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Triathlete Blog

Fitness and Health

By December 3, 2010July 20th, 2015No Comments

For some reason, a copy of Lava showed up in our mailbox.

Before bed, I was flipping through the pages, searching for content between glossy images of gritty athletes and new you need this now equipment, when I noticed a particular page. It was a picture of Laura Bennett. And it got me to thinking – I wonder how many people reading this magazine know who Laura Bennett is.

Laura is a short course specialist. She’s done a few 70.3s but that doesn’t take away from the fact that her reputation was built on short course speed. More importantly, Laura Bennett hasn’t done an Ironman. And while this magazine covered the sport of triathlon, off the pages oozed Ironman. The forums, the blogs, everything in our sport seems to ooze Ironman. And it makes me wonder: in our sport, does that make Laura Bennett a nobody?

I look at some of the athletes in our sport – from pros to age groupers – and think we’re doing a lot – half, full Ironmans, several a year. It’s a relatively “new” phenomenon, and like many new things, the benefits or consequences are still not understood. Is there research being done on this? I’m not sure. But if I was an exercise physiology student, my wheels would be turning. You see, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fitness and health. After being in the sport for over a decade as an athlete, a coach, I’ve concluded that while many of us are fit, very few of us are healthy.

And I think Ironman has a lot to do with that.

I turn the page. More pictures of athletes who have done Ironman. Pros who are now doing several of them per year. In fact, the new Kona qualification standards demand that pros do more than one Ironman to gather the points that they need. Good for Ironman. But, is it good for the athlete? How many of these events can one do before it interferes with health?

True, there are outliers in the sport, those that seem to have superhuman adaptability to pile on the miles in training and racing without much disruption to their performance or, perhaps, health. I remember reading something about Dean Karnazes, the ultramarathon man, in support of what we’ve suspected all along. He’s not like the rest of us. His blood did not show the usual suppressive markers that one would expect after doing marathon upon marathon. I suspect there are triathletes who would display the same. Knowing this, while we may be impressed by their durability and performance, should we really be inspired to do the same?

More thought on this comes after the recent coverage of Ultraman, an event of truly epic proportions that needs no other explanation than the statement that it finishes with … a double marathon. Pictures of athletes on crutches, on stretchers afterwards. Yikes. Is this good for us? Is this something we should do? And, more importantly, in ten years, where will these athletes be. Is someone studying their endocrine systems? How will this event impact their health?

I know what you’re thinking: how can someone who can “race” for hours on end be unhealthy? This begs a discussion, first, of what health truly is. While there are many athletes who are fit enough to do an event, this is no guarantee of their health. Fit is being capable of doing something. Health is much more dynamic.

The story almost writes itself – too much training or too little recovery depletes the body and causes systemic imbalance – hormonally, physiologically, emotionally, psychosocially. The end result: someone who is fit but unhealthy. In my own journey in the sport, I’ve come full circle to realize that there are times when I crossed the line into too much with too little recovery and paid the price with my health. Eventually, you run out of health currency. Pushed enough to the edge, and at times over it, you exhaust your health resources.

And health resources are not replenished quickly.

There’s a lot of buzz right now in the sport about metabolic health. You don’t need to have a degree in physiology to understand what is going on. Lew Kidder once told me that training is not rocket science. You apply a little stress, then you back off. Then you apply a little more stress and back off again. In doing so, you figure out just how much stress it takes to achieve performance. The key is balancing that with recovery. That balance is connected to metabolic health.

Yet what I’ve seen is that many athletes do not fully understand the balance. Or, they are stuck in a pattern of ignoring their body (whether it be the feeling of hunger, fatigue, their intuition) so that they cannot achieve balance. Their body gives them a message. They stopped listening. The balance becomes…upset.

Women seem particularly prone to this. Combine a history of disordered eating (which is not the same as an eating disorder; I argue that to some extent most women have disordered eating for a variety of cultural, psychological and later physiological reasons) and an extreme sport (which the half or full Ironman is) and you get a woman who is at risk for becoming metabolically unhealthy which often manifests itself through chronic inflammation (acne, allergies, asthma), thyroid problems, injury or pain (especially in the foot and knee), frequent illness, irregular menses, weight loss/gain or underperforming not otherwise explained.

I, myself, had all the signs of poor metabolic health. This is not a confessional, rather it’s a true learn from my mistakes story. I, like many others, ignored the signs of poor health. I didn’t realize to what extent until a long while later when I looked back and thought to myself – was I deaf? Blind? Hindsight has clarity, though, that we cannot judge ourselves against when in the actual moment. Combined the signs were clear – I was fit but not healthy. In fact, in my early thirties, my health had never been worse.

My skin was a mess. I developed asthma that required two pills and two inhalers – daily. Each season, my allergies got worse. For over two years, my foot had a pain in it that no doctor could diagnose and no treatment could fix. I had developed PMS that got more painful every month. I was always cold. I craved sugar or coffee. I seemed to get four major upper respiratory infections each year no matter how much medicine I took. I was irritable – a lot. I had been to dermatologists, allergists, gynecologists, nutritionists, had my blood tested, etc etc….what was going on here? I thought I was healthy? I do all of this exercise, why do I feel like a sick old person?

Therein lies the problem. I had done too much with too little recovery for too long. While I was fit, I was so unhealthy from a combination of life stresses (including but not limited to training) and poor recovery that all of my fitness was going to waste. Over time, it became the inability to perform. Nothing I did was going to fix me except to stop doing. Or, to rest.

Rest. There it is – that dirty little word. As a coach, my job is often to tell athletes what not to do. Trust me, rest is a tough sell.

I find myself now much healthier now for a lot of reasons. I got some deep rest. I spent the last year training aerobically. It’s no surprise that anaerobic training – the short, hard, give ‘em what they want – training that is sold as so sexy and time effective is indeed effective. But it comes at a cost. Done too frequently, done at the wrong time, it throws off the balance of hormones. And applied day after day, it becomes too much stress, not enough recovery.

Which is really what this is all about – too much stress, not enough recovery.

Keep in mind, it’s not just training that is stress. How often do I hear, but I love to workout, it helps me work off stress. I know, it does for me too. But the problem is training for these long course events is not working out. It’s far beyond 45 minutes on the stairmaster or a step aerobics class. Our training can become stress. And on top of that we have work, family, relationship, real world stress. The body does not compartmentalize stress. It doesn’t file away the fight you had with your spouse before you go swimming. It’s all connected. Too much stress and not enough recovery is an equation out of balance.

Finding balance. How do we do that? First, you start off by committing to work at your own health. This comes before even following a smart training plan. Proper nutrition, adequate rest, emotional maturity, supportive relationships and perspective. And when you have all of those, and you add a smart training plan, you get fitness and health which sets you up for performance. You cannot have performance without health or without fitness. Many athletes have the fitness. Very have the health.

I wonder if Ironman is partially to blame for this. Of course exercise makes us healthy. In moderation. But Ironman isn’t moderation, is it. Moderation needs to have a place in Ironman. I believe it can be done. Whether it’s doing only one a year or skipping a year before doing another one, making sure you’re optimally healthy before you begin training for one, coaches teaching athletes how to recover (and not just train), doing the least amount of training that will yield the best result, monitoring your body/blood for markers that you are crossing the line and – above all – learning to listen to your body again. If there is a message (pain, fatigue, illness, hunger), loud and clear, stop ignoring it. Five words that will always get you in trouble in sport: maybe it will go away.

Laura Bennett has longevity in sport. She’s been around. She’s been consistent. She hasn’t done an Ironman and maybe the jokes on me – maybe she’ll do one next year. Maybe a lot of pros do this because they realize if they’re going to make a living in the sport, they have to go where the money is. It’s where the media is, the money is and where I see the most growth in our sport. As a coach, that’s good for my business. Doing an Ironman? I can help! But as my business, this also scares me. Too much Ironman, especially too soon, too many year after year – all of this compromises longevity. It compromises health. Initially it means more athletes in the sport but quicker exits. How much turnover can occur before the sport is tapped out?

My business is keeping athletes healthy. The challenge is getting athletes to the start line fit but also healthy. Any coach knows that writing workouts is the easy part. Weaving those workouts into athlete’s daily life to help them achieve balance and health – that is the hard part. All athletes know that the training is important. Less believe that recovery is even more important if you want to integrate that training. It doesn’t make sense. How can work + work = less? It’s an equation you need only get out of balance once before you truly understand. Work + rest = more. Simple as that.

From my own experience, I’ve learned that you cannot accomplish anything without health. Well, you can fake it, but not for long. At some point, you run out. As I sit here trying to decide my own competitive goals for 2011, I think a lot about health, about longevity. And determining how to maintain the balance. It’s a discussion in your head that is worth your time. There are big things I want to accomplish but in the bigger picture, I want to be sustainable. I want to stretch out what time and energy I might have left to be competitive over as many years as possible. As you think through your 2011 season, think first about your health, how to maintain (or improve) it and then decide how you’ll build your fitness for where you want to go.

Why am I writing this? I’ve thought about that too. It’s far less entertaining than stories about my baby or other senseless drivel from my life (though I think that drivel does have a place in a blog). Maybe this post will make you think, make some changes and then perform better. Often performance improvement is not about working harder, it’s about working smarter. Squeezing that extra little something from what you’re already doing without changing your training. The secret is out: the training doesn’t matter much. It’s what you do in the spaces between the training that will propel you forward or dig yourself in a hole. What to fill those spaces with? It might be sleeping more, eating better, practicing relaxation – all of those little things that will add up to bigger recovery. Which, in turns, leads to better health and improved fitness.

And isn’t that what we’re all looking for?