Take it easy

For a lot of athletes, fall is the time of year that their competitive season winds to a close, the weather becomes less hospitable, and their activity level changes with the seasons. Whether you live in sunny California or somewhere in Norway with 3 hours of twilight during the winter, it’s not a bad idea to take it easy for at least a month or two between seasons. If you’ve had a busy season, then reducing the intensity and volume of your training and adding in some basic cross training activities will benefit you in the long run. The harder you’ve trained and raced, the more useful this recovery period will be. Even a total rest for a time can be good. Then again, if you mostly just train to stay fit and healthy, then you may not have to do so much to give yourself a therapeutic rest.

As much as I love training taking it easy is essential to maintaining overall health (mental and physical) and homeostasis for the systems in your body. This is true on a small scale of days and weeks, and a larger one of months and years. More and more people these days understand this basic truth of athletic training: It isn’t hard training, but good recovery that makes you perform as an athlete. Yes, you can get too much of a good thing. There is such a thing as too many good workouts, just like there is such a thing as too much recovery, but for the most part, endurance athletes have more of an issue with the former and not the latter. To that end, here are some basic points to remember for this time of year…

Lower your intensity. First and foremost,  lowering the intensity of your physical activity will allow your body to relax and reduce the stress it’s subject to, facilitating recovery in the process. Avoid most or all of your above threshold efforts for at least a couple of months. That’s not to say that you can’t go harder or faster than that intermittently, just don’t do any prolonged efforts or real workouts at higher intensities.

Lower your volume. Reduce your overall training volume per week and per month by at least 30-50% for at least 1-2 months. Your body won’t be exposed to a large calorie deficit every day or two while you’re training if you’re only doing half of the volume that you’re familiar with. So, your body will again be less stressed and be allowed to recover more fully than just a few days of easy training will do.

Get some therapy, both physical and mental. Be sure to include some stretching, yoga, massage, sleep, etc. in your routine. Take that training time and turn it into recovery time. Doing things to increase recovery physically, improve flexibility, or improve strength and balance will benefit you in the long run. Also, as much as training is fun, it can also be stressful. And, the time you spend on training can make you more pressed for time elsewhere in your life, so pay attention to stress reduction practices and look for places to streamline your life or carve out time for relaxation, meditation, or even just listening to mellow music that you like… all of those those things can help you out.

Get plenty of sleep. More people say that sleeping 7 hours a night is plenty for optimal health. That may be true for a mostly sedentary person when you’re talking about statistical averages and large populations, but that’s not addressing the reasons for the sleep and why certain individuals get 5, 7, or 9 hours a night. Our bodies evolved to sleep a lot more than we currently get, and as long as you don’t have a sleep disorder, there’s no way for you to sleep any amount that would be too much. Rather, most people learn to get by with less than enough, so do what you can, when you can to sleep more. Sleep is almost always the strongest driver of recovery.

Eat healthily. This is also a no-brainer that should always be a priority. But, especially if you’re taking a little less of your time to train, maybe you could use a little bit of that time to look at your diet and see if there are changes that you could or should make that you think would work better for you. Pay attention to what has worked for you in the past and what hasn’t. Try to identify bad habits that you have and strategies to eliminate them. For example, take your lunch to work instead of eating out, you’ll probably save money and improve your nutrition. And, when in doubt, eat more vegetables.

Look ahead to next year. If it’s October, then you definitely don’t need to worry about workouts for your spring and summer races next year, but you can pay attention to how you’re going to prepare for them when the time comes. Pick out your coach for the coming season, email your coach with some feedback about this last year and what you think would be good for next season, or work out the details of your own training plan. Whether you’re following someone else’s guidance for your training or you plan it out yourself, whether you have plans written out to the day or a general month to month guideline, do pay attention to how your knowledge and experience would guide your training choices. When you plan ahead, you can plan reasonably. If you don’t have a plan and make things up day by day and week by week, based on group rides and whatever races happen that weekend, then you’re unlikely to have nearly the same level of success as you would if you planned ahead. Identify the races that you care about, the ones you’ll use for training, and the ones you should skip. That way you can go into races with an appropriate level of focus and psychological investment, rather than getting caught up with every race as though it’s your last, and keep your sights on whatever goals you have. Then again, maybe you know that you don’t particularly care about any special races and just have to pick the races you can do based on your workload throughout the year. That’s fine too, but it’s good to know that and get your mental game straight either way.

Hopefully you can have a good time taking it easy and looking ahead to all of the new experiences you’ll have in the coming year. It’s the time of year to do it, so enjoy it and take advantage of the break from training and racing.

Activities, Foods, and Hormones

Just recently I posted an article suggesting that it’s good to think of the things we do and eat as all having a direct influence on our hormones and what driving forces are at work in our bodies. This is a large part of what makes you get stronger or weaker, healthier or less so. What follows are some summary items about various things we do that have big consequences, telling our bodies to burn fat or store it, build protein or recycle it, etc. etc.

exercise

  • just keeping a steady routine of easy to moderate exercise most days will do a lot to help keep your body operating smoothly, help a little with insulin sensitivity, lower stress, and help keep you ready for higher intensity exercise
  • intense exercise can be a huge stress on your body and if you’re healthy then you’ll adapt by becoming more capable of dealing with a similar stress in the future (endurance exercise builds endurance, intensity builds high-end fitness, etc.)
  • if you’re short on time, then prioritize intensity, because it’s the best and only way to get the most fitness building stress on your body in a short time
  • a short intense workout drives insulin sensitivity and testosterone production, and the food you eat drives positive fitness changes rather than being stored for future use… basically, working out hard (sprints, VO2 intervals, lifting weights, hard endurance days) makes it hard for your body not to make use of your food to make you fitter for the first several hours after the workout

sleep

  • your body knows what it’s doing, don’t mess it up!
  • sleep enough (7-9h) at regular times every day (e.g. go to bed at 10 or 11 pm every night, weekends included)
  • try to minimize exposure to bright, blue (read computer/phone) lights as you get ready to sleep
  • if you can’t turn off your phone, computer, or TV, then consider getting f.lux to take the blue light out of your computer monitor when it’s nighttime so your body gets a stronger signal that it’s time to get ready to sleep
  • the production of growth hormone happens largely at night (while you’re sleeping and fasting)
  • regular sleep patterns help you sleep better and establish stronger circadian rhythms. irregular sleep patterns tend to disrupt rhythmic hormone production (e.g. melatonin) and make it more challenging to sleep well and get the rest you need

eating

  • eating fruits and vegetables is key to general health on every level, with vegetables not really having a huge direct influence on the major hormones in question, but fruit can drive insulin production (but less so than most grain products)
  • eating plenty of calories with some protein and carbohydrate immediately after hard exercise is the best thing you can do for recovery and basically the safest time to eat a large quantity (it drives insulin and IGF-1 production, while providing the carbohydrate needed to restock glycogen stores and the protein needed to build new enzymes to get fitter)
  • eat carbohydrate in proportion to the volume of high-intensity training that you’re doing so you have fuel for the hard efforts (if you’re not working out hard, then you probably don’t need high-octane fuel)
  • feel free to eat high-glycemic carbohydrate after hard workouts, but otherwise, I think it’s best for general health, steady energy, and insulin sensitivity to stick mostly to low-glycemic carbohydrates (vegetables, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, maybe fruit, but a bit less bread, pasta, rice, etc. unless you’re doing a lot of heavy training or doing a stage race)

not-eating

  • there is increasing interest in the benefit of short-term, long-term, and intermittent fasting for public health and athletic performance
  • fasting for more than a few hours between meals (i.e. for 12-16h or more) increases growth hormone, insulin sensitivity, and changes your body’s protein turnover dynamics (causing more recycling and apoptosis)
  • like exercise, fasting is a stress on your body that facilitates changes in your hormones and fuel metabolism which appear to be all positive (it’s an expansive topic and I’ll leave it at that for now, but if you’re interested just do some online searching for “intermittent fasting” and look around at a few studies and academics looking into it)
  • consider occasionally fasting before low and medium intensity workouts and endurance sessions, the hormonal state created by fasting makes lower intensity training more effective (increased fat-burning, increased endurance, increased aerobic enzyme production)

eating carbohydrate

  • carbohydrate is probably the most studied performance enhancing substance out there, and quickly digested carbohydrate during exercise is one of the most certain ways to increase aerobic exercise performance for the session in which it is used
  • consuming carbohydrate in quantities of 100-300 kcal/hr or even more will increase speed/power production during training sessions or races, increasing race-day performance or workout intensity
  • consuming carbohydrate before exercise reduces fat burning and increases reliance on carbohydrate during the subsequent exercise session (this is undesirable for endurance training, but may be desirable for high-intensity sessions)
  • consuming carbohydrate immediately following moderate to high-intensity workouts helps regenerate lost glycogen and fuels the next workout. this is the time your body is going to restore lost glycogen the fastest, and lengthens the time your body is sensitive to those calories
  • at all times, carbohydrate is anabolic (“building”) and helps your body store carbohydrate, fat and build protein, so after workouts, that’s good (you want to store glycogen and build proteins/enzymes), the rest of the time, it’s open for debate depending on what else is going on
  • excessive carbohydrate leads to excessive insulin and leads to insulin resistance and increased adiposity, when not preceded by hard workouts or periods of fasting, and some researchers believe greatly increases your risk for certain cancers (because of chronically elevated insulin and IGF-1 levels)

eating fat

  • eating fat has minimal impact on many of your hormones, but does increase satiety hormones and may increase testosterone
  • fat is usually slowly digested (some fats excepted, like coconut oil and other medium-chain fatty acids), so large quantities of fat soon before training is generally undesirable because it directs blood towards your digestive system and away from your working muscles
  • fat is nice because it has very little impact on your hormones and fuel metabolism
  • fat is good because consuming it doesn’t encourage fat storage (as is the case with carbohydrate), and doesn’t shift fuel metabolism away from fat burning towards carbohydrate burning (as with carbohydrate)
  • fat is perhaps not so good because it’s very calorie dense, so it’s easier to overconsume calories with fatty foods (e.g. nuts and nut butters, cream you might put in your coffee, oil  or dressing you may put in your salad, etc.)

eating protein

  • protein is essential for building muscle and other tissues, and usually more importantly, for building new enzymes for anything and everything under the sun (e.g. burning carbohydrate, burning fat, and all of the requisite reactions along the way)
  • protein doesn’t on it’s own make a huge impact on your insulin levels, but when consumed with carbohydrate drives insulin levels and IGF-1 levels higher in a synergesic manner (hence the often cited 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein for recovery)
  • generally speaking, it’s hard in the developed world to be remotely deficient in protein intake, so for the most part, there’s probably no reason to be concerned about getting more protein in your diet unless you’re a strict vegan and don’t seek out beans and legumes for protein
  • it may be worth seeking out easy to digest protein immediately after harder workouts some of the time (e.g. eggs on some toast or protein powder in a fruit smoothie) to make the most of your body’s insulin and IGF-1 production immediately following a hard workout
  • some people find that consuming protein in the morning helps keep their energy and appetite more steady, and may help with maintaining a healthy weight… definitely worth trying for a period if you always skip breakfast or worse yet, just have refined carbohydrates for breakfast (bagels, processed cereals, toast, pastries, etc.)

Hopefully some of this is interesting to you and may prove useful on one or two points. I definitely don’t presume to think that I know all that much about human physiology compared to some people or compared to what I’d like to know, but it’s something that I’ve been passionate about for years and find that I often remember little things that seem relevant to me or to athletes generally and draw on them when I’m trying to make my day to day plans. Often what happens in a given day is more contingent on circumstance than plans, but still trying to tweak things here and there can make big differences.

So, what kind of stuff do I personally try to do from day to day? Well, that has changed over the years as I have learned more, as my body has changed, and as my goals have changed. I’ll go over a few different routines that I’ve used that try to take into account these features of how our bodies work in the next article…