In the past, I’ve written about being tired and fatigued, and the need to differentiate between the two sensations. Today’s blog will be complementary on the fatigue sensation.
There are different types of fatigue, which I separate into three layers – surface, deep muscle, and systemic. Rather than basing these on scientific research, I instead base them on years of experience and feedback from my body.
Surface fatigue is what we feel during workouts based on the stress of the workout itself – so independent of any carryforward fatigue from previous workouts. Certainly, carryforward, or latent, fatigue impacts how we feel day-to-day; I’m simply explaining what each layer is. So, the burning in the muscles during a hard interval workout, for example. Surface fatigue is also what we feel directly after a workout as we start to recover from it. For example, when we ‘hit the showers’ after a grueling swim workout. The surface fatigue fairly quickly ebbs away as HR drops back down to recovery levels or below, and we start to flush out the lactic acid which has built up in the working muscles. In anywhere from a few minutes to a half-hour, we tend to start feeling pretty normal again.
Deep muscle fatigue can be categorized as the latent fatigue we feel later in the day or in the subsequent days after a tough workout. Maybe we get lightheaded if we stand up too quickly, or the legs feel heavy up a flight of stairs, or the muscles start to burn in the opening minutes of our warm-up. The body is in a fatigued state and this is manifesting itself at least in how we feel, and maybe even as a negative impact to a subsequent workout’s results. Deep muscle fatigue isn’t always bad and doesn’t always lead to negative impact. A little of it can be thought of as good – we know we’re challenging ourselves and the body is being forced to adapt and get stronger. However, in this case, a lot of a good thing becomes a bad thing fairly quickly. Because if we do not allow for proper recovery, we blunt our ability to perform like we need to during key workouts and, ultimately, competitions. If you’re dragging ass during warm-up, typically it’s a sign to back off and live to fight another day.
Systemic fatigue is what affects the CNS (Central Nervous System). This is when we are overreaching for too long and we’re starting to break down. Systemic fatigue can manifest itself as elevated HR, low back aches because the adrenal glands are exhausted, muscle soreness or tightness due to lack of recovery, a general malaise that makes us believe we might be getting sick, and more. Systemic fatigue can hit from one particular workout, or a series of them. What’s important is to clue in on the signs and course correct accordingly.
I’m feeling some systemic fatigue this week. Work has been stressful the past month and, while I handled it well day-to-day, the extra responsibilities definitely added up. Also, I rode really hard a week ago, doing three of the hardest climbs in Boulder. The first two went extremely well. Halfway through the third, however, I cratered big time. It was shocking because it hit fairly immediately. It’s not like at the beginning of the climb I thought, “This is going south.” On the contrary, I felt it would go just as well as the first two climbs did. The implosion halfway up blindsided me. My power dropped first 10%, then 20% and finally 30%. I was doing a poor impression of a paperboy up a steeper straightaway later up the climb. Sheer agony. But I wasn’t going to quit. I had bonked. Big time. And there was nothing to be done about it unless I decided to climb off, which I wasn’t going to do.
Because I was scraping the bottom of the barrel, I knew it was going to take longer to recover than had I not imploded. I’ve ridden really hard for 4-5 hours and bounced back in 24-48 hours no problem. In this case, I knew it would take longer. When I got back home, had showered, fueled up and hydrated, I found that I was both sweating and super tired the rest of the day. My core was running hot, and I just wanted to sleep. I NEVER want to nap! But, it’s all I could think about that afternoon. I was cooked.
Here, a week later, I’m feeling some telltale signs of systemic fatigue. My low back has been much tighter, as have been my hamstrings. My right glute isn’t firing very well. When I ride, my low back starts to ‘scream’ at me when it should not be. I FEEL the fatigue much deeper than in the muscles, if that makes sense. It’s like the fatigue is in my soul.
Ultimately, that’s OK. As long as we honor what we’re feeling and we allow ourselves to take a step back, objectively assess the sensations and course correct, we will be OK. One of my athletes is racing tomorrow and we decided to course correct today based on what he’s feeling. His gut was telling him to skip today’s workout but he felt guilty for suggesting it. My advice to him was to trust his instinct; it’s a powerful signal which rarely steers us wrong. Like him, I will forego my own typical tried-and-true pre-race tune-up tomorrow. I need a relaxed ride more than some openers, but I’m not comfortable doing nothing. I think the risk is being flat rather than ready to go for the race. We’ll see.
As you complete your workouts and progress toward your goals, keep these various layers of fatigue in mind. They’re different, they’re the result of different things, and they affect you differently. Trust your instincts and try to avoid blindly following your training schedule. If you work with a coach, proactively communicate with that person BEFORE it gets out of hand rather than afterwards. A coach should be there to help you adjust and more quickly get back on track, not browbeat you for skipping a workout. If your coach defaults to the latter, time to find a new coach.