Defence Mechanisms

The Threshold Phase of training can be very difficult to get right. The balance between enough stress and adequate, but not too much recovery can be elusive. In describing my approach to this phase I originally stated:


"This style of training can really hammer me. Not so much in the form of injury, but more in a fatigue, failure to recover or just get sick way."


In my second 8-day cycle, I was up early for the prolonged threshold run (60min main set). It didn't go as planned. The short version is, I felt flat to begin with, tried to run solid, then hit the wall and struggled to run back home. On face value the session was fail. I could just write it off as a bad day, and try harder next time, but there needs to be more insight. Just trying harder won't make next week more likely a success. So why did things go wrong?




A large proportion on training for endurance races goes into being able to override the body's defence mechanisms. Pain, fatigue, urge to stop, urge to sleep, hunger, thirst and other's are all ways the body is attempting to warn it doesn't want to keep doing what is doing. In order to race well, we need to be able to put most of those warnings aside and keep going. I am reminded of when Georgie Clarke has pointed out in an interview in R4YL, "athlete's aren't necessarily as in tune with their bodies as every one likes to believe." Usually the body is telling you a lot, but we get so used to ignoring it. This was the case with the lead up to this run.



Hindsight being 20-20, there are now a few obvious reasons why the run didn't go to plan. Firstly I have shifted up some gears in training. The Threshold Phase calls for some prolonged, very solid running. Structurally I tend to deal with this quite well. It is the generalised recovery, compensation, immune, hormonal and nutritional responses that become difficult to manage. The first 8-day cycle went very well. I had a good, fast and high intensity 12km race, a great 15km threshold run, and my long run although interrupted still included a good 2 hours of running with the last 45-50min again in the threshold intensity zone. This was supported by some good aerobic conditioning mileage. This was too much.


The warning signs progressed to developing an increased feeling of invincibility with each run. Although the legs hurt at times, each day was feeling easier and faster. Always a sign I need to back down a bit or I will hit a big crash later. I thought I did this by getting an extra 90 minutes sleep and skipping the run on the day before.


What needed to be noted in the mix was that I was finding it a bit harder to get to sleep and I was waking up extra tired. Also I had a few thoughts that I was looking quite skinny. Developing a gaunt look over a few days should highlight something isn't right. Looking back, I now realise I was down a fair bit on food volume. At the time I hadn't noticed, but clearly my appetite was suppressed.


The timing of the longer threshold run was also different. During the base training, and the previous week due to racing it was always performed late morning or in the afternoon. This time it was first thing in the morning at 05:30. Without food to break the overnight fast, I assumed a bottle of Gatorade would be enough based on all the other runs. Unfortunately I didn't think about the effect of the weights session the previous day, plus already in an overtrained or overstretched state, combined with a lowered food intake and possibly muscles that had accumulated damage and therefore weren't as good as replenishing their glycogen stores, it was a just a recipe to start depleted.


Over the first part of the run I found it difficult to loosen up and feel natural running. The heart rate was also sitting low. Initially I put it down to that my heart rate is often a bit lower in the early morning sessions, and the rest was because it was stupidly cold and raining. In reality I had nothing in the tank to begin with, and the small amount of Gatorade, which I normally wouldn't need for this session, was never going to be enough today.


So What?


While the run didn't get anywhere near its goal of running for an hour at threshold intensity, it was probably still beneficial. Another 20km were still put into the legs, even if the last 3rd were ridiculously slow. Hopefully I've managed to get some sort of training effect on my ability to access lipids for fuel and keep pushing when very depleted. Important elements for the marathon.


The other positive is it has given me a good kick up the backside to pay more attention. I can't just go and train directly off the plan. I need to pay attention to my body. This means planning my nutrition a bit better, and ensuring I don't start this type of session depleted. Carrying a little more back carbohydrate would also be a smart move.


The recovery from this day could be anything. The legs and body feel good. Past experience shows it can take a few days to really get back on nutrition once I have gone this far down. It will likely pay off to not push the pace of the long run during the rest of the Threshold phase. Getting up close to threshold during the long run when I already have two sessions each cycle dedicated that intensity will break me down. The only way to find your limit is to go too far. I just don't plan on going so far that I can't get back on track.

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