellular level), reaches a peak and then beings to decline. In addition to Cytochrome C levels, so does your maximum oxygen uptake (also known as your VO2 Max.). At this point, the body must be allowed to rest and re-group for continued progress.
Training creates adaptations within the body’s various systems (muscular, cardio-pulmonary, lymphatic, nervous and connective) and needs to be supported with rest and food for positive adaptations. Inadequate amounts (and quality) of sleep and food set the body up for a physical break down which leads to negative effects on the body (i.e. suppressed immune system and muscles with less power and endurance).
In addition to adaptations within the body’s systems, training causes changes at a cellular level – cell mitochondria swell, metabolic wastes accumulate, essential nutrients (particularly electrolytes and stored glycogen) deplete, and muscle tissue is torn. This tearing is known as microtrauma of the cells, and torn muscle tissue doesn’t work efficiently. As popularly noted, it takes 48 hours for the body to recover from this micro-trauma and has to be supported with rest and food for proper recovery and improved overall health.
If the body doesn’t get the opportunity to rebuild from the “work phase” of training, overall health and associated performance begin to slow down (and in extreme circumstances, cease all together).
The concept of hard training days followed with easy-active recovery days incorporated into your weekly training schedule establishes the balance necessary for maximum improvements in your overall health and ultimately your performance. Consistent training without physical or mental setbacks provides the foundation for your body absorb your training volumes. The larger the foundation (i.e. quality of overall health) the quicker you will recover from workouts and the quicker your body will progress to new levels of performance.
The key to overcoming your fear of taking time off is to understand how much it will help, rather than hinder, your performance. Think about it this way, if you are not fresh, you will not have the energy (or desire) to push to the next level of performance. If your body doesn’t experience the next level, you will begin to stagnate within your performance cycles. So, the next time you see a recovery workout on your schedule, don’t ignore it! Remember, that rest allows your body to recover, rebuild, and ultimately become stronger.
You are a dedicated triathlete that trains on a regular basis. You have the best of intentions with your training, but lately, no matter how hard you work out, you aren’t making any gains. You have plateaued. What has really happened is that your body has adapted to your workouts and it needs new challenges to get stronger. It is unrealistic to think that any athlete can perform at peak level throughout the entire year. The body has to be provided the opportunity to develop various energy systems through specific workouts. For long-term improvement, a window of time must be provided to rest and recover from the stress loads applied to the muscles and cardiovascular system. This is where periodization comes into a triathlete’s program. Periodizaton creates phases of training or “periods” to keep your body working hard, while still giving it adequate rest. It answers how hard, how long and how often a triathlete should train to reap the benefits of training without burning out or getting injured.
With training encompassing so many elements of your life, it has literally become a lifestyle – sleep, eat, train, repeat. However, this lifestyle of training, doesn’t effectively get your preapred for the season’s first big race. On the other hand, going for a long run the Monday after your big race and training every day until your next race isn’t productive for you either. The reason being, you will not be able to push the body beyond its normal performance level and then you don’t allow enough time for the body to adapt to the stress loads.
We recommend breaking the year into four training “seasons”: Pre-Season, Pre-Competitive, Competitive and Off Season. Each season has a different performance objective to optimize your training time for maximum results. The duration of training cycles vary based on individual identified weaknesses during assessments, but typically consist of the followings:
Pre-Season (12 weeks): Develops maximum aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility; this is also an ideal time to work with your coach to help with technique and mechanics relative to swimming, cycling and running.
Pre-Competitive (8 weeks): Continued development of aerobic engine, final stage of maximum strength development, and the implementation of slight lactate tolerance intervals.
Competitive (4 Cycles of 7 weeks): Specialization is the main component of this season. Your anaerobic threshold and sprint training should make up the high-quality workouts during the week. Also during this phase is the increased need for rest – ideally one complete day of rest per week to help you recover both mentally and physically.
Off Season (4 weeks): This is where you deviate away from heavily structured training. Instead of structured training, you are back to casual athletic activities. You don’t want to become so inactive that you begin to lose the conditioning you have worked so hard to achieve throughout the year; you do, however, what to remain active and healthy.
Periodization – Step One: Establishing Goals
This step involves establishing your long-term goals and developing a plan for achieving each of your goals. This step needs to be quantified, simple, optimistic and realistic. Though this sounds like an easy task, it takes real brainstorming to narrow this first step down and onto paper. An example of an unrealistic long-term goal: “I want to be fast”. There is no way to quantify fast and there is no time line established to complete it. It also doesn’t tell you what you are setting your standards against.
If you say: “I want to make the podium for my age group the OUC Half Marathon in December” – this is quantified, specific and with a little research you can determine what it will take to surpass the current top age grouper to achieve the status you are looking for.
We recommend setting three sets of goals – 3-month, 6-month and 12-month. The most important thing to remember when you are sitting down to establish your goals is that they need to be specific and each should have a date applied. Without specific goals, you will quickly lose your motivation to stick to the homework, especially when it becomes difficult (due to either the duration or intensity levels required) or boring (i.e. stretching).
Periodization – Step Two: Determining a Starting Point With Your Training
If you are starting at a minimum fitness level, you will have to increase your overall strength and endurance before your dive into a comprehensive performance training program. As a general rule of thumb, strive not to increase your duration of your overall workouts by more than 5-8% every other week. Once you have been consistent with some level of training for six to eight weeks without any physical set backs, it is time to determine exactly where your fitness levels are – this will identify your strengths and weaknesses and what to address with daily training to maximize your training time (especially for those of you that work and/or have a family to balance).
The main concept to keep in mind when it comes to training is to strengthen weaknesses which have been specifically identified through field testing. Triathletes, like any athletes, have a tendency to complete workouts focusing only on the elements where strength already exists. For example, in the gym, you rarely see anyone working their legs due to the high levels of lactic acid and associated increased heart rate levels. Instead they avoid these uncomfortable exercises and complete lower intensity exercises which do not address their physical limiters. If you are riding your bicycle, and you are not a strong climber, how often do you go out and complete hill repeats to increase your strength and lactate tolerance? It is not that you are soft; it is simply human nature to do the activities where we feel strong and confident.
When it comes to assessments, it is imperative that you capture three key testing data points in field testing: aerobic capacity, muscular strength and lactate tolerance. We suggest testing these three variables within the training modalities that you have been using over the last six to twelve months. The important thing to keep in mind with establishing base line assessment numbers is to be consistent with your testing protocols. For example, if you use running for your cardio training, it would not be a wise choice to use a Concept 2 Rower for your lactate tolerance and aerobic capacity testing due to the different muscle groups and demands on the cardiovascular system – ultimately your testing data would be inaccurate.
Periodization – Step Three: Establishing a Training Program Based on Your Field Testing Results
This is where a human performance specialist can be an asset to a triathlete’s development program – identifying where the most progress can be achieved in the shortest amount of time. As an illustration, a triathlete gets a swimming coach to help work on their biomechanics relative to swimming. They may become more efficient swimming in a pool, but if he or she doesn’t have the strength and cardio capacity to swim and sight in open water, they will most likely end up swimming a longer distance during race time. The same applies to developing the training protocols that are going to maximize the appropriate energy systems to enhance the elements of aerobic capacity, muscular strength and lactate tolerance specific to triathlon.
If you are serious about making performance gains, periodized training will ensure that you continue to make measurable progress and steps towards achieving your goals.
Proper nutrition is such an instrumental component of performance, yet is overlooked by 90% of the racers at the starting line. A few years back, a research project associated with human performance (equipment, altitude training, endurance training, strength training, etc.), revealed that the most powerful influence on performance was attributed to hydration and nutrition habits. Nail your nutrition and the results were stellar; miss your nutrition (even by a little) and the results were devastating.
After spending the last six to eight months training for your big race, the last 24 hours should be quite simple – exercise lightly, hydrate properly and eat correctly (quality & quantity).
With proper nutrition, you can offset the negative effects of fatigue in three ways:
Muscle Glycogen Depletion
Muscle glycogen is the major energy source during training and especially racing. When your sugar storages (in your liver and muscles) are depleted, your ability to go fast for any period of time will be diminished.
Decreased Blood Sugar Levels
Blood sugar is the major fuel for the brain (from your liver) and muscles during training and racing; the higher the intensity, the quicker your body depletes itself of sugar.
When a muscle becomes dehydrated by as little as 3%, that muscle can lose between 10-20% of its contractile strength and also incurs an 8% loss of speed.
Proper nutrition is all about topping of your body’s natural fuel tanks (muscles and liver) to ensure that you have enough stored energy to finish your race strong. By choosing the correct foods at the correct times, you can delay the onset of fatigue on race day (as outlined below).
Day before a Race (8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight) – Consume six to eight small meals distributed throughout the day approximately two hours apart. Choose items made from high quality carbohydrate sources: real food smoothies, brown rice, pasta, quinoa and dark breads. Convenient snacks include fresh fruit and high quality energy bars (the Paelo Ranch Protein bars are ideal!)
Morning of the Race (75-150 grams of carbohydrates depending on your body size) – Consume your last meal two hours before your race start time to allow for complete digestion and purging in a relaxed environment. Food items should be easily digestible and of the highest quality: real food smoothie, almond butter on a bagel or toast, slow cooked oatmeal with raisins, 2-3 egg omelets with a bowl of brightly colored fresh fruit.
After the Race – Liquid calories are the easiest to consume and are converted quickly to “feed” the body’s needs: protein for muscle regeneration and sugar for the muscles and the liver.
By implementing these nutritional tips and hitting proper hydration levels, you will see your body produce new levels of speed and a new level of performance! Work Smart, Not Hard!