What's slowing you down?
What's below is the text from an email I sent out to a group I was helping coach for the Race Across America (RAAM) and it brought together a lot of my thoughts about fatigue. I've since done a FB-live broadcast about the idea and thought posting this email up would give a little more detail on where I'm coming from for anyone who wanted to delve a bit deeper.
What's below gives you an insight into the approach that's needed to win RAAM, and I think an approach that almost all endurance athletes could benefit from considering.
Let me know what you think in the comments or head over to Facebook (@rendurancec) and post up a question.
Before we started working together you could all ride at RAAM winning pace for 30 min on/off for a shift. You could probably do it for a couple of shifts, or even a couple of days... but 7 days.... no. If you could have then you wouldn't need me.
Everything I've done and all I've learnt as a scientist, athlete and coach have moved my sense of performance from simply 'get as fit as possible and then be prepared to suffer more than everyone else' to something a bit more subtle. The old me was all about 'suffering' 'manning-up' 'toughing out' and while there's still a place for going hard when the going is hard I think it's more important in ultra-endurance races to stand back and look at fatigue with more of a global view. We slow down, or even stop, when our mind stops making our muscles work. Ultimately this happens because our drive to go on was less than our drive to stop. Simplistically we can look at this in terms of 'be more motivated' but I think it's more complex than that. All of your are motivated and experienced endurance athletes who have a lot personally invested in this challenge so motivation is not a problem... but you will all struggle over the course of the RAAM, you'll all have times you want to back off, or shorten a turn or you mentally drift off and slow down. That's inevitable. I want to approach this by accepting that it's inevitable and then asking 'how can we reduce the frequency and intensity of these feelings' and then 'what can we do when they strike' and this email is about the former.
'How to reduce the frequency and intensity of feelings of fatigue'
By fatigue I mean 'a desire to slow down'. As I said earlier this occurs because the urge to slow down is loud and it's not drowned out by the urge to carry on. Let's look at both sides of this equation, starting with the urge to stop. There are many reasons you might want to stop but fundamentally what we call fatigue is the summation of each of these reasons; think of them as weights on a scale - when the reasons to slow are greater than the reasons to carry on you will slow down. By listing these reasons we can start to see factors we can address and formulate strategies to minimise them.
Reasons to slow down - these are additive, for example sleep deprivation makes everything else feel worse, puking is the same.
1) Peripheral muscle fatigue. Your classic muscle ache from exercising. Made worse by many many factors but going too hard is the major one.
2) Bonk-type feelings - insufficient fuel or inability to absorb or process the fuel.
3) Pressure pain (saddle/feel/hands/shoulders).
9) Sleep deprivation
Reasons to hold your pace.
1) Extrinsic motivation - you're not slowing down for the prize and to not waste the money you've spent. This isn't very powerful over time, unless you're a sociopath.
2) Intrinsic motivation - you're not slowing down for your pride, you're desire to not let your team/crew/charity down, you're desire to beat the other teams. These are the reasons you'll hold the pace in the middle of the night.
This is obviously a big simplification and there are lots of additional factors we can add to the above but my point is this; you're not training to go faster, but instead you're training to reduce the intensity of the reasons to slow down. All your training so far, and all the training you will do, will mean that 'winning pace' feels easier and so you've got more mental energy to drink and eat, less muscle fatigue over time and it'll be easier to sleep on the 4th night as your hormones won't be so messed up.
What I'm getting to is this: all our training from now on is about dialling in your race pace and holding that race pace while preparing yourself mentally to hold that power/HR/RPE for your shift. You will continue to get fitter with hard turbo sessions but our focus is shifting - every ride and every session should incorporate some mental work around the following themes:
1) Why do I want to do this?
2) When the going is tough why to I keep doing this?
3) This training session is making it easier for my body to tolerate the load in the RAAM - my S&C mean my core will be strong and my back won't hurt as much - my intervals mean race pace feels like a 5/10 effort, not a 6/10 effort - my long rides in the aero-position means my neck muscles are able to take the strain and won't add to my sense of fatigue... etc
4) I'm training my gut to tolerate the carbohydrate and fluid I need to get me through the race - so that's why I'm eating and drinking every 20 minutes.
5) Who/what will I think about at 3 in the morning when I'm tired and cold?
6) What will I say/do to keep my team on the road and on goal pace?
Ok - a long ramble perhaps. One key message train to reduce the volume of the 'reasons to slow down' and right now that means train in the aero-position as often as possible... get your muscles, arms and butt used to that position because they will ache and you'd rather they didn't ache too much.