Monday, January 24, 2011

Whew..... and the on-going balancing act

A long time ago, I read an article that described the differences between 'exercising' and 'training'. In short, the goals of 'exercising' are to stay in shape. To maintain or at the most, gradually improve fitness. 'Training' on the other hand, seeks to maximize the rate at which fitness improves. To that end, athletes that are training, pretty much always feel slightly fatigued. The trick is to not be too fatigued. It's a daily subjective call that we sometimes get wrong.

In short, you are often balancing that fine thread between the greatness of a plateau breakthrough and the disaster of over-training or worse; injury.

Taking into account that in running, one week's breakthrough can actually be at the price of an injury that surfaces days later and you see why most runners are so neurotic about all the twinges and tweaks we feel from week to week. Is that little wince in your right big toe joint just a tweak from a past workout that will be gone (and replaced with something else) tomorrow? Or is it the start of a gradually worsening chronic pain accompanies by weeks and sometimes months of trouble-shooting, rest (i.e. lost fitness) and frustration. Walk too far on the conservative side, and you'll be unlikely to win a race or consistently place. Step over the edge and you're couch fodder for the next 6 weeks.

This past week was such a source of elation and worry. The week before last I was running negative split intervals at speeds I hadn't confidently run before. I capped off the week with a long run that finished strong with 6x100m wind sprints up a steep hill. Simply put, I felt like I was hauling.

Monday of this week I felt great and put in another strong effort on Tuesday at the track, hitting solid splits lap after lap. But by the end of that workout, I noticed a little twinge in my outside left thigh. Uh-oh...

By the end of an easy 5 miler on Wed, it had landed in my left hip flexor (the thigh was most likely referred pain). And that's when I started worrying. Having been through the drill, I stretched and massaged and rested in between. On Thursday's pace run it was better, but after Friday's easy 6 miler it was back and achy for the rest of the day. And that's when the worries started creeping in.

You go through a bunch of stages - denial, rationalization of why you can't be injured, trying to figure out what you did wrong and realizing that you didn't do anything wrong, worry about what tomorrow will bring and an impatience to see what it actually does bring. On the way to the fridge you twist funny here or there to test the area. You might even run a little jog or go through the motions of a running stride to figure out what you can and can't do. And then when it does start to subside, it's mentally 'there' for a long time after the physical side has gone.

So for Saturday I decided to trade in my 6 mile easy run for my magical recovery solution - a bike ride.

For me, the bike is the ultimate physical therapy tool. My body responds to it like it's some sort of mystical elixir. Physiologically I think it's that when I ride, my body is totally relaxed in the saddle. It feels like such a natural position for me to be in after decades of riding. The joints in particular are all suspended from the usual pounding of hitting the road, but still get the advantage of aerobic blood flow, bathing the joint in the body's natural rejuvenation components of well oxygenated blood. By the end of the 23+ miles (including 1600 ft of climbing and a particularly gnarly 35+ mph head-wind for 4 miles of the return loop) I felt like a million dollars.

On Sunday I had a 12 miler on the plan with a couple miles at the end at 1/2 marathon pace. I ran around Chatfield reservoir. Starting out and throughout my run, it was 'there', but no real pain or twinges. I also recognized that if I just let my hip open up on my stride a bit, then it felt better. It was during that playing around with my form that I realized running on the snow and ice of the past few weeks (especially the 10K race I did on it), probably caused me to run a little 'in the bucket' or with my hips tense and closed up a bit.

At the end of the run I went through an extensive stretching process and even stopped in the last mile to do sets of push-ups and additional hip flexor stretching along the side of the road. My hip felt great by the end of the run and this morning - it's like it was never hurt. Just as strangely as it appeared, it's now gone again.

So - 'WHEW' goes me, until the next time I step a little too far off the balancing wire.

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