In the ultrarunning world, a significant amount of athletes take some downtime around the holidays. With the change in weather, unless you live in San Luis Obispo, and usually coming off a heavy calendar from Spring through Fall, having a month or more to fully recover is a necessity for most runners. Musculoskeletally, the body does an amazing job at recovering from significant efforts, and adapting to increased loads. This is why I couldn’t walk for a week after my first 50 miler, but flash forward three years later, and I was hiking in SLO with no soreness two days after the Grand Slam.
Adrenal fatigue is an interesting term now being commonly used by the ultrarunning community. Albeit a term with no medical consensus supporting the claim, the theory behind adrenal fatigue is that when the body encounters a significant amount of prolonged stress without adequate recovery ( i.e. 10 ultra’s in a season with no downtime, coupled with raising young children and working a full-time job requiring significant travel), although musculoskeletally the body seems ok, internally it could be a shit show. The symptoms of adrenal fatigue can range from lethargy, irritability, anxiety and loss of sex drive… ouch!
Relatively speaking, there has been an explosion in the sport with books like Born to Run, leading to a significant amount of new runners and new races. Increased coverage from companies like Irunfar, Ultralive and Twitter allow fans to track their favorite runners from start to finish. Myriad of filmographers capturing the sport mid-race (Check out this insane Youtube clip following Zach Miller and Hayden Hawks from the 2016 TNF 50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DCR03UDggA), has provided a glimpse into the amount of effort exerted by the athletes competing in these events. Sponsors have also increased their marketing dollars, with companies like Patagonia, Altra, North Face, Salomon, Nike and Hoka all having elite trail teams, and most having ambassador programs.
A sport once ruled by middleagers, countless “young guns” are now rewriting the records books daily, entering the ultrarunning scene fresh out of college with blazing track and road backgrounds. The acronym FOMO (fear of missing out), which I recently learned was an actual term people use… I am not even remotely in the range of cool anymore… has led to many runners over racing. With the popularity of the sport and social media usage at an all time high and many runners wanting to experience as many races in as many destinations as they can, too many ultrarunners, in my opinion, are on the verge of experiencing “adrenal fatigue.”
Considering these factors, after finishing Wasatch in early September, I decided to take some much needed downtime.
Being an experiment of one, each athlete has a different definition of downtime. Some prefer to completely turn it off for 2-3 weeks, with zero running. Others prefer to remove all running from their calendar, but still get out for a few miles when they feel the need. Some runners turn to hiking or cross-training to get their “fix,” but make a concerted effort to stay off their feet as it relates to running.
Starting with the remainder of September and leading into early October, I only hiked and performed my gym workout three times each week. Over this 4-6 week period, outside of pacing Thomas at Cuyamaca for 18 ass kicking miles, I likely totaled only 20-40 miles of actual running in these several weeks. Loading up on sleep and making a slight modification to my diet (adding small amounts of meat back in after 4 years as a vegetarian and/or vegan) were two additional changes made during this offseason.
Feeling well rested and healthy, I was excited to begin training again in October.
We started out with VERY unstructured running for the first few weeks of the month. Running 4-5 days and not breaking 40 miles in any given week. Continuing to hit the gym 3x week throughout October helped to tackle any muscle imbalances accrued over the Grand Slam. Also, injecting strides into most runs (6-8, 15-20 second pickups focusing on form and turnover) helped to get comfortable moving at a quicker pace. With a plan to work on improving fitness through increased quality work, strides are the logical first step.
Wearing a heart rate (HR) monitor is something I used primarily for recovery runs leading up to Western States, but I’ve started wearing one religiously since returning to training. A HR strap provides objective data, and is a great tool for measuring an increase in fitness. As an example, one of my first recovery/easy runs in October had the following stats:
- 7 miles
- 167ft vert
- 8:33min/mile pace
- Average HR 141
A similar recovery/easy run in late November had the following stats:
- 6 miles
- 100ft vert
- 8:16 min/mile pace
- Average HR 132
The data above confirms an increase in fitness, as I was able to cover relatively the same distance, on the same terrain, moving 17 seconds/mile faster, at 9 beats/min slower. Without this HR data however, it would be impossible to objectively confirm an increase in fitness, as this data shows I was able to cover the same distance at a quicker pace, with less effort. Gains in fitness require an increasing amount of time and consistency, so unfortunately my stats above show that the Olympics won’t be calling anytime soon.
Along with strides, we’ve also slowly added track workouts and tempo runs into the weekly schedule. These have helped to increase my “comfort level” with quicker paces. As an example, if your bread-and-butter run (pace that you feel could be maintained all day) is at 9:00 min/mile, increasing fitness through quality work like tempos, track sessions and strides could, over time, lower your pace to 8:30 min/mile, or even lower. This increase in fitness can be gained from increasing volume, but only to an extent. If you’re a runner that does all of your running at one pace (i.e. 9:00 min/mile), whether or not you run 50 miles per week or 100, your body adapts to feeling “comfortable” traveling at 9:00 min/mile. Increasing both volume and quality, and remaining injury free, is the key to increasing fitness over any distance.
Aside from quality work, one of the major changes I’ve made in training over the past year has been to run either very slow, or relatively speaking, very fast. Primarily because my ass feels kicked after quality workouts, but also through trial-and-error after reading various articles by elite runners and coaches that follow this practice religiously, my body feels stronger and more prepared for quality workouts when I don’t beat it up on my recovery/easy days. Some call it the “black hole,” but running at a moderate intensity for nearly all of your weekly miles is what too many runners and ultrarunners do. Running all miles at this level of intensity (relative difficulty in carrying on a conversation) is too slow to adequately impact fitness, but also too fast to properly allow the body to recover between runs. Symptoms from this type of training are constant fatigue, lack of improvement and higher injury risk… No thanks!
Getting back in shape is not easy! Whether it’s returning from an injury, which every damn runner in SLO seems to be working through these days, or from taking some much needed downtime, increasing fitness requires consistency and time. In a fast-paced world that seemingly encourages immediate gratification, building a long-term strategy with merely incremental gains is not sexy. Lowering my average HR by 9 points on a recovery run, over a two month period isn’t likely to garner 100 “likes” on Facebook, but running back-to-back ultras over two weekends sure the hell is.
What is the smarter strategy for meeting your goals?
If your goal is to improve race results, increasing fitness is a no brainer. If your goal is to stack ultra finishes regardless of results, then the latter decision seems like the logical approach.
Ultrarunning is so appealing to me because of the variety of races, and especially the variety of people tackling these distances. The goals that we have in this sport vary from person-to-person. Even within our relatively small ultrarunning community, we have such a wide variety of runners chasing various targets (getting back in shape, tackling their first ultra, moving up in distance from 50k/50 mile to 100k/100 mile, increasing year-over-year results, stacking as many races as possible onto the calendar, podium finishes, racing into Western States, etc.). No goals are more or less important than the other, and why I love this sport, is that we encourage each other to chase these lofty goals, no matter how crazy or ridiculous they seem to be.
What I’ve learned from getting back in shape:
- It’s a slow process that rewards consistency and time
- It’s not sexy or social media worthy
- It’s helpful for me to run either very slow or “very fast”
- Everyone builds fitness at a different pace, so just because your running partner has an average HR of 10-15 beats/minute lower, doesn’t automatically mean that there is a giant discrepancy in fitness level
- Trusting the process and thinking long-term works in this crazy ass sport!
Thanks for reading and all comments are appreciated… I’ve got thick skin! Upcoming posts on the Montana de Oro 25k and the Annual Big Sur Backpacking Trip coming soon…