WHAT NOW COACHIE?!!
Your big race has come and gone, so now what? You should be continuing to celebrate your awesome performance and revelling in the fact of what a champion you are, but still there may be an unsettled feeling. If this is you, don't worry as it is completely natural. If this not you, then good on ya (!!), but I will share this message with you anyways!
Post-race can be a funny time. Not funny in the ‘haha' sense, but more in a feeling of possibly feeling lost. For months, you have been training for this awesome event and now that it is over there may be the question of ‘what now?'
Even if you have done absolutely nothing since race day, you undoubtedly have great fitness. Do you use this fitness now or do you let it slide knowing rest and recovery is vitally important? .. good question! One of the most common mistakes an athlete will make after a key race is to return too quickly to big training. It is quite common to start feeling strong again 10-14 days after an Ironman. According to experts, if this happens, you are likely experiencing the tail end of your peak. In my opinion, this is one reason why you can sometimes pull off a great short-course race two weeks after an Ironman. Personally, if the desire is there to do a little race in this 14 day period, then I see nothing wrong with completing it providing of course you play very close attention to race recovery afterwards.
During this immediate post-Ironman time, do not allow your mind to trick you into disregarding the actual level of fatigue which has accumulated from your race; your fatigue level is quite deep regardless of how you may feel. Resist the urge to go hard in any post-race training and be very cautious in group training situations. Such caution is especially important if you experienced any disappointment in your race as your mind will try to convince you to ‘redeem' yourself. Conversely, you may still be pumped (and so you should be!) about your race performance as well as level of fitness and want to hold on to that great feeling by continuing to train hard and race again shortly. As far as I am concerned, both scenarios are dangerous ‘places' to be in. Instead of spoiling your recovery period, be the better athlete and save your energy for preparing for next time; this is what separates the average athletes from the great athletes. How many times do we see elite and age-group athletes always racing and never resting? Once you start looking, you will notice it happens a lot! The athletes who always race and never rest eventually burn out and/or get injured, sometimes never returning to the sport. The great athletes (elite and age-group), are the ones who practice discipline in their season. They know what their key race is and train to pull out their very best performance for that day only. They then take the necessary rest and recovery afterwards knowing if they don't, they will not attain a higher level the following season.
Being able to resist the urge to have a ‘make-up' race or another stellar performance shortly after your key race is probably one of the hardest things to do particularly in Victoria as races always seem to be around. Remember that, for a range of factors, race recovery for any distance can take up to four months. Keep resting until you feel ready to go. Rushing your race recovery is a false economy.
Waaaay back in 1994, I completed my first Ironman (Ironman Canada). Due to my performance at this Ironman, I had the opportunity to compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii just a few weeks after. Knowing this was the chance of a lifetime and knowing a good friend of mine who had already done the race a few times previously was also going, I seized the opportunity. While I have no regrets about this decision (and strongly encourage others to follow suit if the opportunity and desire arises!), what I wish I could change was the transition period upon my return from Kona. 1994 was a big year for me in the triathlon world. It was my second year of triathlon and I was experiencing success like I never had in my life; it was a big year and it felt incredible! Unfortunately, however, the following season would feel awful. After my return from Kona, I never allowed myself to have that all important downtime. Wanting to improve on my '94 season, I got right back into training never allowing for my body or mind to recover. In hindsight, I should have never started the '95 season as everything felt horrible from the onset; mentally and physically I never felt good or happy. For some reason, I persevered with the season (stubbornness, perhaps?!!) and when I completed my last race of the season, I knew I was finished for a while; I was definitely burnt out after only two years of being involved in the sport. Listening to my instincts, I didn't do a lot of training over that fall and winter as my heart was simply not into it. I wondered a lot if I would ever return to triathlon, but I also knew I didn't want to force myself into something which was supposed to be fun. Fortunately, over time, the desire to train and race came back; it took a while, but it did return and many a lesson was learned from that experience and the experiences to follow.
I share my season of a few years ago in hopes of helping you avoid a similar experience. While one does learn a lot from such an experience, it's a nasty place to be in and I don't wish it upon anybody.
So yes, downtime after your key race is extremely important. It does not mean, however, to do nothing at all for the rest of the season; in fact, I highly recommend you keep with some activity. Sometime soon after your race, I strongly suggest taking at least 10 days completely off. For some of you, this block of days off may come immediately after your race, for others, it may have come a few days after the race; whatever the case, make sure you take those days completely off. After that time, engage in activity, but listen to your body. If your body would rather sleep than train, then allow it to do so. At all times, remember that if you feel like doing nothing, then doing nothing is okay. When you are tired, focus on low-impact active recovery. The deeper your base (which yours is!), the more likely you will benefit from active recovery. If you are completely done, then total rest is the best way to go.
I have also learned to apply a post-Ironman six week rule. The six weeks following an endurance event is one of the most vulnerable times and if we do not monitor ourselves properly during this period, we could get ourselves into trouble! During this six week post-race period I continue to train by feeling. I give myself a month of complete non-structured training and while I may fall into some sort of routine (creature of habit?!!), I do allow myself to be quite lenient with my ‘schedule'; if I only feel like doing something for 10 minutes, then I only do something for ten minutes for now is the time to take advantage of such an opportunity!
During this post-race month and for the two weeks following (6 weeks total), I may increase the distance in my training, but ever so slightly. Some days I may be able to swim 2.5km, but the next time I may be hard pressed to complete one kilometre! Go with this feeling, trusting the process that if you listen to your body, your body will eventually take you to a higher level. Do not add any intensity to your training during this time. Adding intensity or pushing through a training session during this 6 week period will cause injury, illness and mental burn out...guaranteed!
Also during this time, make sure any activity you engage in is full of fun and variety. If you have put activities on hold like hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, etc. while you were diligently training then engage in them now! If swimming, biking and running are things you do regardless of racing then add a little twist to them: use your mountain bike instead of your road bike; bike to Starbucks and/or Dairy Queen; run with friends and/or your dog who you didn't get a chance to run with during your training and go for breakfast afterwards; find new running routes and definitely incorporate fun into every activity you do.
If you are considering running an upcoming race, still use the previously mentioned training guidelines. Definitely do not add stress of any sort to your training and make sure to listen to your body! (have I mentioned this enough?!!) Map out a rough training plan (I can help!), but use it only as a guideline. If your body does not feel like doing what is planned on the day then don't do it! Your body is still tired and it will do no one any good to ‘push' through training at this point. Rely on your great fitness from your race and trust you have done the training homework. The time now is about recovery and effortless workouts.
Of the three triathlon disciplines, running takes the longest to recover from. Some experts recommend to not run for at least twelve days following an Ironman (which also applies to a marathon!). They also recommend an additional guideline of not starting to run until you feel that you are able to hold a steady pace on the bike.
After six to eight weeks of unstructured training, you may feel that you are ready to start back a more structured training regime. Huge gains can be made over the Fall and Winter months and planning for a structured off season is something to seriously consider. When returning from a training break or downtime, emphasize frequency rather than duration or intensity. Simply put, frequency is your friend. You are better off to go a smaller distance more often than the opposite (i.e. run 20-30 minutes 4-5 times week instead of an hour run 2-3 times per week) . Your aerobic systems will not be accustomed to structured training and it may feel that your fitness will never return! (remember those ‘yucky' feeling training days after your block of days off?). Don't worry though, your fitness WILL return and you will come back a stronger and fitter athlete. Your goals then, when you first return to structured training should be centred on stimulating your aerobic system, maintaining your skill base, and starting the process of rebuilding the strength that you will have lost over your downtime. Even if you are gearing up for another marathon, you should keep your focus on these three areas for your first block of structured training.
And while I don't want to come across as completely heavy and intense, do know I am very serious when I mentioned significant training gains can be made over the Fall and Winter months. How many of you had thoughts this summer about what you would like to be better at next season? Were any of you like me on any Ironman race day already deciding on what you needed to do to improve for next year (regardless of the distance you will race)? Were those just passing thoughts or are you serious? How many of you want to be just a little bit faster on the run? The off-season is definitely the time to work on these areas of concern and you'll be amazed by how much you can improve by simply placing a little bit of emphasis on one or two disciplines.
Lastly, remember to take any information which I share with you in stride. Continue to listen to your instincts and do what feels right for you. Recovery is very individual and will vary from season to season. Post-key race can also be a confusing and sometimes depressing time. There is a term known as ‘the blues'. Know Coachie continues to experience these ‘blue' feelings so if you need someone to chat with, know I'm here for you. Do realize though, while any ‘blue' feelings may be not the greatest of emotions to experience, they are part of the process and by going through this you allow your body to truly come down. Always, Always, ALWAYS, remind yourself to be proud of your accomplishments. You have done an amazing thing and by allowing your body and mind to come down and become ‘undone' after such a great performance, you will definitely rise to a higher level upon your return.
Cheers, and congratulations again on an incredible season!
Pamela Ens is a triathlon coach and former Canadian Ironman pro athlete. Check out her website at www.pamelaens.ca.