Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Interaction of the Body and Mind - The Process of Resting / Recovery


This post was meant to be about clarifying "what causes performance and what is fatigue" in response to a comment from last week's UltraStu story post.  However, I have been in communication with one of the athletes I coach, and I felt that some of my 'words of wisdom' that I offered her, may be useful, or at least interesting to other endurance runners.  Just a wee word of warning though.  My ideas, are simply that, my ideas!  They are not supported with scientific references from journal articles, and in fact may be considered totally flawed , when based on today's current medical understanding.  But this doesn't necessarily mean the ideas are wrong, but simply possibly means that there hasn't yet been the research carried out, to confirm these ideas, i.e. to explain how exactly the body functions!

As with my previous post, and in fact with all of my posts, comments are most welcome, as it is interesting to receive feedback, so I am aware whether my ideas are 'totally outside of the box' and are therefore interpreted as rather pointless, or that there are other runners that like to think 'laterally' and appreciate alternative ways at looking at things.  I hope you are in the latter category.

Below are some excerpts from an e-mail I recently sent to one of the athletes I coach.  The e-mail was prompted by recent communication I had been having, which included the following comments:

"Well, things haven't exactly gone smoothly on the 'rest' front...    So after speaking to you on Sunday, I did as planned and rested Monday and Tuesday with only relaxing walking....    I couldn't understand why after 4 days off I felt so well, ill!...I am obviously concerned about how rubbish this is in prep for my next race....    Any thoughts? Has this happened to you before? Had these symptoms? How did you handle it and did you find you were fresher when you recovered fully and returned to training again?"

SO (excerpts from) MY REPLY:

The body and mind together are pretty amazing and very, very little is actually known on how they interact.  Take for example, usually after running a trail marathon my legs are so trashed that the next morning I can barely walk!.  But back in August when doing the 3 day Ring O Fire, where I had to run 64 miles on day 2 after 32 miles on day 1, I wake up the morning of day 2, and not one bit of stiffness / damage.  Yes, the intensity was slightly down on day 1 as it was a 3 day race, but only slightly.  I still banged in a 6 min mile during the 32 mile day 1.  So how?  Why was it that I had no stiffness / damage? 

The simple answer was that the body and mind working together knew that I had to run 64 miles on day 2.  So instead of the usually recovery process kicking in the moment I finished the race, because it knew I had another race the next day, the body delayed its recovery process, so delayed the swelling, the inflammation etc. to allow me to race.  What was also interesting was that when I had to DNF midway through day 2, the muscle soreness began!  The body was now ALLOWED to start recovering. 

In one of my previous e-mails I mentioned how if my body and mind was able to do more mileage I would, but I have found that I tend to 'break down' when I up my mileage too much.  One of my real strengths when it comes to ultra trail running is my ability to listen to, to feel, to acknowledge what is happening within my body and mind.  So I am always monitoring, can I do more, am I doing too much?  So I am not being over demanding on myself, both mentally, but mainly physically.  Yes it is often too easy due to enthusiasm, excitement, desire, ambition etc. for the mind to demand too much from the body (if we think of them as separate identities although they are just one).  Hence why many elite athletes suffer from chronic fatigue! 

Now in my recent e-mail I proposed that you take exactly seven days off from training.  Perhaps I didn't stress this number of days, i.e. seven days strongly enough.  What is so magical about seven days?  Well in my experiences, when I have been over doing it, when I eventually finally get around to accepting that I have done too much, and admit that I am not indestructible, 'superman', I find that seven days is the ideal duration of rest.  Now what happens during this seven day rest, is that you are actually ALLOWING your body to recover! I'll try to explain.  The essence of training, is RECOVERY!  Whilst training, you are stressing the body and mind, it then needs to recover.  However to recover requires energy, so whilst in steady training, the body focuses on dealing with recovering from the most recent training bout.  There may be other aspects / issues that the body also needs to recover from, but it seems to leave these other aspects alone, and prioritises the immediate stresses created from the recent training.  So one can see here, that whilst training other issues, that require attention to be dealt with, tend to be ignored, and over time, these issues will develop and slowly progressively get worse.  It is these less immediate issues progressively getting worse, that is probably what causes / leads towards over training / chronic fatigue. 

One interesting thing that you may have experienced within yourself, or read in other runner's reports / blogs, is that during the last few days of tapering, before a big race, just how often athletes tend to start 'coming down' with a cold, or flu like symptoms.  There is always the comment like, "I just hoped that the developing flu would hold off until after race day".  It typically does hold off, and the athlete performs well on race day, albeit, going into the race with reduced confidence due to the worry on the cold/flu developing.  Below is your typical example, from a local running friend who recently took ten minutes off his PB at the Berlin Marathon:
"I was feeling quite groggy in the days before the race; the glands in my neck were sore and swollen, and I could tell my body was fighting a bug of some kind. By Thursday night, I’d accepted a cold was imminent and was devastated... in fact, I was on the brink of emotional meltdown!

Bizarrely, the symptoms didn’t get any better or worse from Wednesday to Sunday, and come the day there was no question over whether I’d start the race. (It’s now developed into a cold, so my immune system was indeed battling something, but as much as I’d like to say it had an effect on me and I could have run faster, well, I can’t – I felt fine once the race started.)

It was faster than I expected to run, I must admit – and I need to thank Richard and Stuart for convincing me that sub-2:30 was on the cards."

So why is it that one starts feeling cold like symptoms when taking it easy during a taper?  Surely, you should feel worse when you are training harder!  No, not if you realise that the body and mind are one.  By deciding to taper, or to have a period of rest, you have informed the body and mind that things will be easier for the next few days.  The response therefore seems to be, that with this surplus energy 'coming it's way' the body and mind then decides to use this energy to try and deal with those underlying issues that it has had to put off, because it was so pre-occupied with dealing with recovering from the stress of daily training.  So the surplus energy from the rest/taper is used to recover from the other issues, whatever they may be.  To deal with these issues, one then senses / feels the flu/cold like symptoms.  It is not that one has just 'caught' a flu / virus, in fact, the issue has always been there, but 'buried' away.  The key aspect is that once these underlying issues have been dealt with, the body and mind are then are to perform at a higher level, without the underlying, background issues 'slowly draining', 'demanding' some of the body and mind's precious energy.

Back to the seven day aspect.  When I have finally sensed / acknowledged that the underlying issue has built up to a significant level, in that it is strongly advising me that it needs attention now, I have found that it takes seven days, for the recovery of this issue to be dealt with.  It takes seven days of rest, to enable full recovery.  Then once fully recovered, one performs so much better.  Hence why I proposed in my previous e-mail that following seven days of rest, you would then absolutely 'fly' during your next race.  Because a taper is a different situation, i.e. the underlying issues have not significantly built up, seven days rest/taper is not required.  The body and mind simply 'grasp' this brief opportunity to deal with these less immediate issues, but it knows that it hasn't got long before race day.  It knows that it has to perform on the upcoming race day, so therefore only attempts to deal with minor underlying issues, in a brief / quick attempt, without risking damaging the race day performance.  And yes, race day performance improves as a result of the taper, because by easing off training, you have reduced the level of background issues that although one is not always conscious of, subconsciously these underlying issues, do draw the precious energy away from the race day demands.  Then following race day, the body and mind are 'told' that training will be light for a few days / a week, and with that message, sufficient time and energy will be available for a more complete / advanced recovery from not just the race, but an opportunity to have a massive go at dealing with everything else, so hence often athlete's immediately come down with a fully developed flu / cold immediately after the race.  It isn't in that they have just 'caught' it, they have always had it (whatever it is???), they have just ALLOWED their body to deal with it.

So, how does this relate to needing to rest prior to an upcoming race.  Time is the key aspect here.  Hopefully having seven days off, which in most instances (in my experience) is sufficient for the underlying issues to be dealt with.  Perhaps, your issues weren't as large as mind, when I need a rest, so seven days isn't required.  Perhaps, your issues are larger, as they have been 'buried' for longer, buried deeper.  Only you will know.  It involves, listening / feeling your body and mind.  Hopefully, you are feeling that it is good, it feels right, to get back into training.  The timing is important, as you need to have run at least 2 or 3 runs prior to the race, of feeling back to normal, to then 'honestly know' that you are 'back on track'.  Without these 2 - positive relaxing cruisey runs, the body may still be using precious energy dealing with underlying issues, and hence not have it available for race day performance.  Yes, the mind will tell the body that it is 'needed' for race day, but if there is worry, doubt, concern that you may not have got over the flu by race day, then this doubt, is actually telling the body, that you are expecting it to still be using up this energy on the underlying issues.  It will therefore take on board this message, and hence will still be processing/ recovering from the 'buried' issues, and therefore 'you will not be over it'.  If however, you have these 2 - 3 positive runs, the doubt / concern will be gone, the confidence will be there, and with this positive confident thinking, just as I wasn't stiff and sore on the morning of day 2, the body will respond by ensuring all of its energy is available for race day performance, it will stop using it on the underlying issues, and hence 'you will have got over' the flu / cold / virus, whatever you wish to label it as.

So I guess the key message here, is that the body and mind act together as one.  The way you think affects what the body is doing, and hence how you feel.  However, to think positively one needs some evidence that things are positive, one needs to listen to the messages from the body.  Remember it is often that these messages have been ignored for so long that a 'crisis' has occurred that has prompted the runner into 'dealing' with the underlying issues.  So one can not simply conclude / assume that a positive powerful mind / mental approach can deal with everything.  It can do a lot, but one needs to accept that one is not indestructible!

To conclude, it is extremely important to honestly listen to your body and mind.  How do you feel?  Honestly, after 'inviting' your body to deal with the ever developing underlying issues, which from communication with you, indicated to me that these issues were reaching 'crisis point', you do need to provide the necessary time to successfully, and completely recover from these underlying / background issues.  Your instinct, honest gut feeling, will tell you, if sufficient time has taken place, and you are ready to recommence training and ready to 'hammer' the upcoming trail marathon.

BACK TO YOU READERS OUT THEREHopefully, my rather lengthy explanation above on how the body and mind work together isn't too far 'out of the box' that it makes some sense.  It is a totally different way at looking at 'what is illness' what is 'catching a flu/virus'.  Understanding how it 'all works' I find helps me in developing my confidence, and I therefore have no doubts / concerns about being able to perform well in a race, after a bout of recovery, as I know that the underlying issues, that had been slowly but subconsciously 'draining' of energy is now no longer, or significantly less present.
Time to sign off with a quote:  "As with many, many aspects of life, more is actually unknown, than is known.  The key is to go with your 'hunches', to follow your 'instincts', and believe in your ideas, even if they may be in disagreement with the currently accepted way of thinking."  Stuart Mills, 2012
May you NOT need to have to adopt a lengthy rest strategy, as you have been attentive, reflective, and listened to your body and mind, and therefore avoided a 'crisis' situation,

PS  Well done to Duncan Harris for winning the last race of the Runfurther Series, the Round Rotherham 50 mile, and therefore winning the overall series with 4000 points.  Sorry that is all I know.  I don't know any other results.

1 comment:

  1. Perfect advice, Stu. Again I'm totally with you. I intend to put this to test in 2013. In the 4yrs I have been trying to run I strongly believe that I have been held back by an external variable.

    I've been doing a distance learning honours degree and am convinced that this has drained my energy so much that any stress caused by training has been heightened and thus impinged on any performance.

    Now that I'm finished with the hons degree I can only see me turning a corner. 2013 is going to be a good year because my recovery from training will be of far better quality than it has ever been.