Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Celebrating 6 years of being injury free...

In 2014, I swam for over 65 hours, cycled around 240 hours, ran for over 240 hours and spent about 40 hours doing strength and conditioning exercises.  I raced 4 ultramarathons including two 100-milers, finished a half-ironman triathlon and achieved a personal best at Ironman Sweden. Yet I suffered zero injuries. In fact I haven’t been injured since 2008 and I feel this is a reason to celebrate and write this blog post.

I have no secrets, but here are the main reasons that I feel helped me to avoid layoff periods for such a long time.  To clarify, when I say no-injury, I simply mean that I haven’t needed to stop exercising, but of course I suffer from niggles from time to time, after all I am not a machine!

Warm-up and Cool down – this is so basic, yet a lot of my peers miss out on such a vital element of ANY session. I often see an Facebook status or tweet that reads like this, ‘great 6-miler at half-marathon pace’, then I click on the link to the data and I see 6-miles at their desired half-marathon pace without any warm up and cool down. I often get responses such as ‘I didn’t have time’, ‘I ran two hundred metres to warm up’ or ‘I did some stretches…’ 

Warming up is ESSENTIAL
·         to increase the blood flow and oxygen to the muscles;
·         to increase fats in the muscles that will be used for energy;
·         to increase flexibility in the joints by lengthening and warming the muscles.

Cooling down after a session is also VITAL
·         to establish normal blood circulation;
·         to kick off the recovery process. 

I like a 20min warm up for running and cycling, followed by a minimum of a 10-minute cool down, average pace of training sessions is not an important number, it only boosts your ego, nothing else. So remember every session is composed of a warm up, main set and cool down, no excuses, if you don’t have time then tough luck, just make your main set shorter.

Build your base/Periodising your season – most triathletes are familiar with the concept of periodization; athletes in the northern hemisphere will normally spend the winter months building their base fitness and during spring, commence the build periods to peak for those summer races. Yet all I see is that athletes just don’t have enough patience and jump straight into speed training without having first built their base, in the fear of ‘losing their speed’. For me, that’s like putting the cart before the horse-you need to spend at least the first three months of the new season developing your aerobic fitness. Trying to jump straight into anaerobic interval training without the aerobic base is a recipe for disaster.

Crosstraining – this one goes out to the runners. Obviously, if you want to be a good runner you will need to run, however crosstraining, such as swimming and biking can allow you to train more without the accumulation of excessive fatigue. I’m not asking you to sign up for a triathlon next season, although I’m inclined to say you will probably enjoy it, but how about replacing some of your recovery runs with easy cycling or swimming instead?  It’s a great recipe to keep you injury free and give your running muscles a break.

Don’t race too much/Prioritise your goals – Club runners are a prime example of racing too much, they go from spring marathon, to short races in the summer, to autumn marathon, to cross country season, there is never a start or an end to their season. The reality is, that if you really want to find out how good you’re at a certain distance, you do need to be more specific and dedicate yourself solely to that, you can’t be at YOUR best for say a 5k road race and a marathon, ok, if you’re an athlete of a certain calibre you may still be beating all of your friends in both events but you will never reach your true potential if you keep mixing and matching as you please. Racing is normally very stressful to your body unless you are the type of athlete that can hold back (I know a few), so too much racing can also be a recipe for injuries.

Feed your body with the right nutrients – I’m not going to tell you to eat this way or that way, but it’s obvious that if a food comes ready from a packet, then it’s probably not that great for you. Whether you’re an athlete or not, you need to have a good variety of vegetables and fruit, healthy fats from olive oil, seed and nuts and good quality meat, fish and poultry in your weekly diet. Stay away from refined carbohydrates and sugar and avoid unhealthy vegetable oils like sunflower, corn, etc, at any costs. Don’t train to eat, like a lot of athletes think they can do, EAT TO TRAIN instead.

Dealing with niggles/Listening to your body – We have all been there; training is going well for a number of weeks then suddenly a niggle appears from out of nowhere. It’s very frustrating I can tell you, you’re not injured yet but your body is trying to tell you something. While I often train with fatigue, there is a difference between training when you are simply tired or when there is an area of your body that is complaining that something is wrong, being able to differentiate between them is key. What sort of things do I do when a niggle has appeared?  Firstly, I cut down on the amount of running I do but carry on cycling and swimming. If no improvement, then I stop running for a few days; I may also schedule some extra rest days in the week. I also employ self-massage (not that kind!) and ice baths. If all the above doesn’t help then I ring my favourite physiotherapist for an appointment. It’s always cheaper to visit your therapist early than wait until it turns into a full blown injury.

Sleep, sleep and sleep - It goes without saying that sleep is absolutely crucial for the endurance athlete, it’s when your body repairs itself. Just as athletes require more calories, they also need more sleep too. Having a bad night sleep may not necessarily affect you the following day, but continued bouts of less sleep will break you down and you will either perform badly, or end up injured. Do yourself a favour and turn the telly off and go to sleep!

Strength and Conditioning - for as long I can remember I have been doing S&C exercises and more so in the off-season. No doubt I will always prefer swimming, biking and runnig to S&C, but it should always be part of any serious endurance athlete. Don’t fear the possibility of big muscles; it’s possible to have muscle growth without the bulk. To be honest I have tried different exercises and routines in my time and I would say that I still haven’t found the ideal formula for me, so don’t be surprised if I write a blog specifically on S&C in future. 

Scheduling rest and breaks – appropriate training stress + rest/recovery = adaptation and improvement. Whilst the amount of training and rest varies for different athletes, the above formula cannot be changed. With too little training stress you won’t be giving your body an opportunity to improve, however, if you don’t rest and recover you will soon breakdown, so find your ideal balance and err on the side of caution. One of the things that I do that works wonders for my body and mind is to have a two to three-week total break from exercise at the end of each season. I find that niggly pains and aches totally disappear and I also find myself re-energised and motivated to start it all again for the next season. Most weeks I will have a minimum of one day off exercise and I work on a basis of a four-week cycle, where I increase volume slightly each week and then drop volume for the fourth week to allow recovery and adaptation. These are ideas I borrowed from others, find your own optimal formula and never forget the above equation.

I hope you have enjoyed my blog posts this year and thanks for taking the time to read them! Keep in touch and may I take this opportunity to wish you a fantastic and healthy 2015.

My references and recommended readings:

‘Metabolic Efficient Training’, Edition 2 by Bob Seebohar
‘Death by Food Pyramid’ by Denise Minger

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