I've waited for the inevitable ‘full circle’ of health and performance to come around before writing a blog, and thanks to a decent showing at Ironman 70.3 Vichy, now is certainly the time.
Let’s rewind a few wobbly old months. Things were going well and I'd earned a nice splatter of podiums (including a 'double-triple') which is how I usually start the season: full of beans and promise. Note to self: PICK SOME BIG RACES THEN.
All was going swimmingly and dare I say it, I started to feel a touch 'indestructible'. No one is indestructible, certainly not me. Mega oops.
A change of plan to race the Challenge World Championship thanks to unexpectedly qualifying in Rome called for a new bike with NO COMPROMISES! Scott were fabulous at delivering a Plasma 5 well in advance of the race (6 weeks) and we sent it off for building. Fast forward through 6 weeks of false-starts and uncomfortable pauses with key parts, and Darren picked the bike up on the morning we were leaving for the race. Heavens. I’d managed to steal it back a couple of times for a test ride but we went into Samorin – a super flat course that requires one to be locked in to one position, with a bike that was pretty much untested. The suspicious back ache at km 40 became agony at km 50 and then the referred twinges down my adducters were enough to make the last 15km impossible to contemplate. DNF and mega D’oh. That's one feeling that makes you want to just curl up and disappear.
A bike that fits - all smiles now!
Then, I made my next fatal move. Rather than take my planned break, we decided to race again in Sweden as I was really fit, and once the bike was tweaked I’d be good to go, right?
The only trouble with this is:
I have a history of burning out mid-season.
I underestimated entirely the emotional implications of failing a hyped-up race, and whilst I thought I'd 'got over it', I should've given that some respect.
Triathlon, for me, gets overbearing sometimes (because it seems so arbitrary and all-consuming, gadgets are annoying and bike maintenance is at the very bottom of my ‘Fun List of Things to Do upon a Sunday’) and I didn’t realise that I really needed that holiday, regardless of race outcome.
But decision made, I pushed for it and was super keen and happy to race for redemption in T minus 3 weeks!
So we embarked upon some more training and despite coach Mark telling me to take more time out, I was of the mindset that if I was going to race again, I needed to get back at it, so was itching to go, and started putting down 3hr 30 rides before he’d pressed the Go button. I still gave myself a week off, but I am not one of these amazing recovering triathletes, far from it. After a few days, things started to unravel and I couldn’t complete anything of quality. Any threshold work was just impossible. I started to feel very ‘lactic acidy’, as if my body wasn’t clearing any toxins. Obviously we chopped sessions in favour of rest, but I know if I am to race well, I need a solid block right before the race, with a short taper. However as Mark said, there was no reason why I wouldn’t hold my fitness, we just needed to have me fresh for the race. I remember Caroline Livesey asking how I was. “Really really tired” I replied. “Oh well, you know what to do!” was her reply, but the problem, was, I didn’t. You see, it catches me off guard every time. I feel pretty normal when not training. Was I imagining it? Was I just really soft? I had DNF’ed after all so I had to get back to it. I was invested in the next race and we were resting and being sensible but it just felt like the ‘body-fog’ was just not clearing. I ignored the niggling doubts (i.e the actual truth of the matter), and kept upbeat.
And lo and behold, I plopped into the next race and I could barely make it up the first bike hill. Something was very wrong and I still thought it was in my head. DOUBLE DNF. OMG I AM SUCH A LOSER. I retired for a few days. That’s it. Over. Finished. Sell the bike. I never want to smell neoprene again.
But now we have reached the bottom of the story, we get to climb to a better bit! I’ve been using Forth Edge’s blood testing service for the best part of a year now, and every 3 months I get sent a new fingerprick test at home that I send off to their lab, with results in 2 days. Up until this point, it had been a nice little extra to prove that I was healthy. Now though, it was to prove a vital resource as we got to have a look at what was going on inside my withered innards.
I've experienced burnout before, but never actually had answers or proof. This changes everything.
Creatinine Kinase – a biomarker for liver and kidney function - was severely impacted. My mate Tony has had a kidney transplant and functions at around 40%, and my numbers were on a par with his. High CK, as I understand, signals both muscle breakdown and the inability to remove waste products from the muscles (that could explain the ‘acidic’ feeling).
Cortisol - the stress hormone: off the scale. It’s always advised in a period of mental stress, never load the body with training stress as the training will actually be detrimental. My mental stress was a result of triathlon-related lows, which was being compounded further with every failed session or forced rest day, so I was trapped in a downward spiral.
Ferritin and iron was also high to the point of toxicity (I had been self-supplementing as low iron in females is thought to be a common cause of fatigue… but obviously NEVER assume. Now I’ve been off the iron for well over a month I’m still coming in really high, so I certainly don’t need more!)
So essentially (again this is my understanding) my body was an acidic environment that was pretty toxic and certainly not a suitable vehicle for delivering high performance in any shape or form! Forth Edge’s feedback was along the lines of “Abort Mission. Time Out!!”
Here’s the thing – by the time I was tested we hadn’t done much training for a few weeks. But travel, pre-race nerves, expectation and harsh realities, that surely can all build up to disruption and burnout. I reckon high cortisol was keeping the body from healing. The stress hormone was not allowing things to settle; keeping me in a constant state of ‘high arousal’ with broken sleep.
Next good thing! Discovering Tri-Topia. A venue in France that is essentially ‘triathlon rehab’. It’s so very tranquil, with enough staff and guests around to keep things sociable. The 25m outdoor pool is in the garden, there are endless marked running trails from the door, and an abundance of immaculate roads for cycling. You are cooked for every evening, breakfast and lunch is supplied, and you're surrounded by nature and good weather. There's a gym, massage therapist, spare bikes and parts should you need, coached sessions as required: in fact every triathlonny thing is catered for! There’s even a lovely dog who acts as the lifeguard, running up and down, matching every length you do. He won't jump in though :D Leanne who co-runs it is a World 7.3 AG champ and will soon turn pro, and was a fantastic training buddy when she could fit sessions in!
Sunflower power in Tri-Topia - ain't no stress here!
Festering at home was not going to improve things any time soon, and a change was as good as a rest. I made this choice purely on gut instinct and within a few days of being at Tri-Topia, I felt normal, and had resumed a standard amount of training, focussing on optimised recovery. Everything had decompressed.
2 weeks there, 1 week at home, and another 2 weeks back there, and I was transformed. Time to race! And I knew this time, it would be a decent showing.
On the hunt for ladies at Vichy 70.3
Vichy 70.3 was super. Very easy logistically, slight glitch with the swim – I had a literal ‘blinder’ in the sense that I swam with no vision rather than fast – I simply couldn’t see any red buoys with my black goggles against a cloudy dark backdrop! But I'm not swimming that well anyway so it probably made no difference. Everyone struggled by the sounds of it! I had a pack so there were people to work with on the bike for much of the course. When I'm completely alone I get so very bored, so it was nice to have human carrots around and draft zones to think about. The bike course was varied enough to be interesting but not so much as to disrupt rhythm, I fuelled it perfectly (Maurten makes this so easy now) and was able to run a 1.18, the fastest by 2 mins and a new run course record, to work my way from 8/9th to 4th against some class competition.
4th is never a great place as I love my podium champagne and just missed out on that ;) but to actually finally be able to deliver a special run off a solid bike was exactly what I was after. I hadn’t managed to do this anywhere but Israman this year (another 1.18) but as that’s such a wacky downhill-then-deathmarch course, you can’t really compare it to anything else! So that was frustrating me, as we have known I’ve had a good run for a long time. It has just been ‘dampened’ whilst we work on more pressing weaknesses. Or if I get a bit fat. One or the other!
The exciting thing is it didn’t feel fast, and I think there is more to come on the run, just as there is in the bike and swim. And as I love running, it’s the easiest to train for. People say work on your weaknesses, but why not your strengths too!?
My latest Forth Edge test results came back all restored, except slightly low folic acid this time, but I could just feel I was better. When you’re stuck in the midst of an Great Unravelling though, it's so hard to gain clarity and control of a situation. To know not completing sessions wasn’t simply my weak mind, and to see what serious damage you can actually do if you’re not in a state of readiness, was invaluable to learn. I was veering on liver and kidney damage and that’s no joke. With a test coming in at the price of a couple of physio/PT sessions, it’s something I can’t hesitate to push onto anyone who’s training seriously.
Now recovered from Vichy, training has started to ramp up again 2.5 weeks later. My next race is the ETU European Middle Distance Champs in Ibiza on October 27th, and I'm super excited for this one. From now, we will be racing once every 2 months to allow a good window of recovery after each race.
And from all this knowledge, we build.
Let's see what's next in this crazy journey!