Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of an eight-part original GP series, The Road to La Ruta, in which contributor Dirk Shaw chronicles his training for the Fool’s Gold 100 and La Ruta de Los Conquistadores — one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. Check back throughout the summer to watch the story unfold.
If you watched Trainspotting, the Indie film that follows a group of Scottish youths as they sink deep into a life of addiction, you would certainly remember the scene where Marc Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) sits alone in his room wrestling with withdrawal as the somber track of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” plays in the background.
Road to La Ruta is a series of dispatches, essays and features captures the intense journey of a cyclist as he trains for a mountain biking race across Costa Rica and what many consider one of the toughest in the world: La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. Read the series »
This is my confession. I too am an addict. I’m addicted to the rush that comes from a six-hour ride, short sets of V02 max intervals and the thrill of competition. So after a period of heavy training, I go through a sort of Trainspotting taper withdrawal. It’s nowhere near as dangerous, but very real.
There is a field of study emerging on a condition known as exercise dependence, which defines exercise as an addiction, characterized by a compulsion to exercise excessively even when the consequences are harmful to an individual’s health, family relationships and personal wealth. For me it’s less about the addiction to exercise and more about addiction to racing. Am I in denial? Probably.
While my “Perfect Day” and Marc Renton’s are quite different, the psychological affects we go through when tapering during training for a race does create a range of emotions. The cause of this emotional swing is the sudden reduction in the release of endorphins. Studies have shown that extended workouts release endorphins and give us a feeling of contentment and euphoria, commonly referred to as the “runner’s high”. For the skeptics out there, a recent article in The New York Times cited neuroscience research in Germany that confirms what many of us have experienced: exercise floods the brain with endorphins, which are associated with mood changes. The more endorphins an athlete’s body pumps out, the greater the effect. Naturally, when you lower frequency, volume and intensity of endorphin-releasing activity, your mood will be affected. It’s also why people tend to dread the tapering phase when training for endurance activities.
For me it’s less about the addiction to exercise and more about addiction to racing. Am I in denial? Probably.
Let’s first define tapering in the context of training. It is more than just taking it easy a couple of days before a race. USA Cycling defines the taper as “A progressive, nonlinear, reduction of training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training, and to enhance the physiological adaptations to optimize performance”. In a nutshell, tapering means reducing your volume, training and intensity for a set period of time depending on the race. Research has repeatedly shown that a reduction in training volume to a level that is closer to 60 percent of previous output has netted the best average gain in performance.
Jared, my coach, has laid out my tapering for both the upcoming 100-mile and 3-day races to simply follow the flow of my current training — I need to go big one week and then pull back the next week, with less volume on the weekends. However, the week before both events, I will also reduce intensity, increase recovery and rest and shorten a few of the easy and transition workouts. The goal is to roll in to both races feeling like they are just an extension of my workout pattern. I should feel rested before each event, but also very much in tune with my pacing and the overall goal.
My recent tapering and withdrawal experience happened during the three-week taper for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. Leading up to the race, we increased my training load to the point of exhaustion, then moved right into the taper, with a serious slow-down in both the length and intensity of my workouts. The run-up was the equivalent of a two-week binge of spandex, Skratch labs and meals on wheels. Euphoric would be an understatement. I was in heaven. The endorphin release helped to mask the pain of long back-to-back rides, which is why it is important to know the fine line between extending yourself and over-training. If you’re not careful, it can take months to recover from over-training. This is where it pays to have a good coach who knows your limits.
The first week of the taper was fine. My body felt good and I was still riding the high from the previous weeks. If I needed a quick fix, I would look at the hours and vertical feet I’d logged over time in Strava. However, by week three it felt like the end of the scene, when Renton gives you the sense of what it’s like to want to jump out of your own skin. I vividly remember one early morning. It was still dark, so I turned on my lights and set out for a 40-minute ride. I don’t even know a 40-minute route so I improvised and rode to Starbucks.
I sat there, in my tights, in the dark, wanting more. It was pathetic.
I sat there, in my tights, in the dark, wanting more. It was pathetic. But the feelings were real. It was a strange anxiety and doubt that set in while sipping on my coffee with the other early birds. I asked myself, “If I only do 40 minutes today would that be enough to conquer my next event? Had I done enough over the last several months to reach my goal of a six-hour race? Why is my body so tired when I have not been logging the same amount of time?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a never-ending hole of self-doubt.
Now that I am getting my extreme dose of endorphin fix again, the feelings of anxiety, moodiness and mild depression from tapering are a distant memory. There is just one problem. The Fools Gold 100 is a month away. This means I will be descending back into the dark taper hole again, alone with my feelings, the random aches that appear and the voracious appetite that still exists.
But this taper will be different. Instead of just letting these feelings take control, I now better understand the psychological affects of this critical stage of training and how to combat the feelings. When I start to feel an ache or pain, I will get a massage or stretch. When I start to doubt if I am prepared, I will take a look at my training logs and know that I’m ready. When I start to feel anxious the week before a race, I will spend time with my family. This should arm me to take each “Perfect Day” as it comes and make the most out of this phase, no matter how sluggish or desperate I am to get out and spin.