Thursday, 16 March 2017

7 months and still counting

As we get further into the new year I witness fellow athletes starting their early racing season and some of them having big events already under their belt whilst I have only recently entered my base training phase. I have had to be very patient this winter and most of the time I have felt I was taking one step forward and 3 steps back. Close to tears I have entered my physio's treatment room week after week wondering if I ever would feel like half the athlete I was ever, again. He said to be patience as I  persistently carried out the exercises prescribed, trying to stay positive. The Swiss ball had definitely taken the boredom out of doing core work and to the entertainment of my dog Fynn I managed to fall of it frequently. He saw this as an opportunity to lick me back to shape! Reluctantly I had to cut my running down from running every day (40-50kms week), to running two, three times a week, (45 min) max as slow as I possibly could.
longing to run fast again
If I wanted to ride long with friends it meant I had to make sure I had a rest week at either end of the ride with no intensity allowed. It was certainly a challenge for my ego, as my friends sprinted off to chase strava segments and beat each other up the hill, I had to let them go and watch them disappear into small dots on the horizon. A steep learning curve in being patient.
Although I could not train over winter, adventures were never far away

Last week I walked into my physio's treatment room with the least amount of pain I have experienced for a long time. When Dave tested my nerve function and spine flexibility I got excited. There was a big improvement!! The pain was now very localised revealing a small musculoskeletal problem in my high hamstring but I could deal with that. Running was still a big cause of pain but on the bike I could now ride at a pace which would not cause me much discomfort. For the first time in a long 6 months I felt like I was finally getting somewhere and with the OK from Dave I was ready to enter the next and first phase of structured training, being allowed to do some tempo sets. Finally!
Ashmei team mate Owain and I after a social run
I have never been the most patient person, which is probably an understatement, I want everything achieved and  preferably yesterday. I like to work hard and am someone who needs to constantly be working on something to see that progress. Sitting back and watching it unfold is just not in my nature. I want to live, not just exist. Needless to say I don't do injury very well and I have always pushed myself through injuries and sickness never giving my body time to heal, trying to squeeze every little amount of energy out of it all year around. Until it broke.
Riding with the pure purpose of enjoyment

I think most of us athletes want to train hard over the winter, the off season is the time where we don't have to worry about tapering and recovering around races. The time to improve, time to put in the mileage. I certainly had that approach, believing volume was key in my development as an athelete and trained long hours week in week out- in crazy winter weather conditions. I did not care if I was tired or sore, I would battle on even if the legs were barely coping. Quantity was huge, quality not so much. This year had been very different for me, partly because I was forced to stop due to injury and partly because I started to learn more about what worked and did not work for me as an athlete. I read blogs written by international coaches particularly articles written by triathlete coach Brett Sutton who holds the believe that many athletes over-train in the off season. Needing 12 weeks to get race fit and only 8-9 weeks staying at peak race fitness, athletes are left more mentally and physically fatigued at a time it actually starts counting if they have put in the long hours over the winter months.
I trained endless hours during the winter months

I started talking to other people who burned the candle on both sides like I did and realised I was definitely not alone in my stupidity! I decided that since I was not allowed any volume or intensity it was a good time to book in a skills course on the MTB. Crazy to think that in the 4 years of racing at a descent level, I only ever had done one skills course ever before!
I teamed up with Rab Wardell from Dirtschool where we spent an afternoon on the trails of Glentress and with a few simple tips and bike handling exercises, he changed my riding significantly. Instead of gunning it down hoping for the best on the downhills, I was now much more in control -picking good lines and riding with purpose. We spoke a lot about training volume and the temptation to overdo it. This helped me in the decision that he would be the perfect coaching match to keep me in line.
Practicing what I learned from Rab!

I  also decided to get a proper bike fit which I felt was really important to minimize the stress put on my back and to keep my nerves happy. Through Rab I was put in touch with James McCallum and Morgan Floyd from Whatisyourmeta and booked in for a bike fit and a full performance and injury prevention screening. This involved lots of little strength tests of different muscle groups which really showed where my injury had affected the strength in my left leg. Encouragingly it also confirmed I was on the path of recovery. I was given lots of little tips to improve my position on the bike all with the aim of attaining maximal power output with minimal physical strain. Money well spent- and I wish I had done this a long time ago. But better late than never!!
simply enjoying the trails with friends

With a positive attitude I travelled to Aviemore to tag along Naomi Freireich in the (wo)man of porridge, a MTB orienteering event organised by the awesome Lee Craigee and the women behind the Adventure Syndicate. There were a lot of firsts going into this weekend, I had only met Naomi the week before after an Australian friend of mine tagged me in a blog post she had written. Since we were both in Edinburgh and had the same interests he thought we would make a great match and he was spot on!! After a pot of thee, many adventures were in the making of which the Bowl of Porridge was held the following week. My orienteering skills were next to nothing, and when I mentioned to my colleagues at work what my plans were for the weekend they said their goodbyes not expecting me to re-surface knowing I was capable to getting lost in my own office. It was not only my first race for 2017 but also my first real hard session on the MTB since June last year. All in all I was s little nervous joining Naomi having no idea how it would all pan out. The goal was to have fun and fun we definitely had!! I was surprised to find I had some power in my legs, and with a little endurance in my body it took 40kms to run out of steam (with only another 30kms to go)!! But more than anything my back was cooperating and my sciatic nerve behaved the best it had done for a good 12 months. Lack of fitness I could handle but I was super excited no other physical problems raised their ugly heads! Naomi and I did the worst job in orienteering but the best job in making up lost time by riding as possessed demons through the Aviemore woods completing slightly nutty tasks like climbing a rope tower multiple times and roping our bikes over angry rivers. We had a blast. A great way to celebrate my massive step forward in recovery, riding bikes with great people, lots of smiles on endless trails in the beautiful Cairngorms.
Happy days

 "Your not out of the woods yet" were the words of my physio meaning "don't go crazy" and I only have to go for a little run to know I am not fixed yet. But after having ridden in pain for a good 3 years to finally be able to put a bit of power down on my pedals without anticipating discomfort was such a huge step in the right direction,  the upshot was that it made me feel a little bit like an athlete again.
still dreaming off pain free runs but it will happen!

 I have spent the last 7 months without any structured training or volume, I was probably the least fit I had been in the last 5 years.   And at the same time was also the most excited I had been about getting back into training I in the last 5 years. Every little improvement was noticeable which was an exciting feeling. It felt like I was starting from scratch all over again. And even though part of me worried I would never be as strong as I once was, the other part was excited to see how much difference smart training could make for me. People often say "you will come out of it so much stronger" comforting injured athletes and for the first time I started to actually believe it. Over the last long 7 months I had the opportunity to go back to the basics. Taking racing, competition, power and pacing completely out of the occasion, I had to go back to where I started, go back to what made me fall in love with the sport in the first place.
Rob's big day's out always turned into an epic!
For me it had never been about the chase of the podium, and in the last 7 months I was reminded that I didn't need a race to be happy on my bike, during a run or swim session. What I loved about racing and training was the improvement I found within myself, becoming the best possible athlete I could possibly be. I probably learned more in the last 7 months minimal moving and surrounding myself with sporting souls on crazy adventures, than in the last 4 years training and racing with slightly OCD athletes. Don't get me wrong I am super excited I am allowed to become a little OCD with my training again and Rab will have to keep me in tow because it is a huge part of my driven personality.

 To sum up, if I could give some tips to my younger self on how to approach the winter off season it would be this

1.Work on skills rather than volume in all three sports, focussing on small details will make the biggest improvements
2. Work on core and get strong, as boring it might seem, it does prevent injury
3. Find out weaknesses (in all areas) and turn them into strengths
4. Learn about your equipment and adjust to perfection together with qualified people such as physio's, bike mechanics, coaches (your body is an tool also)
5. Knowledge is power;worse than doing it wrong is not knowing you are doing it wrong.
6. Last but not least, find your passion, go and venture with friends, without objectives, just for the simple joy of being outside with great people, it is what brings the fight back and heals the soul.

Life is made for good friends and great adventures

Photo credit : Charlie Lees

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