Thursday, July 26, 2007
No Pain, No Gain?
It has long been known that the old “no pain, no gain” approach to endurance training is not as effective as a periodized training plan. Running (or skiing, or biking, or swimming, or rowing…) as hard as you can every day will only lead to your “fast” days getting slower, because you are too tired from the other days to put out a good effort. Since that realization, coaches worldwide (I think it was some New Zealand dude who did it first) counsel their athletes to hard and easy days. The easy days must be kept easy, in order to be rested for the hard days. If an athlete is rested, he can go much harder (thus faster) than if he is tired.
What does it take to ski fast? Good technique, balance, coordination, explosive power, the right wax, well-fit equipment, general strength, core strength, giant triceps, the right mental attitude, good nutrition, attention to detail, genetic talent, and… fitness. Ahh, fitness. So many factors go into having a good race, but only one is of critical importance. Without fitness, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, how good your technique is, how fast your skis are—you will get beaten by someone in better shape.
You also need to know how to hurt. How to hurl yourself into the pain cave and stay there, until you cross the finish line. The racers you see with drool hanging out of their mouths collapsing at the finish line—those are the ones who were in the pain cave. They were racing at their limits; above their limits, which is the only way to excel. Sure, you need to know how to pace yourself. But you also need to know how to hurt. Without that, you will be forever destined to mid-pack mediocrity.
The flip side of the pain cave is recovery. Proper recovery is absolutely essential to being able to reach that pain cave. The recovery starts with a cooldown, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s wrapped into your whole life; everything you do affects that next race, be it in a positive or negative way. As hard as you train, the body will not absorb the training without adequate rest.
There are times of the year, of course, when it’s acceptable to be tired. In those heavy volume blocks, your body feels like lead. You drag yourself down the road, exhausted, until finally your body wakes up and responds, albeit sluggishly, to the activity and gives you some endorphins. Four hours later, you finish your workout, gingerly peel the gloves off your blisters, and eat. God, do you eat. It is times like this that you wonder, am I overtrained? Have I put myself into a hole that I can’t climb out of? And then, as you lower the volume and increase the intensity, it’s as if your body is springing back, feeling better and better as you feel more and more rested and recovered and sharp. And when you get that one race, that one perfect race, where it almost doesn’t hurt, and yet you’re flying, you know it was all worth it. This sort of peak doesn’t happen with the “run hard every day” approach.
The hardest part (says I) is getting up in the mornings at the crack of dawn, particularly after daylight saving’s hits. As you’re lying there in bed at 5:30am in the pitch black wishing with all your heart that you didn’t have to get up, you know that your competitors are out there, training, trying to defeat you before you even get to the start line. So you stagger out of bed, get out the door, and find yourself enjoying the brisk morning and the silence of the pre-dawn, as you get to work becoming a better skier.
So no pain, no gain? I think plenty of pain happens on the path to see gain, if in a different sense perhaps than the original intent of that phrase. I don’t know too many elite skiers who aren’t battling some sort of overuse injury. There are times when your body just aches from what you put it through. And racing brings pain to a whole new meaning. Does all this lead to gain? I think so. It makes you tough. After spending enough time hillbounding in the dark in a cold November rain, you feel pretty invincible. After getting up early for two weeks in a row during a volume block, you feel pretty invincible. After sweating through that last interval in July heat, you feel pretty invincible. And when you stand there on the start line, surrounded by people who on paper are much better skiers than you are, you draw on those past experiences where you felt tough, and it no longer matters that they have better skiing resumes. You know you can hurt; you’re confident in that ability, and that is what brings about a good race.