Ultra-distance athletes have been forced to adjust training and racing schedules over the Covid-19 pandemic. With some races on the horizon and others still uncertain, the focus now is to build ultra-endurance fitness and stay healthy. Overloading yourself with either continuous high-volume training; or by increasing volume and intensity too quickly, may do more harm than good. Using biofeedback, structuring smart training, and keeping your respiratory system healthy are a few keys to returning to high volume ultra-training and racing.
Listening to biofeedback in normal times is a great way to prevent overreaching too often, which can lead to plateaus and over-training. Biofeedback mainly consists of heart rate, rate of perceived exertion (RPE), daily motivation levels and form. When you combine trends in biofeedback with power data, you get a full picture of where an athlete is at in training.
A good rule of thumb: when just one or two biomarkers are off, then it’s usually fine to press on with the workout. If three or more are off, however, it is a sign of higher fatigue levels, especially if they all persist through the end of the workout.
Here’s a common scenario after a few solid weeks of training on the bike: you get ready for a two to three-hour workout with the goal of 5-10-minute zone three and four efforts, focused on both power and heart rate. Mentally, you are not excited to ride, but after getting on the bike and warming up, your legs feel great. You’re hitting power numbers, efforts are feeling moderately hard (as they should) but it is hard to elevate heart rate out of the lower end of zone three.
You finish the ride grinding it out mentally, but you feel ok at the end, meaning you are not sore or extremely tired. Heart rates were low, and your motivation was not there, but all other biomarkers were in good ranges. This is a good example of a time when it’s most likely fine to press on.
However if you also experienced higher-than-normal levels of training fatigue or soreness in the above scenario, it might be cause for alarm (or at least another rest day). When you experience higher levels of fatigue over several days or for most of a week, it is time for a recovery period of at least 5-7 days, with reduced volume and intensity.
Athletes often press on with training as long as they can meet their power goals, even when all other biomarkers are showing signs of fatigue. Strong legs are a great asset, but if you overtrain, other systems such as the lung muscles or your mental capacity for training, it will lead to subpar performance gains and even injury.
It is key to work with good training structure, whether you have continued to train or are coming off a reduction in volume and intensity. Aim to increase your training volume by just 10-30% each week with 2-4-week blocks during your build phases. Again, listen to biomarkers to know when you need to back off and recover, even if that is after just a few weeks of training. If all systems are a go after three weeks, press on, and build until you experience higher levels of fatigue—then rest.
“Structured training” also includes the taper into your goal and the recovery afterward. Whether you’re planning an ultra-endurance race or planning a self-supported adventure (like a multi-day bike pack or a 50-mile run) you’ll want to use a moderate to long taper. This involves reducing weekly volume by 30-50% while maintaining and spacing intense workouts. Take two weeks or more to ensure you go into the event well-rested and peaked.
Remember, ultra-events take a toll on all aspects of the body, from tendons and ligaments to the heart muscle itself (1), so it’s ultra-important to recover post-race as well. Depending on your fitness level and the duration of the event, recovery can take anywhere from a week to a month or more. Work with low volume, low intensity, casual days until your body is feeling great and motivation levels are high. Then test out a few weeks of training, as always using biomarkers as a guide to know when and how far to push with volume and intensity.
A Note on Respiratory Health
Upper Respiratory symptoms are common following Ultra Distance events. Frequent symptoms include sore throat and nasal congestion, with less incidence of headaches, enlarged lymph nodes, and fever (2,3). Whether these symptoms are related to a suppressed immune system or not has been debated, with many different theories. A 2012 study, performed at the London marathon, concluded there is a prevalence of allergy in athletes performing high volumes of training, suggesting the pathology of the symptom may be allergic rather than infectious (4).
While this could be the case, as endurance athletes are breathing in a lot of air and allergens (and training during the time of COVID-19) it is important to take every symptom seriously. Hydrate, rest and wait until all symptoms are gone before returning to training. Get tested if you think you’ve been exposed to somebody with COVID-19, and never train with a fever.
1 — D. Vitiello, T. Rupp, J. Bussière, P. Robach, A. Polge, G. Millet, S. Nottina. Myocardial damages and left and right ventricular strains after an extreme mountain ultra-long duration exercise. International Journal of Cardiology. 2013 May 10; 165(2):391-2.
2 — M. Gleeson, D.Pyne. Respiratory inﬂammation and infections in high-performance athletes. Immunology and Cell Biology 2016; 94, 124–131
3 — A.Cox, M. Gleeson, D. Pyne, P. Saunders, R. Clancy, P. Fricker. ValtrexTM Therapy for Epstein-Barr Virus Reactivation and Upper Respiratory Symptoms in Elite Runners. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 2004 Jul;36(7):1104-10.
4 — P. Ansley, G. Howatson, J. Tallent, K. Mitcheson, I. Walshe, C. Toms, G. Toit, M. Smith, L. Ansley. Prevalence of Allergy and Upper Respiratory Tract Symptoms in Runners of the London Marathon. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 2012 Jun;44(6):999-1004.