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  • Richard Cash

174. Walking the Tightrope: Work vs Recovery

The other week was a bit of a shambles after jumping the gun on effort vs recovery from illness. Since then I have been looking at how to get the right balance while building consistency again in training to be ready for my 100km in July. Too much too often and you get what happened the other week - injury, illness and overtraining. Too little and you lose all of which you gained.

If you're running shorter races under marathon distances then there are plenty of work v recovery plans available for all levels that are tried and tested... but trail ultra marathons are a different beast. Especially for something longer like a 100K. The reason is that high volume is a MUST. The problem with high volume (50-100K+ training weeks) when you are a Masters category heavy person is that it monsters your hips, knees, ankles and the tendons that hold it all together.

Throw in 60, 70, 80K training weeks as I close in on peak volume week running and there can be hell to pay as the accumulated inflammation plays havoc with the quality of your training. Also you not only have the dramatic increase of injury risk (for which I am particularly prone to), but also the risk of detraining if you leave too long before harder work sessions. I felt I got the balance much better last year in my summer training block leading into my 300k, but memories of the inflammation I was accumulating in the final peak volume weeks in my cycle remain fresh in my mind. My approach to this coming 100k follows the 2x 3 month blocks of:

  1. Base Phase - aerobic development for the ultra endurance aerobic engine

  2. Build Phase - Lactate Threshold, power, pace development while preserving the aerobic base I've built.

Then followed by a 3 week taper after the peak of the build phase.

Base Phase:

Slowly building volume in the aerobic zone. This is low intensity running/power hiking type pace for most. It gets your tendons, bones, muscles, lungs, heart etc ready to go far. It builds your energy systems and develops new mitochondria responsible for energy production in our cells and makes us more efficient.

This phase takes time before the adaptations really kick in 10-12 weeks. It needs consistency, self control (as you feel reeeeaaalllyyy slow at first), and SLOW progressive volume. 10% per week increase is the rule of thumb here.

I overdid the intensity level, stepping out of my zone 2 the other week and got punished for it. I lamented this in my last post.

I have 3 weeks of this base phase left before I step into the next phase - Build. I'm now starting to add in a faster higher intensity session around my Zone 4, along with some strides in my easy runs. The adaptations from this should start to be seen in a couple of weeks from now, but I'm taking these carefully, ensuring there is a rest day after, and before I do this session. As my Long runs are building I'm also adding in an active recovery session the day before a long run.

My approach is very much the Hard Day-Easy Day approach. Easy days are exactly that... Easy... low zone 1 or 2 / Rest. We grow when we sleep/rest.. not when we train so rest is key. Being ill for 3 weeks left me resting way too long and I ended up detraining. Not ideal but shit happens. My hard days (long runs getting up to 18km this weekend) and my lactate threshold runs are harder efforts so I need the time to recover properly before running again (48hrs typically works well for me).

The adaptations for the harder zone 4 runs should be seen after 10-14 days so I expect to see some progress on these in the next two weeks.

Build Phase

This for me will be doubling the Lactate Threshold work and pushing the bigger distance long runs (20km upwards to 50km). Hill repeats, 5x5's, 20x1's will be going in here and building in effort & intensity over the following 10 weeks. This requires some proper planning to make sure I get enough recovery to build the adaptations that should lift my pace a little, while also continuing with my aerobic work. Volumes will be continuing to increase, but I know my body composition responds well to higher intensity work, so I'm looking forward to getting leaner in this stage of training (Heaven knows I need to lose a few kilos). This is a tricky stage to navigate. The higher intensities performed more frequently for a 50 year old heavy runner are high risk. Both from overtraining then having to have a lay off, and from injury which could mean missing the ultra altogether.

Down Weeks & Periodization

I'm working my training plan on a periodization plan. This means Hard week, harder week, easy week. The down week is important given my history of injury and it's recommended to go for a 2:1 Hard:Easy ratio. This allows time for fatigue to pass, my body to adapt, injuries to ease off and fitness to improve. I took this approach last summer and it worked well for me.

Down weeks need to still have effort but probably 65% of the hardest week in that 3 week cycle. This should hold onto the gains that I make without detraining and losing the fruits of those harder efforts. I can't simply take a week off entirely as fitness drops and it's harder to build than it is to lose.

By the same measure my harder weeks also need recovery windows in them to avoid redlining and then breaking something. There needs to be periods where the body can grow, heal and adapt throughout otherwise no gains will be made, despite huge efforts.

How do I know when I'm going into the red zone?

Training Stress Balance

I will be looking at my Training Stress Balance scores from my training data carefully (Training Peaks & Suunto watch) to see when I need to take rest to lower the risk. I'm also upping my protein intake already by 50% to help with recovery in general. This appears to be working as I'm feeling fresher going into each run the last week.

The Training Stress Balance or 'Form' (Training Peaks) measure is a pretty good reflection of when I'm in the danger zone for overtraining. It's always been pretty accurate as long as you log all your sessions properly. I remember two years ago pushing deep into the danger zone (dark red) and a week later I was nailed by a nasty ankle injury. The image shows the illness period quite clearly, the bump in the middle shows my easing off entirely when ill and the sharp dive on the line (26/02) shows what happened when I pushed a bit too hard the other week after coming back to training that week. I'm in the sweet spot presently( the light red zone scoring -10 to -20 TSB on the chart in the pic). This is where the stress is high to trigger noticeable adaptations (fitness, speed, strength) to begin to occur. You can't live in this zone though otherwise the adaptations won't take hold. you need to dip in and out (at about a ration of 2:1 in-vs-out) to be ranging healthily. As volume goes high in my training I'll be deeper for longer in this productive zone but tracking the depth lets me know when I need to ease up on the effort to recover.

I'll update this as i go along through the next few months so you can see the accumulated training stress levels and when I should be backing off. This is the tightrope I'm walking. A word though on the data. While it's very good, I've learned to also listen to what my body is trying to tell me. I know when it's too fast, or too hard. It simply feels different. The reaction after overdoing it that I feel in my tendons and legs is also telling. I have to watch inflammation carefully given my age and body type. I've addressed my diet and water intake to help here already but I won't see the dividends for a few weeks yet. The level of inflammation will guide me heavily on when I need to rest up a day or two. Rest assured though, I'll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.

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