With triathlon racing season upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, most of you are probably well on your way to your first starting line of the year. You successfully made it through another off-season and your build phase is either in full-swing or possibly even completed. But now is the time when doubts start creeping into your head, likely because you are feeling fatigued after some of your recent, more difficult sessions. This period of fatigue is a normal and vital component to physiological change.
If you stayed on course during winter and early spring, even with some deviations, and completed at least 70 to 80 percent of your training plan (or of what you intended to do), I guarantee you that the form will find you in time for your race. This one magic day, seemingly same as any other, you will go out for your usual run and suddenly feel light and fit and strong. You will tear apart all your splits for the last three months and you will do it with a lower heart rate. Congratulations: You have just made a qualitative leap in your form.
What does it mean in terms of physiology? Well, it means that your lactate curve shifted right and maybe even downward. The longer and flatter your lactate curve is, like the “marathoner” one in this graphic, the longer and faster you can perform in the aerobic state. You can run the same distance (or even more) faster and at a lower heart rate. This adaptation is the Holy Grail of endurance training, and it takes time.
In order to induce this adaptation we need to train consistently. We need to exercise regularly and with built-in progression. Most importantly, we need to have quality recovery times, because adaptation happens when we rest. My Russian track coach used to say: “When it hurts, it grows” but of course now we know better.
Yes, form follows fatigue, so things will get worse before they get better. We need to get tired, sometimes even exhausted. But not every workout has to be an exhaustive one, this is the recipe for injury and burn-out. We need to have easy days and hard days, in perfect balance. And even a hard training day should not be a killer one. Mostly we need an effort just intense enough so that we can recover from it after a solid eight to nine hours of sleep. If two days after the training you are still feeling fatigued, then you need to scale back to allow for adaptation. You earned kudos for mental toughness, but your muscles are really unhappy and you definitely burned some form matches.
And here is the good news: If you follow a consistent, reasonably intensive and gently progressive training routine during the early season, right about now is when you should start to feel your form taking shape. A two hour run becomes doable, your 4km swims are no longer a challenge, and you can start to feel the upward progression that you are on. Pat yourself on the back, because you have fought well in the “months of fatigue” and are now ready for the most important period of training to begin. Now your training becomes specific and targeted to your priority “A” race. Congratulations to you—and happy training!
Next time you get tired—remember it is serving a purpose, because form always follows fatigue.