To Train or not to Train?

Any regular readers will probably be aware that I’m a big fan of the numbers. Learning about the Scientific side of training is what lead me into studying Sports Science. However it is important to remember that training is also an art. “Listen to your body” is one of the most common phrases tossed around. I always used to dismiss it, vague and hippy sounding was my interpretation. Like many ‘athletes’ I fell into the trap that is the “no pain no gain” philosophy. Having become (slightly) older and wiser, I’ve come to realise what listening to your body involves and that there are days when you need to back off.

Today, I had one such experience. I knew the signs; bad nights sleep, hard session the day before and tired legs. I’m stumped as to why this was, this being the first week of a training mesocycle – coming after a few days of reduced training load. Yesterday I felt brilliant, which is very unusual for an early morning turbo session. According to the numbers I ought to be fine, in fact my training stress balance is still positive after the rest week (i.e. low fatigue and good form). This morning though, a voice in my head was just saying no.

It’s a voice that takes some practice to become attuned to. Hard to distinguish from the one that says “No, I can’t be bothered” when faced with the prospect of a hard training session. I have ignored it before, to my cost. I returned to training too quickly after my first A-priority event last season, leading to a long bout of staleness and ultimately a disappointing performance in my first ever Road Race. It took ten days off, followed by a couple of weeks of returning to base training in order to get back to something resembling full fitness again. Had I simply taken a couple of days more of rest, that big loss of fitness could have been avoided.

Sometimes the numbers need to be ignored. Cycling and for that matter endurance sport in general tends to attract obsessive types (I’d happily count myself among them). It’s an intrinsic motivation that drives us, that inbuilt determination to improve. This iron clad work ethic is both a blessing and a curse, it’s responsible for turning me into a semi-decent rider but needs to be reined in so as to avoid going too far. I’ve written about overtraining before so won’t go into any more detail on it in this post.

So, here is what I have come to understand about the meaning of listening to your body. It doesn’t mean getting 3/4 of the way into an interval, feeling a bit tired and backing off. No doubt hard training sessions should hurt, it’s very difficult to improve just by going easy. Likewise it doesn’t mean getting up and deciding you’d rather go back to bed than do that early morning turbo session – that’s just plain laziness. It’s paying close attention and checking for a few warning signs. In my case I know it’s safe (and good) to train with a bit of soreness in the legs as long as everything else is normal. I’ve gotten into the habit of recording my resting heart rate each morning along with heart rate variability – using this app. If either one of those parameters differs significantly from normal then it’s time to consider an easier day. Not necessarily avoiding training altogether (depending on the severity of the anomaly) – perhaps just swapping in a lower intensity session. Experience has taught me that its best to take an early rest day if I wake up feeling light headed and don’t fancy my breakfast. Focusing on recovery isn’t giving in, it’s smart training.

Training when ill is another big no-no. I’m probably more cautious in this area than most, having a Doctor for a father has given me my fill of horror stories involving worse case scenarios. You’re often advised that it’s okay to train if symptoms are above the neck, and to avoid it if they are below. Trying to train through a cold is another mistake I’ve made in the past, two years ago to be exact. Of course it did more harm than good – another long break. These days I won’t even look at my bike if I happen to catch something. My rule of thumb is to start training again no less than 48 hours after I feel recovered from an illness.

I’m glad I didn’t get on the bike today. Sat here with a splitting headache and heavy feeling limbs, knowing a set of hard intervals would only ever have made it worse. Part of me does feel guilty for missing a session but no doubt it’s beneficial in the long term. The question then – should you listen to your body rather than just looking at the numbers? Absolutely.

Stay tuned.

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