on recovery

If you knew me a year ago, which most of you did, you'll remember that I hated rest days.  It's even documented all over the history of this blog: a controversy, a random friday fact, and a 3TT.  When I was just a runner, back in the early days before I had a blog so people could yell at me, I mostly ran every other day and did nothing on the days between.  Then I joined a gym, and went through PT a few times, and started lifting regularly to address the many bizarre imbalances in my body.  And to be honest, the amount of (stationary) biking and (treadmill) running I was doing was so little - roughly 30-40 minutes a day at a slow pace - that I didn't really ever need any recovery.

But then I bought a bike, and joyously realized that I had finally found a way to be active for longer than 40 minutes without breaking all my bones and tearing all my muscles.  The rides started to get longer, and harder, but I still never really considered the fact that I might need rest.  Then I decided to make a pretty serious commitment to half marathon AND half ironman training, and there weren't enough days in the week to do all the training I needed to do.  So I welcomed the idea of the "fake" rest day - for example, I'd get up early on Wednesday, ride for 2 hours, and then do nothing until Thursday evening.  24 hours have passed!  I have rested!

When I started working with a coach, I smugly told myself that I had been doing the right thing, because in triathlon training, there aren't a lot of complete rest days.  But what I found when I discovered that of course I was wrong, what I had been missing, was the idea of going easy.  Of doing a ride or run or swim purposely in the name of recovery.  The mistake I had been making, before being coached, is incredibly common.  I was going far too hard on "easy" days and not hard enough on "hard" days, which meant that I was putting out a generalized amount of effort across all days and all disciplines.  I wasn't letting my body recover from my effort before stacking more effort on top, and in general was just wearing myself down slowly over a matter of months.  I can remember so many rides last summer where I left the house with the intention of riding easy, but then got mad at the 15.3mph average pace showing up on my watch and would hammer hard to make sure it said 18 when I rolled back up the driveway.  That's not how to build long-term fitness, and it's not being honest about where I am and what my body needs.  That's letting ego climb into the driver's seat.  

The first time I heard from a coach, "you've been running far too hard all the time," I was indignant and cranky.  Why was working too hard a bad thing?  I've been working TOO hard?  What about all the couch-surfers eating Cheetos?  Or the "oh man someone make me go run today I don't wannaaaaaa" twitter whiners.  Go yell at them!  

But I listened, and I went ridiculously easy and I do mean, RIDICULOUS.  There were days that my recovery spins were well under 15mph.  I regularly run in the 11s on easy days (i.e. most days).  At some point, I ended up taking all that info off of my watch screen and ignoring it after uploading it, because I was crabby about how slow it was and I figured I was better off just not knowing.  During a warm-up, recovery, cooling down - I don't think there really is such a thing as "too easy."  It started to sink in, just a little, that I wasn't training for paces, I wasn't constantly digging my body into a hole just so I could run in the 8s.  I was training my engine, and my engine knows better than my sports watch what it needs.

The first few times through a training block with Sonja, I still had traces of the old rest-day-hater in me.  I didn't like taking an entire day off, or only riding/running/swimming for X amount of time on the weekend when everyone else was riding/running/swimming for 4X.  I wanted to do more, lots more, and I left cranky notes in Training Peaks after my training sessions.  But then the blocks started to get longer and harder, and suddenly I was really appreciating the "90 minute easy spin" that showed up the day after a hard run.  I'd drape my tired body across the trainer and watch 2 episodes of Grey's Anatomy, keeping one eye on my Garmin only to make sure my cadence stayed (sort of kind of) close to 90.  And then when I had hard intervals of some sort the following day, for the most part I'd be able to go pretty hard, I'd find a tiny spark, even nearing the end of a block where I had to run sub-3 minute pace or something just as ridiculous to get my HR up.  The magic of recovery.

The other magical piece of recovery has less to do with rest and more to do with the holistic view of training that's been thankfully rubbing off on me.  Rest isn't just staying out of the run shoes.  It also has a lot to do with all the things you put in your mouth (heh), and how much sleep you get, and the level of stress in your life, and how you treat your body outside of triathlon.  When Molly got sick in December, I spent a couple of days being really worried and sad....and then had an incredibly shitty run, one I called "the worst in my life to date."  It's not a coincidence.  I'm still learning about all of this, I'm just a baby here, but stress = cortisol = body all out of whack.  And when your body goes out of whack, you know it through your heart rate, right away.  So despite the fact that training through HR makes me run real slow, especially here in the swamp, I am trying appreciate the feedback that it gives me - feedback that I can't ignore and hammer over like I can a pair of tired legs.  

So I've changed my tune.  I've embraced the spaces between training.  When I checked my phone on Saturday afternoon after five hours of climbing a mountain, I was so grateful to see Monday marked as a rest day that I almost started crying right there in Spelunker's over my bacon cheeseburger.  Months of good and thoughtful training has allowed me to go pretty hard for three weeks, to load my body far into new territory, and now it's time to start unloading.  To let my engine heal stronger and faster so my fitness can put down deeper roots.  It's not just about ironman, it's not just about this race.  I expect it's going to take me quite a while to really build the strength and depth of my fitness.  It might take years, I might grow older faster than I can build it.  But in figuring out what does and doesn't matter, I can tell you this.  My body might be a little battered right now and my mind might be even worse, but by the time I'm done unloading in 2.5 weeks, I will be ready.  Not injured, not overtrained, not worn down by training mistakes, but instead in one piece.  Whole.  And that's worth so much more than a stack of pages in my training log covered in 19mph rides and 8 minute miles.