As endurance athletes, we are all familiar with the fatigue that follows an intense and physically gruelling training session. When the endorphins have worn off, and the post-exercise high has dissipated, the weight of having to remove our cleats becomes all too much, and the urge to collapse in bed with our helmet still on becomes very strong.
However, after an over-indulgent café stop, and some hot coffee, the exhaustion subsides and the capacity to use more than one third of our brain capacity returns. These feelings of exhaustion are common occurrences amongst endurance athletes, as often times we are pushing our bodies well beyond what they appear to be capable of. However, in order to maximise our bodies’ potential, avoid injury, and prevent the damaging cycle of over-training which can lead to chronic fatigue, it is important to know how to manage the physical demands of this type of life-style.
Having faced chronic over-training syndrome, I was forced to recognise the mistakes I was making whilst trying to pursue a professional career in Triathlon. As a result of this experience, I have compiled what I believe to be the 5 most important aspects of managing the demands of an elite sport or a high-pressure lifestyle.
1. Time management
Time management is the first component in which I found to be important in creating a successful and sustainable environment as an athlete. What I have found to have worked for myself, is to break down your workload into groups i.e. training, study, work, rest and social life. I then use my training program to help guide my daily calendar and work my commitments around that program. Each Sunday afternoon I will sit down with my training program (which is linked to my apple calendar) and plan my week allocating a time for each activity. It is essential to ensure that rest is included in this.
2. Stress management
Stress is a physiological response to a stimulus ‘stressor’ that activates our ‘flight or fight’ response, causing chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to rush through the body. It’s important to understand however, that though all of us may encounter stressors in our lives, it’s how we interpret these that cause the stress response in the body. This essentially allows us to have control over the impact of stress in our lives.
By keeping stressors to a level that we perceive manageable, we can reduce the effects of stress on the body. In short, if we are able to process stimuli such as an important assignment, a looming dead-line, or stressful work commitment as achievable, then it is far less likely that the stimulus will cause us stress. Often, the most effective way of perceiving a stimulus as manageable is by breaking the task into smaller tasks and allocating time to complete each of those tasks by the date that they are due.
This may be obvious to many of you, however even after visiting some of Australia’s leading nutritionist and having what was called a ‘text book perfect diet’, I soon discovered the significant flaws with the ‘text book’ take on nutrition. To be as succinct as possible, the text book version of nutrition, essentially focuses on energy expenditure (calories burnt during exercise) energy intake (the number of kilojoules consumed) and energy type, i.e. carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Although this is the basis to achieving a balanced diet, as endurance athletes we can burn up to three times that of a normal sedentary person. With often high carbohydrate diets due to our high energy requirements and nature of eating on the go, this can lead to a sugar burning athlete.
The long term effect of this can be significant. Just like the rest of our body needs to be trained, our gut health needs training to function optimally also. Incorporating the textbook diet along with some basic alterations, such as keeping away from the high sugar gels, bars and drinks can help maintain consistency within the body and eliminate the sugar highs and lows.
Following my recovery from Chronic Fatigue, I was placed onto a low sugar diet which helped level out my energy while also focussing on gut-health. You would be amazed at what cutting out excess sugar and some simple probiotics can do for your overall health. If you are someone who dives towards the lolly jar or reaches for the coffee pot when tired, I would recommend taking some time to revaluate your diet. Start off by keeping a food diary for a week and reading the labels of packaged food that you eat.
I guarantee that you will be surprised with how much added sugar you are consuming on a daily basis and if you’re able to cut this down you will feel better for it! Weight will drop off much more easily, energy levels will stabilise and those mid afternoon munchies will subside.
Again this is an obvious one, yet it is so often not done properly. Recovery should be broken down into a step by step process when returning home from a ride:
- Shower and change – this can help either cool your body down from a hot session or warm you up and reduce the risk of getting a cold. I use this time to change into compression wear, which immediately helps with the recovery process.
- Eat/Hydrate – Immediately following exercise it is important to eat within 15 to 20 minutes and no later than 30 minutes post session. The body is in an ‘open state’ during this time which allows for optimal absorption.
- Rest – Take some downtime after a session to lay down and let the body absorb the work. I find putting my feet up vertical against a wall for 5 to 10 minutes can aid in this process significantly. If you have the time, an hour nap post food and exercise is a fantastic way for the body to recover also. At first you may feel awful when waking, but the effects are accumulative and once you get through the drowsiness I guarantee you will feel the difference later in the day and into the week.
- Ice and massage – Although Icing and massage may not contribute to reducing the risk of overtraining, they definitely can help reduce muscle soreness and the risk of injuries. If you don’t already have one, buy yourself a foam roller!
5. The importance of sleep
Sleep is too often overlooked, however from my experience, sleep is the most vital component to maintaining a healthy and functioning body. Unfortunately it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue that I learnt of the significant benefits of a proper night’s sleep, as sleep was a factor consistently over-looked within triathlon.
If late nights and early starts are common occurrences in your routine, it might be worthwhile putting in the time to shift your body clock back a notch to ensure you’re receiving a good 7 to 9 hours of rest per night. Sleep has been directly associated with a boosted immune system, quicker recovery rates and greater brain function, so therefore sleep should be your number one recovery technique.
Since endurance athletes notoriously suffer from depleted immune systems due to taxing physical exercise, sleep acts as the most efficient means of ensuring our bodies are strong enough to fight off diseases, even when we’re physically run-down. You can eat, drink, ice, and use your foam roller as much as you want, but without adequate quality sleep you will not recover sufficiently, and without proper recovery our bodies can’t adapt and strengthen. Remember that training is in fact breaking the body down, and it is within your rest periods that your body’s adaptations occur.