by Russ Ebbets, DC
Michael Phelps returned to the US after winning a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics to travel the whirlwind tour of American celebrity. At one point an interviewer asked him what he had done physically during the last 35 days since the Olympics. He laughingly dismissed the question with a simple, “Nothing.”
That reply literally turned my stomach. I remember thinking “if that is true, that’s not good” for him – or me. In America we do a great job of getting tired. Whether it is the road running community, the three-season high school runner or the madness of the Crossfit disciple the motivation and drive to train is relentless.
The shoe and apparel companies have slogans to fuel this fire that serve as mantas for those days when motivation is low and one’s greatest struggle is just to take that first step. We get sold on the idea that the only other life option is obesity and general sloth. Both equally unappealing choices to a motivated individual, even to the point of turning one’s stomach.
Consistent training is a series of weeks and months where the athlete cycles through times of stress-rest and adaptation. Some athletes have the intuitive sense to monitor this process on their own, when to press and when to coast. Most need the watchful eye of a coach to provide the carrot or the stick to move things forward. The problem is, the mistaken belief is that one’s performance improvement is a never ending spiral upwards. A master’s athlete would chuckle at that naïve sentiment. They have already crested the peak of the lifetime PR and have begun to evaluate all life’s many facets in an effort to maintain a few seconds here and there.
The other issue many 20-something runners fail to acknowledge is the seasonal nature of sport. For a ball sport person there are set time periods. The pros have a pre-season, main season, post-season and off-season. There are goals for each season. The more responsible athletes do what needs to be done to capitalize on the goals for each season.
For a runner this is a particular challenge. Whether we are talking locally or nationally the opportunity to race year round is there. There was a time when Bill Schrader had a summer road race in Albany’s Washington Park and seven people showed up. Odd right? What was odd was this was the only road race in the Capital District for the summer! No Colonie, no Freihofer’s, no Boilermaker. Today on any given weekend there are four or more races within a 50 mile radius of Albany allowing the opportunity to race back to back days.
The blurring of the seasons for a runner presents a challenge as there is always is a “next” race. Why this is a challenge is because the body never gets a chance to rest. The body never gets a chance to recover. There is no off season. Those who have done any gardening get this, you have to take some time and let the ground come back.
But for some athletes, Olympic athletes and Olympic team-sport athletes where weather dictates their seasons (think skiing, hockey, skating) these athletes cannot, do not compete in all-seasons. If…
The “if” is the answer to the question – is there a yearly or seasonal plan? Take the swimmer for example (or pick the skier if you like). They train and train to prepare for a terminal championship. Their training raises the ability of the body to adapt to a higher and higher level to the stresses placed upon it. These stresses have been a combination of physical (the muscular strains of training), mental (the continual, relentless drive to achieve one’s goals) and the biochemical (the physiological adaptations the body has made to buffer the acidic pH state created by the relentless quest to achieve goals and win). For most of us, if not all, if we were subjected to this triad of stress it would be overwhelming. The results would be physical breakdown, emotional withdrawal or collapse and physical illness. The stress of this level of athletic life would be too great.
But what if you were trained to handle this stress and do it successfully and then go to the Olympics, compete in 17 races over a span of nine days and win eight gold medals and then suddenly do nothing? Nothing for 35 days. Can you see how raising the adaptive levels to such an elevated state and then removing that stress input, that level of physical, mental and biochemical assault to the body that it is suddenly no longer trying to adapt to, that the body is no longer trying to fight, it can present an overwhelming insult and trauma to the body? There is no easy slope return to normal, there is the drop-off of a cliff.
And in fact Michael Phelps went through significant personal and emotional problems following the Beijing as chronicled in the November 16, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated. There was a plan to get there (the Olympics) but there was no plan to get from there. One can only speculate if this was a failure of his support staff to recognize this or the non-compliance of an athlete expecting to handle fame on his own terms or the impossible demands of American celebrity or a combination of all three.
What resulted was a hyped up system with no place to go. The result for Phelps was a state of restlessness, anxiety, depression, sleep and eating disorders, emotional problems and an inability to cope with the mundane challenges of day to day life. Phelps’s return to normal was more an unraveling than a normalization.
That is what detraining is. Detraining is a plan to get from peak condition back to normal. It is a plan to renormalize the body, the mental processes and the biochemical processes. No one is a light switch. While one may have the ability to turn on and turn off effort at will the adaptations that need to take place in the body take weeks and months and possibly years to create. That is training, the “getting tired” bit, remember we Americans do a good job of getting “tired.” But if the build-up takes time, so does the ramp down if all this is to be done healthfully.
So what is the average Jane of Joe to do? Train with intention. Most runners seasonally build to a peak over a period of three to four months then take a month “off” to normalize. Active rest, alternate exercise, cross training roughly describes the intent – a movement oriented physical activity that allows for a level of work, while at the same time reducing, gradually easing the stress of performance based training and essentially “allowing the ground to come back.”
Part of “The Talk” I always gave my best runners was that they could no longer think like “the lead.” They could not think like the pack, they had to think “ahead of the pack.” Their ability to produce “effort” was their gift. It was made clear that collectively their directed efforts were to be towards times of effort and times of rest and regeneration. When this was done correctly the adaptations of the body and the reserves of physical, mental and biochemical energies could be drawn upon, as the effort required and that was how we would win.
Russ Ebbets, DC lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the High Peaks STR8 Maps trail guide to the Adirondack 46 High Peaks. Copies are available from PO Box 229, Union Springs, NY 13160. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.