TRAINING: My detraining

Recently I started reading through the essential physiological text-book "Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning", published by Human Kinetics, known for their scholarly tomes ("Lore of Running" being the most famous among runners.

I originally picked it up to learn everything about strength training since I had a lot of time on my hands while out injured and thought I wanted to perfect this cross-training method for later use with my running.

Back in the Fray
As readers may know, I was given the all clear by doctor John Murphy of the Carysfort Clinic this last Friday, and I restarted my training programme this week. I'm not completely of the woods yet, there is still some sensation in the heel (no pain, however) and I will have to report back to the clinic in a month to see how I'm progressing.

I've tried to do the sensible thing and structured a 52-week training programme, targetting peak performances from mid-June to late August next year, hopefully allowing me my best performances in key Leinster League races, the Trials, and Snowdon.

While shorter cycles can be done, I want to build true fortitude this time to persist injury-free through gruelling and punishing training phases. All evidence points to a longer base phase providing just such an effect, especially on novice runners like myself.

Putting the Brakes On
Whatever talents I was given, unlimited injury-resistance was not one of them. Its reasonable to assume I was given some. After all I prevailed through a fiery first season with 45 races completed and only minor niggles to show. Once I pushed beyond that, however, no genetic advantages could save me.

It's widely believed today that one of the key genetic trademarks of elite athletes is the ability to recover quickly and assimilate huge amounts of training with little backlash. While this is undoubtedly true (to the woe of those gifted with all running talents except that injury-resistance), a gradual approach will increase every runners ability to absorb training.

Your maximal training threshold, that is the maximal punishment you were born to withstand, won't change, but clever training will get you there in one piece.The alternative became clear to me as the injury persisted. To continue on the track I had followed thus far would have lead to ever-more injuries. Whatever potential was given to me would have been wasted.

What's Detraining?
So I got better medical advice, which finally convinced me to seek orthotics and take more than three months completely off running. The longest break I'd had since my hill running started in earnest in 2006.

There's a price to pay for this curative path, however, and it's called de-training. In many ways, it's the opposite of the more well-known concept "overtraining". Both lead to the same end: decreased performance, one through too much training and another through to little, thus illustrating effectively that the body needs to stay within a certain range of equilibrium to improve.

The aforementioned book "Essentials of Strenght Training and Conditioning" has an interesting paragraph about this phenomenon, and here's a highlight:

"Detraining is the cessation of anaerobic training or a substantial reduction in frequency, volume, intensity, or any combination of those three variables that results in decrements in performance and loss of some of the physiological adaptations associated with resistance training. The magnitude of strength loss depends on the length of the detraining period and the training status of the individual. Detraining may occur in as few as two weeks and possibly sooner in well-trained individuals." (Baechle & Earle 2008)

The authors go on to remark that recreationally trained men see very little detraining during the first six weeks of detraining while implying that it goes much faster for elite athletes. On the flipside strength reattainment is high, and this is a factor that seems to support Tim Noakes' "Central Governor Theory" by suggesting that most performance loss is from neural mechanisms. Muscle memory, in other words, remain, and allows trained individuals to return faster "to the fray".

Note that the book focuses on anaerobic and strength training, but these same concepts hold sway for aerobic training, speed, etc.

Effects of Detraining
These are some factors that cause detraining in addition to the neural mechanisms:

  • Muscle girth decreases
  • Reduction of muscle fibre size
  • Reduction of capillary density
  • Increase in Body Fat %
  • Decrease in aerobic enzymes
  • Fall in short-term endurance
  • Reduction of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max)
  • Decreased mitochondrial density
Perversely an aerobically detrained individual who does anaerobic exercise (for instance weights) would often have more strength and power than before resuming aerobic exercise. This is due to an antagonistic relationship between the adaptations caused by anaerobic and aerobic exercise where one can reduce the benefits of others.

What this means for me in practice is that I'll be able to gain less strength when I resume full running than I did in my non-running period, and that I must choose my strength training carefully so I don't cause physiological adaptations detrimental to running. Studies have shown that proper rest period between sessions, reduces the antagonistic effects of combining aerobic and anaerobic training, so keep that in mind if you want to combine strength training and running.

Testing for Detraining
Finding out exactly how detrained I have become over the last 3 months was a critical exercise for me. Trying to return to running at my previous level would obviously be futile (and impossible), but much worse an attempt to approximate it would push me straight into an overtraining/injury cycle.

So I used the Target Pace Level system provided by Matt Fitzgerald in "Brain Training for Runners" to estimate where I would possible be. I looked at:

TPL 26:
The speeds here seemed to match my performance when I was at my very fastest (it matched my 18:48 5k). In truth, I have been in better shape than I was at the time, so could have been as low as 24-25.
TPL 32: This matched my 3:18 marathon pace from a year ago.

It was pretty easy to deduct the rest. I certainly wasn't as fit as before the marathon anymore, but I had become a much stronger runner since then. So I went with the assumption that I was no longer a 26, and not even a 32, but couldn't have regressed too far beyond that.

I looked at the times for 33 and they didn't seem too unrealistic even for a "detrained me", so for the moment I base my target paces for sessions on that. If all goes well, you can increase 1 TPL every 4-8 weeks. I'm choosing to be extremely optimistic and want to hit TPL21 by the end of my 52-week cycle. This would give me the speed for a 35:50 10k, which is where I want to be in a year.

To get more precise data, however, I have bought the MiBody Analyzer, the most advanced scale on the market. Preliminary tests show that I have gained about 8kilos and increased my bodyfat from 8% to 12.4% over the last months. This is actually good news, as simply dropping most of this extra weight, especially the fat, will result in "free speed". My optimal racing weight seems to be between 65-67kilos. I need to do a few more calibrations and weighing early in the mornings, however, before I get a really reliable figure.

Getting Started
So I took on my work gloves this Tuesday and started out with a 36min base run (run at 5:20km/min pace) and a one-hour weights/core session after. Monday is my rest day every week at the moment, so the week started nice and easy.

Wednesday was my first key workout and I had a happy reunion with Ticknock where I did a 14 minute warmup and 17 min cooldown with a 5x30sec hill sprints sandwiched in between

It was great to be back in the hills and felt good to be sprinting up, even if I relayed on short-burst speed.

Thursday I had scheduled a short base run, but I moved this to the weekend to allow for a longer Sunday hill run with Aoife, and only did another weights/core session.

Friday was my second key-workout, doing 8x30sec fartleks interspersed over 28min of base running. I hit some decent speed during this workout and was quite satisfied with it.

Saturday was the third key workout, probably the hardest, after 10min warmup, I did a 25min marathon pace run. I had planned to go around in 4:46min/km, but started a bit too hard on the first kilometre (4:32) and two bad kilometres and a strong headwind meant I only performed the session at 4:57. While there was mitigating circumstances it shows that I may be as close to TPL34 as I am to TPL33. I cooled down with another 5 minutes of running. After a relaxing day, I did my third weights session of the week.

Tomorrow is the weekly long run in the hills, and I have 66minutes left of running to do this week.

So far the foot is responding well, but the real tests lie ahead. Apart from week 4 (my periodisation week) in my 52 week programme, week 1 is the easiest of all.

Generally, though, the next 4 weeks will be easy, and my estimated mileage for the weeks will only amount to 41km-46km-50km and 40km respectively. For comparison weeks 13-16 include 66-70-84 and 63 (this concludes the Base phase) while the peak of the Intensity phase (weeks 25-28) includes a monstrous 89-116-139-81 mileage per week. The last figures are slightly overstated as my calculator doesn't take into account the lower speed used during floats, active recoveries or complete rest.

In any case, it's good to be back and I have a super-exciting training programme to look forward to. I'll make the Excel file available once I've polished it off. It's a much simplified version of my original sheets (which simply grew out of hand) but still a pretty comprehensive one that perhaps my serve as inspiration for some people out there.