Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Starving But Nauseous, or The Personal Check Engine Light

Every time I think I know all of the signs that my personal check engine light is about the come on, I discover a new one.  This time it's one to do with my appetite: I am starving, but nauseous.  Since Saturday morning, I have been going through these waves of being incredibly hungry, but too nauseous to actually eat anything.  When the wave recedes, I find myself sitting in my apartment with double a normal order of sushi, adding extra avocado to the top of each piece, which is exactly what happened last night.

In comparison, I've really only ever felt like this immediately after finishing a hard Ironman, or when struck by a stomach bug.  So basically my body has been exhibiting the symptoms of extreme physical exertion and/or acutely debilitating illness.  Great.

I may not be training full-time anymore, far from it, but stress is stress, whether it is accumulated through training, work, fighting with your kids, warding off the cold going through the gym, waking up stupid early for a workout, not getting enough sleep one night or a week of nights, or emotionally raging in traffic.  Many coaches and athletes use TSS (training stress score, natch) to track stress accumulated through training, but have no accounting metric in place for other types of stress (and there really isn't a good one, sadly). 

For reference, a TSS of 100 is equivalent to an hour at threshold, where threshold is the effort/pace/watts you can hold for an hour straight and no more.  So a TSS of 100 for an hour workout is exhaustive, by definition, and a TSS of a 100 for an workout slightly longer than an hour means you went just under threshold the entire time. (Getting a TSS of 150 for 90 min technically means you held threshold for 90 min, but more likely it means one of two things: you torched yourself so much that the rest of your week will be recovery OR your threshold is not pegged properly.)  Since TSS is calculated through pace/effort/watts (correctly pegged, through a recent threshold test) and accumulated time, going much faster for shorter reps and taking longer rests of total rest or active recovery (aka a VO2 max workout) will net you a low TSS score despite being physical draining.  And the calculation of TSS is really only correct if you are basing your threshold numbers off of a recent test, otherwise the conversion factor can be wildly inaccurate.  So right there you can see the pitfalls of TSS (and here people are basing entire training protocols off the numbers).

Anyway, knowing full well the draw backs, I did some research in order to draw some informative comparisons and figure out why I can't eat anything.  Back in August and September of last year, a normal week was ~ TSS 900-1000, divided as swimming ~230 (with a max of 300 during which I wrote a note about how my eyelid didn't stop twitching for 5 days straight), riding ~400 (although the range is much wider than for swimming, with a max of 631 and a min of 56), and running ~200 (with a max of 379).  And realize that these numbers tell you zip about how many sessions I did in each sport, how long each session was, and what I did during those sessions.  I hypothetically could have done three swims, two of an hour each and one of 18 mins, at threshold - an incredibly taxing program - or I could have swum at a much slower pace for 10 total hours.  And any one week of 900 TSS won't really kill anyone.  It's doing 900 TSS weeks back to back to back...that really gets you.  [I don't use Training Peaks, but for those who do, a better way to track the week to week accumulating is Chronic Training Load (CTL).  When you are using nothing but TSS, CTL is far more meaningful for long-term training.]

Right now I'm swimming 5-6 days per week (with a recent max of 27,300 yards [that's 17 miles; I think I just blew my own mind] across 6 days), spinning twice per week (which is only 45-60 mins but HARD), and "running" and other various core/PT sessions that probably account for TSS 100/wk.  Whitney's workouts are good for an average of TSS 100/each so I'm now accumulating just from swimming the same amount of stress I was previously from riding and running combined.  [And that doesn't even scratch the surface of an elite age-group swimmer, who is probably doing 10-12 practices per week of at least TSS 150/each.  I am so far below normal for real swimmers when it comes to accumulating stress in the pool; I maybe swim as much as most serious 10-12 year olds and I am slower.]  The spinning is probably good for TSS 75-100/class when I really hit it.  Done right, spinning classes are extremely intense and physically stressful. 

Moral of the story for me: I'm not training full-time anymore, but I am likely getting close to my mid-season, full-time training TSS - and have been since mid-January - without trying or realizing it and not taking any down weeks like I was when I was training full-time.  Plus my non-training stress is higher for reasons that will become clear in an upcoming post.  THANK GOD I can't run right now!  I'd inadvertently deep fry myself.

Moral of the story for everyone: no matter what TSS you get from training, if it's even relatively high(er than you think) and you add the non-training stress, the accumulation will get you.  It make take a while, but it will get you. 

And - back to my original point - it'll show up in some most unexpected ways.  Like personal sushi buffets after not being able to eat all day.

Here are signs I personally exhibit:
  • small scrapes, scratches, and bruises not healing on a normal timetable.
  •  little illnesses (runny nose or intermittent cough) not going away on a normal timetable.
  • disproportionately foul mood.  I have hurled some hilariously foul language at stop lights that dared turn red before I was able to ride through them.
  • long-term low grade headache despite adequate hydration.
  • intermittent fluttering resting heart beat.  It feels freaky, you'll know it when you feel it.
  • body temperature out of sync with surrounding environment, especially at night.  When this happens to me, I'm usually way too warm.
  •  too tired to sleep.  Oh the irony, but it sucks.
  • higher than normal hair loss.  I use this as a oil stick for both long-term training fatigue and my TSH.
  • scuffing the toes of my running shoes on the ground far more than usual.   Case in point: tripping on the trail.  My bike TSS max of 631 was two weeks before this fall, I got close to my swim TSS max the same week as that bike max, and then ran over my run TSS average the week before this fall and the week of this fall, while keeping my bike near my bike TSS average.  All in all pretty normal for being neck deep in 70.3 training.
  • funky appetite.  This one is actually really common, but presents differently for everyone.  Some people crave meat, some people crave vegetables, some people crave chocolate, some people crave caffeine.  Some people probably crave all of those, and some people crave nothing.  Be very nervous when you lose your appetite all together.  It's one of the best predictors used by riders in the Tour de France to determine which of their competitors are actually a threat.  Racers who have stopped eating aren't replacing anywhere near all of the calories they are burning, and are close to, if not over, their red line.  It's why most teams choose to eat in private when possible.


 Some of these signs didn't show up until after my thyroid went haywire, some I've had for life, and some overlap.  The overlap is not particularly surprising, considering that hypothyroidism is basically being seriously over-trained in every aspect of your life simultaneously.

Either way, it's important to know and pay attention for your own signs even when you have an idea just how hard you are training.  It's even more important when you have little to no idea how hard you are training.  Which I think is most people, and myself currently, apparently.   

Having any of these is annoying, but manageable - and most importantly, reversible.  What you want to avoid is ignoring these lesser signs and getting to a point where your personal check engine light actually goes off.  Because that will bring you to a full dead stop, often long before you want to. 

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