The Value Of Sleep

An performance enhancer I’m hoping to work on happens to also be one of the more under-used out there.

I’m talking about sleep, of course.

As I get older and take up new levels of athleticism, I’m learning that sleep is much more than just maintenance, or a nightly necessity.

As anyone who has recently parented young children, worked alternating shifts, or pulled an all-nighter can tell you, the brain has a pretty hard time functioning on little-to-no sleep. As it turns out, so does the body that carries that brain .

Professional athletes nap. They do this not just because their travel schedules tend to short them on night-time sleep, or because a post-game dinner might take place at 10pm, but also because the restorative properties of sleep benefit them in their performance. Whether it’s healing from a particularly tough workout, or series thereof, or just allowing a tired body to recoup a little further, a nap supplementing a night’s sleep can work wonders for their muscles, connective tissues, and all those systems in the body that make them the elite athletes they are.

We’ve all heard by now that getting enough sleep can prevent weight gain, too. As I learned all too well back when I had untreated sleep apnea, a tired body commands food to stay awake. A person gets used to feeding themselves carbs just to stay awake — and usually, that includes a lot of sugar. To make it worse, too little sleep can be correlated with insulin resistance. You can shove yourself full of caffeine and sugar,  to stay awake, but it’s not doing your body or mind any favours.

I’ve long thought that of us humans, there are those who can nap, and those who can not. Just ask your friends, and you’ll see there are two camps of people — those who rave about the nap, and those who wish they could.

Nappers can grab a nap, long or short, coffee or not, and wake up feeling energized and refreshed. Us non-nappers, however, have a much harder time waking up from a nap and getting going again. I love the idea of a nap, but unless I’m sick or have a booming migraine (which is essentially the same thing), I’ve just not been a napping kind of a person. Non-nappers often feel worse after a nap than we did heading into it — groggy, dopey and grumpy.

Sometimes, when I’m particularly tired I’ll lay down on the bed or couch and chill out for 10 to 20 minutes. Even if closing my eyes for a few minutes in that time doesn’t actually include sleeping, it can be rejuvenating to pause for even this short period of time. The trick, of course, is getting up to get going again.

In my relatively cushy, serene life — working a day job, commuting just 20 minutes each way, and living life without children — I get about 7 hours of sleep a night. Sometimes more, sometimes a bit less. On weekends, I might luck out and catch a longer sleep, if not a sleep-in.

I realize that this means I’m only getting the minimum of sleep recommended to stay healthy and function well. I’m fortunate that the sleep quality is pretty good most nights, especially now that I’ve chased back the sleep apnea.

But when I’m pushing my body hard to perform for a duathlon race season, ie from late-April to mid-September, I should give it a little more restoration time.

And so, late this summer, I undertook to nap.

Well, it’s good I tried, but in truth, I successfully did it twice. On the bright side, I felt like a million bucks each time. Turns out when you’re absolutely dog-tired and run down, even a non-napper’s body will wake up from a nap in a better state than it went in.

It’s not like there’s much time to spare for naps — after work, I head home, dealing with daily household administration (aka errands and walking the dog) and then proceed to my workout. At best, I have 15 minutes to chill out before the workout. Barring the acquisition of a napping desk, I’m not going to get much room in my current schedule to rest up.

I’m hoping to get into some morning workouts over the offseason, which will give me more time to live a little after work — and that will certainly include naps. On weekends, I can definitely stand to squeeze in more time to rest and restore. Certainly on race days, I should be trying to grab a bit of sleep in the afternoon to let my body recuperate — and make up for a sleepless night before the race morning I just had.

The internets, of course, have drowned us all in conflicting information about what constitutes the perfect nap — make it long, keep it short, sleep immediately after a shot of espresso, or only before a certain time of day, or only on a couch or only in a bed. So a person might be fooled into worrying that they had to know more and follow rigid guidelines in order to nap effectively. Rubbish, I say.

So next year, time to aim higher and shoot for more napping. In the meantime, I’m trying to ensure that my 7 hours of sleep a night is consistent, or even heading towards 8.  And as the days get shorter and colder this fall, and the fireplace gets lit, I’m sure a cozy nap or two will also manifest. Or at least I hope so.



Down Time: Whether I Chose It Or Not!

With my 2015 duathlon season wrapped up, I’m trying to take a few weeks to recuperate and recover. Or I thought I was.

This season started with an SI joint/IT Band uprising in my right leg. My left foot decided to play dirty too, and let me tell you, metatarsalgia is no fun in a sport that requires running as much as duathlon. Add in some random hip flexor pulls and calf/achilles strains, and a guy might well think it’s time to rest for a while.

However, a week of rest is about all I could manage. Leading up to the final two races, Guelph Lake II September 5 and Lakeside on September 12, all I could think about was how much I wanted to not be training for a few weeks. I pledged to take a couple of weeks off.

And the first week, I did. After Lakeside, I put away my gear and kept it put away. I did my physio, got massage, walked a lot, did my usual strength training, and even started yoga — which I really need to counteract and support the rigors of run-bike-run. I signed up for a gym membership — a first, as I’ve been using my home gym for years — so that I can keep up the yoga and cross-train and train all winter without going insane in my basement or on the 200m indoor track north of town.

Not bad, eh?

After that week off, I actually had a spring in my step. So I went for a run on Saturday, and while it wasn’t great, it was nice to be out and not thinking about pace. Actually, I was occasionally thinking about pace — of course I was — but I kept making myself let it go, and actually let myself run some over 5:10 kilometres. My foot was cranky, my hips were sluggish, and as it turns out, I was getting a migraine — but it was fun to just go for a run and make a sport of dodging drunk university students on their way to Homecoming.

Sunday, I took advantage of the gorgeous weather and did a short ride, covering 40k completely disregarding my pace and heart rate. My foot and legs felt great, my head was clear, and I spent a good part of the ride just admiring the splendor of southwestern Ontario in the last days of summer.

Monday brought more physio and my strength training, with an eye to resting Tuesday, biking Wednesday, and possibly running up to yoga on Thursday.

But Tuesday intervened.

I know my body isn’t healed, but apparently it’s also still strained. On my way home last night from watching our friends’ daughter play basketball at the neighbourhood high school, I sprang forward off the curb to cross a busy street in a traffic gap, and immediately felt something pop behind my knee — or somewhere between the calf and hamstring, anyway. Excruciating, and completely shocking.

I hobbled home, and have been hobbling since. The pain is bad, even 24 hours later, and I’ll clearly have to get this checked out in one way or another.

So instead of riding today on a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon, I was cursing my tired legs. Instead of running to yoga tomorrow, I’ll be doing more of what I hate — nothing.

A frustrating conclusion to a frustrating season. But the lesson I’m taking from this is something along the lines of:

A. I knew I needed a break, but I’m not very good at taking breaks. A week off felt enormous, and luxurious, but I should have trusted my first instinct and extended the rest. While the run Saturday and bike Sunday felt fine, they were apparently too much for a tired body. And to think I was planning more of that.

B. I suck at being injured. I’m in such a foul mood right now that I feel I should be quarantined. Kudos to the ever patient Chef d’équipe, who not only insists on ice/Advil/rest, but also makes a real effort to reassure me. The worst of it is not knowing what this is — a knee or hamstring or calf injury. We’re obviously hoping for one of the latter two. I have had some bad strains before that felt like they’d take weeks to heal but were okay after a three or four days, but this one feels like something that won’t be iced away.

C. My house has too many stairs. As I’ve said all summer — and last summer too — there are far too many stairs in this place to handle with sore legs. A person has to really plan their trips to minimize the ups and downs! Of course the previous inhabitant was a 90+ year old woman on her own, so I have no pride in saying that I wish I lived in a bungalow, and not a three-story red brick with high ceilings and therefore even more stairs between floors.

So in any case, it’s a forced rest this week, and we’ll see what the coming week brings. For now, the challenge is mental — keeping myself positive, and letting rest be a good thing, rather than fearing that it will lead to a loss of fitness, obesity, or a life of sloth.

Ride Like The Wind

I shaved off my beard tonight. It’s been about three years since I last rocked the clean-shaven face, and although I had thought to shave it off nearer the start of the summer, I just never got to it.

As I was finishing up, more than a little relieved to see that I don’t have an atrocious tan line from having a beard all summer, I realized one of the first questions I would get tomorrow will likely be whether I did it to be faster in my upcoming race.

The easy answer is “no”. I really just felt like a change. I’ll grow back the beard over the coming months, but for now, the baby face is back.

However, it does bring to mind the neverending debate on whether shaving faces or legs (or even arms) can make for a faster cyclist. Because, well, cyclists will do just about anything to get faster, including that.

The good folks at Specialized have not only developed their own wind tunnel (or as they call it, the Win Tunnel), but they’re happy to answer questions such as these while they’re in between sessions developing faster bikes.

So enjoy the following — as well as the other Win Tunnel clips. They’re fun for even the mildest cycling geek.

Nothing About This Is Predictable

All set up to race -- in terms of equipment, at least. Mentally, not quite.

All set up to race — in terms of equipment, at least. Mentally, not quite.

I’ve alluded to it before, and I’ve discussed it at length with many people: nothing in racing is predictable. This might be truest of racing in the endurance disciplines, if only because there’s that much more time and distance in which things can happen — or not happen, as the case may be.

Today’s race, the Subaru/Trisport Canada series’ Guelph Lake II Sprint Duathlon, is one I did last year as well. As I prepped for the race this week, I looked at last year’s times — splits for the runs and bike, as well as overall results — and devised a goal to shave a few minutes off that. No goal for placing in my age group, as this race is huge in terms of participants, and I’m am realistic that I’m not that good that I’d place top 3 among 20 to 25 other guys my age. Loosely speaking, I hoped to place a bit better overall than last year, but thinking that I should focus on myself and not the competition, my primary focus was on bettering times.

What I didn’t remember is that any race goal is subject to the whims of Mother Nature, fate, and the race organization.

I woke up this morning, race day, with a grumble in my guts. Not race day nerves, just something not sitting right. After a couple of trips to the loo I took an insurance Immodium, and grabbed a strip of more pills to bring along. Breakfast was a chore to eat, but I choked down most of it, forgoing only my usual banana.

The other thing I woke up with, though, was a serious lack of focus. At my last race, Orillia, I was loose, confident, and focused the day before and the morning of. Today, I couldn’t settle my mind into any sort of groove. Even my hardest hitting psych up songs didn’t get me there in the car on the way.

I won’t bore you with all the race details, but I will say this. Several times during my race, I harkened the blog post of Cody Beals, a fairly new pro triathlete, who shared his coaches’ wisdom that “You don’t have to feel good to race well”. My first run was fine, though it felt slow. Both transitions were pretty slow, due to my own slowness and some funny equipment bobbles, but also, I suspect, some bad luck-of-the-draw on rack placement — affecting all the duathletes. The bike ride, my favourite leg, was slow and arduous, lacking my usual power and completely without my killer instinct. The second run was hot, hard, and a complete uphill mental battle.

Many times today, many times indeed, I reminded myself that I was fit enough to finish. I also channeled memories of my younger brother, to whom I had dedicated this very race last year, as it was the day before what would have been his 30th birthday. With what he endured in his lifetime dealing with serious medical issues, my minor discomforts in a race like this are nothing at all. He couldn’t quit, so why would I?

Cheered on by campers at their campsites, volunteers at aid stations, and onlookers there for their own racers, I both mentally and physically limped my way to the finish line. With my wife and friends cheering so loud I could hear them over everyone else, I could ignore the heat, ignore the pain in my foot, forget that I was out of juice, and power up for a final 250m sprint to the finish.

Finishing Guelph Lake II in 1:44:27. At first I felt bad that it was slower than last year. Then I realized that was sort of stupid.

Finishing Guelph Lake II in 1:44:27. At first I felt bad that it was slower than last year. Then I realized that was sort of stupid.

My first feelings after finishing today were, mistakenly, disappointment. It was a gruelling race, and I did not succeed, I thought, because I hadn’t been able to push myself as hard as I wanted to do. I didn’t beat last year’s race time, my only “hard” goal for the day. And it hadn’t felt anywhere near as good as the last couple of races I did.

But I do see that those were mistaken first impressions.

We can’t compare our races year to year — even the same races — in a clean overlay. While my overall race time was actually a minute slower this year, my run times were better. My bike time was slower by about a half km per hour, but given it’s my fourth race of the year, and last year I capped it on three, I know the legs are tired. While my transitions were slow due to some bobbling of shoes and helmet, it also had to do with rack placement, which I don’t control, and being out of breath, which just points to a need for more training on my part. And I could not have predicted before today that I’d be so seriously lacking energy due to whatever had upset my gut first thing this morning.

I read something pertinent on another endurance athlete’s blog that has stuck with me, but sometimes requires a reminder. You can never, ever count on consistent times, splits, or results between races, even the exact same race year to year. There are too many variables in weather, the field of competitors who do or don’t show up, your own health on race day, and in minor changes to the course.

And today, I admit, was a good reminder of this. So from the initial feelings of disappointment I had upon looking back at my time on the finish line clock, I’ve arrived here.

I placed 25 of 152 registered athletes in this race. That’s no small feat for a guy in his second season of duathlon, a guy who was, four years ago, clinically obese, who even three years ago had never run more than 7km, and had never ridden a road bike.

Despite a foot injury, not to mention the related lack of run training, this year I topped my run splits from last year’s race. And despite not feeling 100%, racing in absurdly hot and humid conditions, I finished, and finished in the top 20% of a big field.

Today, I gave it my all. Just as I have in other races, just as I will continue to do. Sometimes that “all” feels good, and sometimes it feels like “all” isn’t coming as it should. Sometimes it results in better times, and sometimes, in better standings. Sometimes, it’s just what you have to give to finish.

What makes me proud is that I completed my fourth race this year, and damn that goal I had set for beating my time of last year. I should have known better. I realise that 25th overall might, in some sports, be not so much to be proud of. But this year, under these conditions, and in this sport, it’s a tremendous thing to be proud of.

So to the Cody Beals adage above, a slight addition.

You don’t have to feel good to race well, but you damn well ought to feel good about your race afterwards. And if you don’t feel good about your race, despite racing well, do a double-check. There’s probably a lot to feel good about.

Groovin’ The Pre-Race Groove

I absolutely love the week before a race. Aside from the tapering woes I described here, of course. This week in particular was a whole lot of fun, as I took a bit of a “sport first, all-else second” approach.

This week was, of course, a surprise pre-race week, as it was only last Saturday that I changed my plans and decided to race at Guelph Lake II. I did a hard brick workout Saturday, changed my plans to incorporate the final two sprint races, and immediately launched into pre-race prep and tapering.

This also meant scheduling a few extra appointments I’d otherwise have waited on — namely lining up for cancellation slots at the massage clinic (fighting for time with the very popular Patrick Stiles, RMT) and with the pedorthist for another orthotics adjustment. Physio was already booked, thankfully!

This week has without a doubt been all about athletic wellness:

  • Saturday: 5/32/3km run-bike-run brick
  • Sunday: Rest (2x dog walks)
  • Monday: Drop off bike for badly needed tune-up and new tires; noon go for physio on foot; evening 60 minutes weights/gym, then 50 minutes hockey
  • Tuesday: Orthotics adjustment, rest (1x dog walk)
  • Wednesday: Morning 7km run; after work pick up bike at shop, get skates sharpened, then to sports massage clinic for 1 hour massage entirely on legs (make that 75% right leg, 25% left leg)
  • Thursday: Lunchtime 25km bike ride (to beat the forecast t-storms after work!); evening light stretching & core work, install new cleats on bike shoes
  • Friday: Rest (longer dog walk to stay limber); pack race bag, prep bike.

A guy could really get used to this. Too bad I have to work all these hours in between.

I’m a little low on volume this week, at just under 4 hours instead of a typical 4.5 for a taper week, but my legs were really cranky earlier this week, and I’m not sure I’ll benefit from more time on the road — whereas I know I’ll benefit from the rest.  As I posted on Facebook this week, a person can’t make themselves faster or fitter the week before the race — but with stupidity, they can certainly make themselves slower.

As of this very moment, the best I can do between now and Saturday morning is eat my carbs, hydrate well (it’s going to be stinking hot Saturday morning), and try not to catch the cold circulating around my office.

Team McKnapp has a nice routine going in pre-race weeks, so far as nutrition and schedule priorities. It’s kind of fun to just get into that groove. I know the race route well, I know my fitness is there for the distance, and if I can go into this with the right level of confidence, I ought to be able to put on a good race. I’m looking to beat my time from last year — conditions permitting — by a few minutes.

Post race, Sunday will bring a day of resting up, then I’ll do some light strength and lots of stretching on the holiday Monday. Tuesday morning starts with another massage, and Wednesday brings physio. The workouts will fit in between.

I have never before raced back-to-back weeks. I think it’s actually really logical to do it, though, at least at sprint distances. Take the need to taper and the need to recover and do an overlay, and your week looks very similar either way. Why not combine them?

(The answer to that may become painfully obvious — watch for more next week!)