You are probably pushing yourself as often into some more or less effective training session as your coach reminds you to take a rest. Can you hardly bear to make a break from training and tend to carry on with the training far too early?
Siri Lindley is a real protagonist coach best-known in the world of triathlon, a real makeress of champions. She confirmed my assumption saying that all her athletes are so damn nervous to lose their performance levels. “After 3 days of rest”, Siri says, “my athletes start to become worried about their skills.
To convince them to take a rest costs more effort than pushing them through the session. You won’t believe it, but I also have to give them a program what to do, if they don’t train.”
You may utter that these are all pros and that for them things are different. But believe me during the 14 years I am working in triathlon now, I met so many amateur athletes with exactly the same behavior patterns. In this article I want to give you some background knowledge that may help you to take your off-time without running into a bad conscience.
How are we supposed to assess the needs for recovery?
Recovery is a very individual thing and needs lots of experience. How to gain this experience? A good body perception is definitely inevitable and the first door opener to interpret our body’s signs that indicate whether we have recovered sufficiently. You can also put it another way: which criteria should we choose that enable us to make the decision to take a rest in time and like this learn step by step to trust our own observations. Even though science has tried to define parameters or body conditions such as heavy legs syndrome or heart rate the decision to carry on with the workouts is in the end primarily made by feel.
Proposition 1: The body is a regulatory system of intertwined feedback loops and interconnected circuits
Newton’s mechanical view on the world that can be summarized in one sentence with “action equals reaction” can hardly be transferred to our body. But deeply engrained into our Western mindset this so dominant proposition makes it difficult for us to change our way thinking, observing and interpreting.
Neither the images of scales nor of containers are of any help when it comes to the point to interpret body conditions under stress such as intense workouts. Imbalances cannot be corrected by putting some more weight on the scale and measured deficits cannot not be re-assumed by refilling the containers (the containers which not really exist). Only by accident it happens that substitution works in the body’s redundantly secured pathways of signals transmission and reception. Lactate is a good example. It indicates overreaching, but it is not the cause.
The key for a balanced body condition is regulation. Regulation is a complex phenomenon – a whole body state – from which balance emerges, oscillating between perfect balance and horrendous disintegration. It comprises the regulation of temperature, pH, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen uptake, blood sugar and many many more.
Until today natural science has a hard time to tackle and investigate the various states of regulation and its dysfunction.
Proposition 2: Training incurs inflammatory processes. Healing processes require recovery.
It is common knowledge that the impact of endurance training are micro-injuries in muscles, sinews, connective tissue and the smallest blood vessels. These tiny injuries are required in order for the muscle to adapt to a higher performance level. The injuries can affect only muscle membranes, certain fibers or the whole fiber bundle. This makes the difference in the levels of muscle pain that you suffer from after training. Fiber ruptures also develop in the sinews and the connective tissue. The smallest vessels can tear.
The reasons for these micro-injuries are not only due to mechanical forces but are also due to a rising and falling temperature in the tissue, disturbed blood flow, shifting of the pH, flooding with free oxygen radicals and/or missing energy supply and exploited buffer systems. They all influence the extent of the inevitable but necessary muscle injury.
The injuries induced can be so tiny that the athlete does not even notice them or so bad that long lasting muscle pains arise. Creatinkinases and myoglobin levels above normal are typical in such cases.
All inflicted injuries lead to inflammatory processes in the body regardless of where they may be located. The inflammatory processes are the foundation for all healing and adaptation processes that finally bring about the training effect as desired.
Proposition 3: The immune system steers the inflammatory and healing processes
The immune system is involved at all times. It initiates, propagates, controls, and coordinates the inflammatory processes and brings forth healing. Immune cells migrate into the muscle. Soluble messenger molecules such as cytokines are released by muscle cells and immune cells and orchestrate the inflammatory processes. Both start and stop signals are generated by the immune system and control the process in the direction of healing. An intact immune system can heal micro-injuries within 3 to 5 days.
If micro-injuries do not heal well due to a weakened immune system – this is the case, if your recovery times are permanently too short – then muscle ruptures and injuries to the sinews may follow. Any form of inflammation takes its toll, be it an injury or an infection, by consuming energy and consequently leading to a drop in performance.
Due to the fact that never all muscle fibers are activated at once – studies speak of a maximum of 50% in competitive athletes – the muscle can tolerate an overload for quite a long time. Different fibers are activated by a kind of rotary principle. The pattern of active fibers even changes during one and the same training cycle. Parts of the muscle can find time to recuperate even if the muscle is not given the proper recovery time.
Proposition 4: Build-up processes only happen during recovery
Intensive training and racing even more are states of stress for the body. Under this circumstances degradation processes prevail: Carbohydrate and fat stores are used primarily. If absolutely necessary even proteins are transformed into glucose. The metabolism becomes consumptive (catabolic), the cortisone and catecholamines levels in the blood increase and the inflammatory components of the immune system are activated.
Recovery is dominated by build-up processes. The metabolism becomes anabolic. Now energy is used and needed for protein synthesis, and the adaptation of the muscles to achieve a higher level of performance can begin. Muscle build-up only happens during recovery and is the actual goal of the exercise. Sex hormones, insulin and growth hormones are strong build-up hormones (anabolica).
Conditions within the cells change as well. The inflammatory stimuli are joined by metabolic stimuli. The cells and their environment are both highly active and protein synthesis runs on full speed, but only if you allow them to work by giving you some rest. This sounds like a paradox: you may have a bad conscience not training, but your body is not lazy, it is working hard.
Remark 1: Mechanical forces get translated into biochemical signals
The mechanical forces that the movements of the training inflict upon the muscle are an essential and integral part of the muscle adaptation process. These mechanical stimuli are transformed into biochemical stimuli and reconverted into a movement that is mechanical per se. This process is nicely reflecting the loops and circuits the body consists of.
When a deformation like a movement is imposed on the muscle, changes in the cellular and molecular conformations link the mechanical forces with biochemical signals. Mechanical, electrical, metabolic, and hormonal signals compose the movement, an orchestra that must be well conducted to achieve harmony not to end up in cacophony.
Not only the muscles sinews, connective tissue and cells must collaborate perfectly to make this amazing translatory performance happen. If this is the case, then the muscle cells and their milieu receive the adequate signal patterns that are needed for the build-up, the transformation and multiplication.
Remark 2: Muscles and connective tissue adapt their form and structure to raising demands
Muscle fibers multiply and grow thicker, connective tissue fibers increase, mesh more effectively and become stronger. The number of mitochondria in the muscle cells increase. Buffering systems for protection against free radicals raise their capacity. The vessels also grow. A fine but tight net of blood vessels crosses the healthy muscle. It guarantees an optimal oxygen- and energy supply because of its enormous ability to dynamically adapt the blood flow in the muscle.
All the mentioned processes lead to an increase of our performance and are the well deserved result of training, if we can manage an optimal rhythm between workout and recovery. You experience increasing muscle strength, speed and endurance as well as optimized energy utilization.
Remark 3: Body states you should monitor
Monitoring the quality of sleep, motivation, mood and emotional state, state of mind, extent and duration of fatigue, duration and extent of muscles soreness, appetite, craving for sweets, body weight and temperature sensation can help you to assess your general fitness and well-being. If you have problems to fall asleep or your sleep is fragmented, if you develop mood swings and you are emotionally imbalanced, if you lose the motivation for the training, if your appetite is not good, if you are excessively more tired than usual, if the muscle pains are protracted, if you lose body weight or the contrary you can’t lose weight despite the hard training or if you are highly sensitive to temperature changes – you are sweating when it’s cold or freezing when it’s warm), then it is high time to take a break from training.
My personal comment and plea for Biestmilch
In a condition of inflammation BIESTMILCH works as an anti-inflammatory agent and the growth factors it contains influence the cells’ regeneration. Cell lesions are manifold after intensive training sessions and races. These factors foster e.g. muscle growth, and repair of a disrupted mucosal lining of all outer surfaces be it the gut, the bronchi, or the stomach etc.