Athletes: Know your body’s truth
By Lisa Moeschler
For endurance athletes, the intense pursuit of success can lead to addictive training habits—the kind that drive a person through sickness, miserable weather, injury, and fatigue. However, if by season’s end that success hasn’t been realized with an acceptable return on the time and effort invested, it might be time to reevaluate one’s training. Determining exactly how requires considerable attention to oneself with or without a coach. This means knowing the truth about your body—and it’s unique ways of responding to exercise, stress, rest, and diet, not to mention your general health and lifestyle. Here’s what exercise physiologist and trainer of elite athletes Michael Brown has to say on the subject.
With regard to nutrition, Michael simply says that, “it’s very important to get high quality, minimally processed, as-close-to-natural nutrient sources as possible.” Great news for those of us in the BriarPatch community! Some do well, he said, with a carb/protein/fat ratio of 40/40/20, for example, and others with a ratio of 60/30/10—these ratios can vary depending upon our genetics and lifestyle. While diet is critical for high-level athletes, who are training hard all the time, if one isn’t getting sufficient rest and recovery, there’s no way that nutrition alone is going to reverse the training regimen’s negative effects on the body. As Michael says (I love this quote): “you can’t ‘out train’ a bad diet… but you also can’t ‘out diet’ bad training.”
One of the more common pitfalls he sees is when people have plateaued in their fitness. “Most athletes who are not seeing improvements are actually fatigued,” he explained. “They’ve trained too hard on the days that should be easy for recovery, so they’re too fatigued to go as hard as they need to in order to produce a training stimulus that will result in improvement.” When it comes to breaking unproductive training habits, everyone wants a quick, simple solution, but as Michael puts it, “the human body just doesn’t work that way.”
Getting key performance data through an accurate assessment is the first step to a new training strategy. Properly interpreted, such data can reveal current fitness levels, as well as what one is genetically capable of achieving. For aerobic endurance activities, Michael likes to know an athlete’s heart rate and performance simultaneously, to assess their cardiovascular fitness and their potential. For example, for bike exercise, the athlete would combine a power meter with a heart rate monitor to perform a graded exercise test. This determines the athlete’s lactate threshold and VO2 max. The lactate threshold enables one to gauge the percentage of an athlete’s maximum potential that is being expressed by their current level of performance. The VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen one can utilize during intense exercise. It also provides a pretty good idea of an athlete’s genetic capability.
That’s a lot to wrap one’s brain around, but stay with me! If the mode of exercise is running, then the athlete can workout wearing a heart rate monitor while running on a treadmill. Swimmers can undergo a time trial (to assess their effort to swim their best possible time on each stroke), while triathletes could be assessed while cycling, running, and swimming, obtaining the heart rate and VO2 max data from the running and cycling activities.
Because Michael assesses athletes day-in and day-out, he can modify fitness programs to meet individual needs as they arise. While an initial assessment can tell your current and potential level of fitness, a daily assessment can tell you your capacity for recovery. Using a daily log, athletes record their resting heart rate, access to hydration, body fat, and weight, along with how well they thought they did and how they felt after each workout. He pointed out that “one bad workout doesn’t mean anything… it’s a series of workouts day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out… that’s a strong indicator of poor recovery (and the possible onset of overtraining syndrome).” Also, one symptom alone doesn’t indicate a lack of recovery—it’s indicated by a combination of symptoms that could include:
• Prolonged soreness
• Unaccounted for soreness, being more sore than you should be for the activity
• Poor mood/sleep quality
• Super excitability, irritability, or complete lethargy
• Poor performance
One’s quality of recovery is often measured via the number of heart beats per minute while in a resting state. As the number drops—which takes place as the heart becomes a more efficient pump—one’s fitness improves. One’s maximum heart rate, which is the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle, won’t necessarily change, and has nothing to do with fitness. “But when your resting heart rate begins to fluctuate, like when you do a hard workout, you can expect that it’s probably going to be elevated the next day or two while your body is trying to recover. Once the body recovers, that number should drop significantly because the parasympathetic nervous system (which governs rest and recovery) has now taken over.”
He added that athletes who train at a certain level all the time become sympathetic-dominant and their resting heart rate doesn’t fluctuate much day to day. “If I see poor heart rate recovery over time, along with the appearance of a negative tone in the daily logs, this suggests that an athlete is under too much stress from one or more sources all the time.” So whether you’re the athlete reading this, or someone caring for an athlete at home or on a team, hopefully you found some helpful information to assist you in making next season’s training the most efficient and successful yet!