Wednesday, November 21, 2018

2018 ETU European Championships - adapting to changes and the art of tapering

Following the ITU long course World Championships in July, Dave and I made a last minute change to our plans and decided to extend my season just a couple of months to race the ETU middle distance European Championships in October.

It was my first time to extend the racing season outside the initial plans and go through another mini-training cycle, which meant: rest, build and peak again within two and a half months. It actually went pretty well. The tapering weeks were a touch more dramatic in terms of the intensity build-up and volume reduction but, to my surprise, my body reacted well.

I never like my tapering weeks. I have no idea why everybody gets so excited about it. I personally, really start feeling better only 1-2 days before the race. The remaining of the time, I feel out of whack, usually sleepy, flat and not with much speed. Our tapering typically lasts 1-3 weeks before the race day. The timing depends on the race distance and the amount of training I have done in the previous months. Shorter distance races = Shorter taper (~1week). Longer distance races = Longer taper (up to 3weeks). Shorter season/preparation = Shorter taper, etc. In the longer taper (2-3weeks), during the first week, Dave usually does not reduce my volume but he introduces a bit more intensity on the swim and on the run. The second week, he starts reducing the volume in all three sports and the intensity peaks either in frequency or duration. The third week, he dramatically reduces the volume and eases out a bit the intensity.

Once again, this time, Dave timed my peak perfectly! The ETU middle-distance European Championships race took place in the island of Ibiza, Spain. It was a little bit of an odd venue because Ibiza is considered one of the biggest party islands of Europe. However, middle October marks the beginning of the party off-season and everything was relatively quiet. Our race terrain was in the beautiful beaches and picturesque streets around the old fortress of Platja de Ses Figueretes.

To our bad fortune though, the weather on race day played out severe thunderstorms and flooding, so the race got a 2hr delayed start and the bike course was cut in half. Not particularly great news for me because first, I am not particularly used to racing in the evening (race started at 3:40); second, I am performing better in longer distance bike courses (yeap: my legs cannot produce the massive watts for the 1hr type of rides anymore); and third, the new shorter bike course made it into a runners race!

I managed a good swim and bike, and I pulled out a decent race overall running yet one of my best half-marathon times after the bike (1:51 on a hilly course). I ended finishing 19th. Ironically, the exact same place I finished at the ITU long-course World Championships 3months before.

Despite all changes and difficulties along the way, I am super happy with my consistent personal progress in all three sports. I am now confident that I can handle injury or setbacks, and I complete a training regime with all phases successfully (base, build, overload, taper).

I do not peak at random times nor PR at small, local races. I only perform at the races that I focus on.

Another thing I am happy about is that I can still put good performances in preparatory races throughout the season without resting or tapering. This year, early in the season, I had podium finishes at Xterra races that lead me to the Regional Champion jersey and managed a 4th place finish at the NJ State olympic distance triathlon, only a week after the World Championships! These results in the middle of my training cycles for the World and European championships proved that my body can handle more than I previously thought.

I am still on my month of rest (2 weeks of complete laziness and 2 weeks of relative activity) but I can't wait to strategize my next season!

Happy planning everyone!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

2018 ITU long course World Championships thoughts and the fear of failure in modern amateur sports

I have been a triathlete for 6 years now. Along these years of training and racing, I have found that many of my fellow athletes fail to set a goal and go after it. This is because a goal that is achievable and challenging enough requires a lot more work than one may think and more importantly, it involves a high probability of failing.

I think a lot of athletes nowadays are afraid to fail.

This is one of the reasons why they often use the excuse of "I just want to have fun" to justify their lack of focusing, their races where they "had a bad day" and their multi-distance/multi-disciplinary plans: "I want to race an Ironman, a SUP race, a tough mudder, a 6hr endurance MTB and win the National Road bike and time trial races this year".

Having fun is paramount and trying out different sports and distances is definitely a lot of fun. However, a lot of these athletes that "just want to have fun" are highly competitive. Despite being highly competitive though, they fail to undertake the risk of focusing on one sport and one discipline because deep inside them, they do not want to commit, they do not want to put the real work in and they are afraid to fail.

Don't get me wrong. Focusing on one goal does not necessarily prohibit you from trying other sports. What I am talking about here is one goal that should focus on performance. For example, one may focus on an Ironman distance triathlon and find out that they need to improve their running. Marathon running, trail running, endurance adventure racing etc. may be an excellent off-season focus for them. Others may need to improve their swimming. Endurance open water races, paddle-board workouts or even rowing could be a great off-season training to serve that purpose. Another athlete may want to try ultra-running. Incorporating long hikes or long endurance cycling rides and other low-impact long-hour activities may aid their preparations.

I am proud to say that for the past 3 years I have been focusing on the ITU long-course triathlon distance. Many of you may not know the distance because it is relatively new. It consists of a 3000m swim, a 120km bike and a 30km run. Just a little shorter than an Ironman distance triathlon.
During these 3 years, every year presented its own challenge: in training, in my personal and professional life or in racing itself. Despite all adversities, I never gave up on my goal.

This year, I faced two big challenges: Around two and a half months before the big race, I went through a prolonged 5wk period of extreme fatigue (Epstein-Barr Virus) and my training took a big deep right when I should be piling miles and intensity. Then, I was able to resume training in the last 6 weeks but on race day, I got sick and battled with severe headaches on the bike and persistent diarrhea on the run (which went on for two more days after the race).

Despite all that, I am happy to say that I was faster than last year and ran a personal best of 2hrs 47min for the 30km run portion (in a triathlon race). Although the transition times this year were a lot slower than last year (each by nearly 4min, mainly due to the long run distances we were forced to cover), and although I failed to race less than 8hrs (which was my first goal), I was still able to succeed on my second goal, clock a better time than last year and finish in the top20.

Times over the past three years:

  • 9hrs 49min 12sec (2016)
  • 8hrs 16min 33sec (2017)
  • 8hrs 08min 47sec (2018)

And the journey continues ... I am not the fastest out there, more like the middle of the pack at the World Championships level, but I am not afraid to get after my goal, work hard for it, get faster every year and enjoy competing with some really fast women.

Don't be afraid to set a goal and go after it. You may face difficulties, injuries, sicknesses, bad luck at the race or other adversities but at the end nothing beats the feeling of coming out strong and succeeding your goal!

Stay strong! See you out there!

Friday, April 13, 2018

The mid-season hump and how to get over it

I am not sure if this happens to all age-grouper triathletes but it certainly makes its appearance the more systematic, the more senior, and the more endurance-focused you are in the sport.

Mid-season hump is that training phase right in the middle of the season, where you are still putting long, base miles, you have not started your overload phase and you have not started racing yet. The initial enthusiasm of the new season has worn off, you feel a bit bored and tired and you are just so ready for a change!

The way I am trying to get out of these mid-season blues is not always the same but what usually works for me are just the simple things:

1. Once in a while, I break up a very long workout into two chunks: one with the sport I am supposed to do and another with a different sport of equivalent aerobic value. For example: I have a long run. I then do 80% of it and replace the other 20% with a very long hike. Or, I have a long bike ride. Then, I do most of it and replace the remaining with a gym spin or a gym elliptical workout.

2. I often go back to my goals and think about the upcoming races: this daydreaming always pumps me up!

3. If I feel like I am not progressing or I am not getting faster: well this is not the right period to get faster! It is the long, slow grind. A lot of times it is worth reminding this to myself!

Best of luck with what you do, the racing season is only a few weeks away!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The neurological recovery after a long season

My husband and coach says: "The longer the season, the longer the recovery phase"

At a first thought, it sounds reasonable. Most of us, when we hear the word "recovery", we think immediately about resting our bodies, not working out much, lying on the couch or socializing, eating lots and gathering energy for the next training phase. Although resting muscles and joints is paramount for the hard training athlete - especially the long distance athlete - resting the brain and the neurological canals that feed body and soul is far more critical for a healthy, new season.

I have never actually experienced the neurological post-season fatigue as much as this past season. 2017 was a truly great season for me: I built up the volume right, I had no major injuries and setbacks and I had a three month transition (break) between jobs that I utilized to max out my training and recovery. I bettered my race time at the same distance by a whole 1 hour and 10 min compared to last years results (despite the fact that I got sick on my tapering week and I faced serious nutritional problems on race day). That was all truly great. And to do so at the World Championships was amazing!

What I was not prepared though was the time after the end of my season. I had a full 45 weeks of training and racing (including some lighter volume weeks) building up for one, single race. After the mission was accomplished, I took a typical two-week off training to reset and then I thought I would be ready to start swimming, biking and running lightly (something like 3 times a week) to ease into a new plan and a new season. Indeed, I started doing that but my brain was fried. The two months that followed the end of my goal race included very little working out without much excitement. I really thought that maybe I was over, maybe I would just continue working out for the rest of my life just to stay fit.

It took me a full three months to get my brain reset and start feeling hungry for racing again.

I was astonished.

The mental fatigue should never be underestimated and my advice to you, especially if you are a long-distance athlete that builds up significant volume and focuses on one or two races a year: take your time after the end of a season! Workout as you feel like it, do not get depressed or do not over-think about what's going on in your brain. It will come around. You will feel the hunger again.

Let's now focus on the months ahead, stay healthy, happy and positive.

2018 bring it on!

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 ITU Long Course World Championships reflections

I put a lot of hours and a lot of energy leading into the ITU LD World Championships this year.

I was essentially getting up at 4:30 am every morning, training, eating, going to work, training again, eating and sleeping, for 45 weeks straight. The pure training volume (excluding walking and stretching) was set at a base of around 12-15hrs a week and topped to 21hrs leading to the big race. I did not face any injuries or other setbacks and was feeling good throughout. I did my first marathon in March at the beginning of the season, won a couple of local races (half and olympic distances), swam 15 ocean mile swims and I was feeling confident.

On the actual race day, many things did not go right. I do not like to make excuses but the truth is that on race day, my planets just did not align right. I was down with fever during my tapering week but did not make a big deal out of it nor complained. On race week, I started feeling better but I was not at my very best on race day. That morning, I forgot at the hotel my big gel flask full of EFS shot that I was planning to use on the bike. I only realized that when I was at the transition tent so I decided to substitute the forgotten big flask with one of my EFS regular shots that I had saved for the run, and top up with bananas at aid stations. The day was hot, dry and windy. I had an ok swim and bike leg (despite my nutritional deficit) and I was really holding my horses for the run. On a day with 93 degrees (33-34 Celsius degrees) I knew that the last 6 miles of the run will hurt most athletes, and I was aiming to perform my best during those last 6 miles!

I started the run not feeling as well as in my previous races. In general, I know I am not doing well in the heat and against all odds, I kept my chin up and tried to stick to my plan. By mile 10 I started feeling the fatigue, the heat and the nutritional deficit. I slowed down for about 3 miles but kept running. I managed to regain some energy between mile 14 and 18 but the last mile of the race ... hit me hard. I could see the finish line but it was so hard to hang on for that last mile. I jogged on a death line and finished ok but passed out at the medical tent. My body was shivering when I woke up. I had blankets all over me and the friendly medical staff managed to feed me down a couple of cups full of chicken broth. The soup settled my stomach a bit and after about forty minutes, I was able to stand up and get some more calories down.

I had a good race. I finished in 8hrs and 16min bettering my previous time on the same distance by a whole hour and seven minutes! For some reason however, this race left me feeling bumped and depressed. My run was not up to what I could do and what I had trained to do. Whether it was my fever, my nutritional deficit, the heat or all of those and many more, I don't know.

All I know is that I have yet to put together a perfect race.

Triathlon is so beautiful and so challenging because it's compromised of all these different elements that one needs to tune in a very carefully planned and personalized way in order to shine as an athlete! This is why every one of us strives for better and we never want to stop improving.

Till my next season ...

C U around!

Endless gratitude to my support team: husband and coach Dave Williams, athlossports, First Endurance, polar, Kali Protectives, PowerTap/CycleOps, DeFeet International

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why we need to make mistakes and have terrible races

Some of us learn faster by listening, others by writing and others by doing. The majority of us however, learn more effectively by some sort of combination of all the above. Interestingly though, if you learn a theory, and even if you apply it successfully a handful of times, it still takes time to really sink in.

In sports, things are not that different: the coach is the instructor and the athlete is the student. I value myself as a good student and a good athlete. I listen, I take notes, I try my best to follow directions and apply the theory at practice and training sessions. This year, I finally thought I got it. And I actually did but, as with every piece of knowledge, it took time to sink in.

This year, I have been injury free. This year has been the only year in my entire triathlon career that I have managed to put in 48 weeks of solid, consistent training, without interruption. So, this was the plan layout and this was what I had to do, what I did and what I have learned so far:

Fall: prepare for my first marathon

I gradually increased my weekly running miles to ~60 and my body absorbed it. I kept swimming and cycling at a lower volume and intensity. That way, I created a solid running base for my triathlon training. I experienced my first marathon and learned that going out just a touch faster after mile 16 cost me pain and torture during the last 2 miles. Knowing how to pace your own self is absolutely detrimental.

Spring: transition time to full-time triathlon training and first half-distance race

Considering our move from Atlanta, GA to Metuchen, NJ, things went along pretty well. I completed a 200k brevet and won a local half-distance triathlon race running a decent 1:52 half-marathon at the end. I listened and applied and paced myself well at the bike and had plenty of good reserves for the run at the end. I was now confident.

Summer: bike quality kicks in while run and swim volume stays the same

I joined a local group of fast bike kids, who were kind enough to back off when my jammed legs were dying at steeper or longer hills. I saw a big improvement on my bike endurance and speed within two months, while my run and swim did not really suffer. I started recovering from long sessions a lot faster than before. My body was absorbing the volume and intensity well. Then, the first olympic distance triathlon race came. Even though this was a prep/training race, being too confident on the bike made me push it a touch faster than I should (see: marathon mistake) and I started the run with so much lactic acid that I couldn't really wash off. I had one of the fastest bike splits but ... I did not win the race. I really blew up on the run. I did not listen, I did not apply. The following week, another training, olympic distance race came along. That time, I was really determined to listen and execute. And I did.

I came home 3rd overall and clocked the second best running 10k of all females on the day, negative splitting (with tight splits) a hilly course and sprinting the last mile at a 7:22 mile pace.

Backing off just a little but not too much on the bike leg requires a good knowledge of yourself, a great understanding of pace and effort adjusted to the terrain and race distance, and a seamless application of what you have learned and practiced in training. In other words, you have to make all of your planets align just right.

How do you do that?

By listening, keeping notes, applying the theory numerous times in training and by making mistakes.

Happy mistakes ~ Happy learning from mistakes

C U out there!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Balancing body and mind

I come from a stereotypical, Mediterranean family that values education, family bonding, cultural traditions and heart-healthy food! I grew up spending most of my energy in school, learning the Greek language, literature, history and religion in a painstaking way, practicing science every day, learning good English from elementary to senior high and playing classical music on the piano for over 10 years. My parents spent most of their time at work, struggling to make ends meet, saving and investing on properties for our future and providing us with the resources for an expensive education. With virtually no parents at home, I was mainly brought up by my grandmother who spent the majority of her days in our apartment cleaning it and tiding it up and cooking our daily meals. She was also my occasional shelter and support - both emotional and financial - during the crazy days of parental disagreement against my teenagehood decisions.

This was a sweet, sheltered and well-rounded little world that came to a nearly complete collapse and re-creation when I decided to embark for my scientific journey outside Greece. Cultural shocks were real, eye-opening experiences during my first year in the UK, where I went for my masters degree in Mathematics, and during my first year in the US, where I pursued my doctorate degree in Biology (I finished both degrees earning multiple awards including two full scholarships). During those times, I acquired new knowledge, extended my skill sets, learned new methods, expanded my horizons and world views but most importantly, I experienced different life-styles, food options, cultural believes and standpoints. I developed new friends from around the world, saw how different individuals value different aspects of life in a different way and gradually, I re-invented myself.

My education and life-style became a choice that was completely my own and not just a strict and strenuous process dictated by culture and family. I love music and playing the piano but I found my passion in sports. Sports for my family - and for most Greeks back then - was a bi-weekly, light activity that one could do to keep themselves active and healthy. Sports for me now, is a pursue to become the best I can be. I want to train and teach my body and soul how to overcome adversity and extend its physical limits. This is because going above and beyond my strength and endurance barriers brings waves of emotional, intellectual and physical delight that balance out the hard core mental activities. This daily process harmonizes my body, mind and soul and brings inner peace. I cannot imagine living without the scientific curiosity, creativity and collaborative spirit that lead me to the path of so many discoveries over the years! At the same time, life would be impossible without setting athletic goals and working systematically towards them.

This is my way to balance my body and mind.

I have come to the realization that finding your inner peace is a long, bumpy road that is always dynamic and never straightforward. It is unique to each one of us and for some, this road may never end or may never lead anywhere. I am grateful that during my journey, I have experienced so many cultures, ideas and life-styles, and I am currently surrounded by few, extraordinary, humble and well-rounded individuals strong enough to help me destruct and re-build my initial, sheltered world without letting the foundations completely collapse.

I hope that my bumpy road will keep unfolding and eventually get me to a meaningful place and help others find their own.

Keep exploring, never judge, always love!

See you out there!