On taking a break

I didn’t really mean to take the kind of break I took. My intention over the winter was to keep blogging, keeping running and cycling at least once a week, and focus on my swimming.

One of those things happened.

I stopped blogging. Obviously. And, as the temperature dropped and the snow drifts grew, my determination to keep running and cycling waned. I did, however, focus on swimming. During the latter portion of the winter (the portion I wasn’t taking off entirely), I was in the pool constantly. Or, at least, it felt that way. And it paid off with PR after PR in the pool. Turns out that swimming hits all my training necessities: intense, plenty of room for improvement, enjoyable, and satisfying. I admit that I briefly considered giving up triathlon all together and just becoming a swimmer.

And a break from running (and maybe even cycling) is exactly what I needed.  By the time I ran my PR at the Thanksgiving 5k last year, I was teetering on the edge of a full-blown burnout. The rare workout that wasn’t a mental battle was still mentally and emotionally draining, as melodramatic as that sounds. I had spent the entire winter the year before training for a marathon. I spent spring and summer training for an Ironman. And I kept training relatively seriously through the fall while aiming for that 5k PR.

So of course I needed a break.

It was both inevitable and surprisingly difficult. I was hitting the point where I would have needed super-human motivation (the likes of which I just didn’t have anymore) to keep training hard. But I also faced some real guilt when I just allowed myself to relax. I was in the best shape of my life, after all. I worried I would lose all of that fitness if I didn’t keep pushing. When you train consistently, aim to perform well, and love PRs, it’s hard to just chill when you’ve still been seeing results.

After a month and a half or so, where I really did just do what I wanted when I wanted to, I dove into my swim training. I attended Masters all three days every week, as well as swimming on my own most of days Masters didn’t meet. As I mentioned, I intended to keep running and cycling a little during this period, but I just didn’t want to. So I didn’t. And, you know, my swimming improved. I hit plenty of milestones (under 30 seconds in the 50 free, 4000 yards in the one-hour swim, and sub-15 [14:34] in the 1000yd time trial, to name a few), and I feel like I made some serious progress towards becoming a Swimmer instead of just a person who swims.

All that while spring (and triathlon season) slowly crept up on me.

It wasn’t long before I couldn’t really ignore the beautiful spring weather and the advancing calendar any more. I had to start running and cycling again. I’ll admit, though, that even then, I was dragging my feet. I briefly regretted signing up for those triathlons because now I felt obligated to do them, despite my lack of excitement about the season.

It didn’t help that, a couple weeks before my training plan officially started, I took a lovely spill during a run (thanks, overly-long-shoelaces-trend!) which left my hand pretty chewed up and kept me off the bike for a few days and out of the pool for a week or so.

So when my first “training week” approached, I was a bit nervous about how I would handle it. The fact that I came down with the worst cold I’ve had all year that very week didn’t help, either. Here I was, after swimming 5-7 hours a week all winter, suddenly doing 8.5 hours of training a week, complete with running, cycling, and lifting weights. But I made it through the first week week. And the next one. Some of my runs were a little painful (going uphill with a nasty cold at a slightly higher elevation than usual after not running regularly for a few months doesn’t exactly make your lungs feel great). My second “long” ride (1.75 hours) was a rude reminder that climbing is hard and that swimming is not great cross training for cycling up hills. I had to push away thoughts of how much fitness I must have lost and force myself not to think about how tired I was after what would have been an easy recovery workout last fall.

But overall, I was surprised at how good I felt. I refused to time myself for the first few weeks in an attempt to quell insecurities around lost fitness and slow paces. I just did my best to enjoy the workouts and get used to the routine again. After a few weeks of training, I’m surprised at how natural it all feels. Though I do kind of miss lazing around with no responsibilities on weekends, it’s been wonderful to get outside again and enjoy my beautiful city.

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This view is literally 8 miles (and a nice bike ride) away from my office.

And, after an initial period of getting used to running and cycling, I do feel refreshed. While I’m still uncertain if I’ll break any PRs this summer or even approach the level of fitness I had during Ironman training, I’m excited about my workouts again. I feel lucky to be running and cycling instead of obligated to do so. And, while I’ve obviously lost fitness and endurance, I’m not nearly as bad off as I feared I would be after my first couple lung-busting jogs.

When I think about how I feel about training now compared to how I felt at the end of November, there’s just no comparison. Despite being in much the same position otherwise (still a little depressed, still binge-watching way too much TV, still struggling to keep up with other “adult” things like cooking and cleaning), my workouts and my routine are making me feel better and not worse. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes dread a steep run into work or that particular section of a climb on my bike or a particularly painful set in the pool. But it’s something I ultimately want to do. It’s not a burden.

Ultimately, I think for me, taking a break was an exercise in trust. The fear around a break (in anything) is that I won’t want to go back, that taking time away from, in this case, running and cycling will make me realize how much better life is without the pressure. But, whaddya know, here I am. It turns out we come back to the things we love, even if we do initially leave feeling burned out and washed up and even if it does take a little motivation to take those first steps out the door or pump up those tires again for the first time.

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Ironman recovery (and some future plans)

Recovering from an Ironman is a strange beast.  It’s been two weeks, and I’m making progress in recovery, but I’m not there yet.

I wasn’t sure what to expect the morning after the Ironman.  After my marathon, I had been so sore I could barely move, despite not running anywhere near my potential.  So I was pleasantly surprised when the soreness was entirely manageable.  Really, I wasn’t much sorer than I was after racing a half marathon (although the soreness did extend to my shoulders and back and wasn’t just concentrated in my legs).  I took a few days off anyway, both because I felt like it and because logistics and travel would have made fitting in a workout hard.

But the Wednesday night after my Ironman, my stiffness was almost completely gone, and I felt ready to test out my body in a workout.  So I went to Masters swim the next morning.  I took the workout very easy.

And I was wrecked for the rest of the day.

I expected my fatigue to stick around longer than my muscle soreness, but I’ll admit that I was taken aback by how exhausted I was after what basically amounted to a 50 minute easy swim.  That’s when I realized that Ironman recovery was going to be quite a bit different from any of my previous experiences recovering from athletic events.

Since then, I’ve tried to relax a bit.  I’ve tried not to jump back into all the things in my daily life.  It’s okay if I don’t get much accomplished with all my free time right away.  I might need a rest day after a hard workout at Masters swim practice.  I don’t need to go climb all the canyons in Salt Lake City right now just because I have the time.  Daily life (with some easy workouts) has been wiping me out.  Every day feels a little bit like that first day you are “better” after an illness.  You are functional, yes, but you are also exhausted after getting home from work.

Still, I’m antsy.  I was certain that my mind would need more of a break than my body.  I thought that I would struggle to find motivation for something new after a year of hard and focused training.  Instead, I’m finding the opposite to be true.  I’m excited about so many things… too many.  I’ll have to make decisions soon about what I want to focus on.

Become a swimmer. I’m strongly considering focusing on swimming this winter.  I’m planning on doing a swim meet in September, and I’d like to do several more.  I’ve made some serious gains in swimming this past year.  But I think there is still some low-hanging fruit for me if I start swimming 4-5 times a week instead of 2-3 times a week.  Plus, I get the feeling that I actually have some talent as a swimmer, and I think it would be beneficial to explore that potential.  I’ve actually been focusing quite a bit on swimming since my Ironman.  So far, it’s been what I’m drawn to.

Learn how to ride fast. The bike is my biggest weakness in triathlon.  I can ride forever, and I’m a relatively strong climber, but I am simply not fast.  I know (essentially) what I need to do to improve my speed—intervals, threshold rides, sprints, anything besides the relatively easy riding that made up the majority of my Ironman training.  I don’t know the granular details about how to approach this goal which makes it intimidating and less exciting… it’s important, though.

Run a sub-20 5k. This is a scary goal that is exciting as it is scary.  I’m certain that I can run a sub-20 5k if I train well enough.  I’m just not sure if it would take more time and effort than I’m willing to put in.  I love triathlon, and I don’t want to put in 15 hours a week running for a goal like this.  My 5k PR is only 21:57, but then, I’ve only run the race twice as an adult.  I may do a bit of a “trial” to see if I think I can feasibly achieve this goal in a few months of focused training before I make my final decision about whether or not to pursue it.

Basically, I’m not sure exactly what the off-season has in store for me.  And I’m okay with that.  I plan on taking a little more time “off,” where I do what I want when I want and where the most important statistic I track is how many Halloween Oreos I can eat. After all, I’ve been training with laser focus for a pretty long time.  I need a break, whether I feel like I do or not.  As I continue to do what sounds fun, I’ll see what I get excited about.  I’ll keep attending Masters swim, go to some track workouts with the Salt Lake Tri Club, and do some interval work on the bike.  And I’ll see what sticks!

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So. Many. Oreos.