Tag Archives: recovery

Illness and injury breaks – Do we ever really learn?

I did a 17k pool swim with Gábor at the end of April. It went fine but the next day I developed a head-cold. I doubt they were related as I’ve never been sick after a long pool swim previously and I’ve done quite a few over the past three years, but it was co-incidental, I think.

Inhalers_MG_3667-resized-resizedI’ve mentioned previously that I have asthma, which could be considered mild in that I have a generally good understanding and control of it and the triggers, and make sure to use a steroid preventer while pool training. I very rarely get a head-cold, maybe once a year. Not so mild however  should an asthma attack develop. Like many asthmatics (I hate that word, it leads people to make incorrect assumptions), a head-cold or ‘flu may lead to a bacterial chest infection, which always signals trouble for those with asthma. This inevitably means a drop in lung function and aerobic capacity, and therefore swimming capability. And I did indeed develop a chest infection within three days of the head-cold. A course of antibiotics swiftly followed, I recognise the symptoms by now and don’t hesitate. Swimming was out for over a week. But when I returned the first day, I felt fine. However I deteriorated again within a few days, my lungs feeling like they were full of broken glass.

The symptom for me while swimming is always first a light tickle in my throat, then a mild cough, which will increase in intensity and urgency as I swim further and longer, until I am coughing underwater and struggling to take in enough air to breathe. It’s always a losing battle so I’m better off to just stop. I almost never do this in time for some stupid reason.

The next two weeks were typified by feeling recovered, going to the pool and then deteriorating in the next day or two and then having to break again. it also led to a second course of antibiotics and oral steroids.

This isn’t to share my medical history but is just a long intro to the short lesson that like a lot of people used to training, and maybe especially swimmers, the thing I often struggle the most with, is taking a necessary break for illness or injury. Whereas at other times when I am actually healthy, I might not feel like training at all.

I have gotten used to both training hard and needing and taking weekly rest breaks. I think rest breaks are the most difficult thing for athletes to learn and taking breaks because of illness and injury, like on this occasion, are the second most difficult. (Overtraining is a whole other subject, and one that is too often invoked). I took my initial enforced break because I actually couldn’t swim. I had thought I got the timing right of returning but when I did return and that didn’t go well, that’s when I made the mistake trying to continue training. At that point, it was difficult to know how much more time to take on the second or subsequent break and consequently I probably prolonged my recovery. I know I lost at least 60,000 metres from my target over the course of those three and a half weeks, which is how long it took before I was sure I was recovered and could start swimming properly again.

And then when I could swim again, my conditioning felt like it had reverted to that of early winter. Not really because of the break, but more because of the deterioration in lung capacity. And therefore needing to repeat all the winter work required to get fit once again, not a pleasant prospect.

One of the reasons we struggle to take a break is because it’s tough to look at what training you’ve already completed and know that you are going to lose some or maybe even a lot of your gains. I don’t think I have any particular advice here, just that even with experience, getting the timing right can be difficult as illnesses can take individual recovery trajectories and it’s sometimes very difficult to estimate the time off and the recuperation necessary.

That’s the thing isn’t it? We all keep making mistakes, and we all keep learning.

What is post-exercise fatigue?

Edit: For all those of you who got this by email, WordPress just completely dropped all the formatting, for no reason I can understand, (but it happens occasionally), and you got a giant wall of text. Sorry!

It’s with trepidation I approach this subject. I don’t have the medical background that seems essential in trying to understand all of it so bear with me and any potential mistakes I’ve made.

Years ago I discovered the best questions were the dumbest questions, the ones where you are almost embarrassed to ask, but when you do, you discover more than you hoped to find.

After the two recent posts on the value of long swims and the post swim fatigue caused, I asked myself just what was the fatigue we all experience for a week or longer after long training swims (six hours and greater). It was such an obvious question I felt stupid by framing it to myself. What I found, in as far as I can tell, is that this is an area that is still very much being researched and not all the factors are known. Quoting this abstract on physical fatigue, “physical exercise affects the biochemical equilibrium within the exercising muscle cells. Among others, inorganic phosphate, protons, lactate and free Mg2+ [magnesium] accumulate within these cells. They directly affect the mechanical machinery of the muscle cell”.

As you will see, we could consider this one side of fatigue, that of muscles and the causes of muscle fatigue.

We know that endurance exercise requires energy and for distance swimmers this means first using the glycogen stored in muscles, blood and liver, and after that’s consumed, later switching to ketosis and starting to use fat stores. So there is an initial fatigue or tiredness caused partly by energy depletion. But 24 hours later, the body’s glycogen stores are pretty much replenished (but not entirely, depending on food type High Glycemic Index food replenished stores faster, type of sugar has an effect also, maybe even that the Golden Window oft referred to, isn’t relevant, and various other factors).

We also know, I think, that carb-loading works, and various strategies for carb-loading are better than others. On long swims, depending on effort, type of sessions and previous training, we may experience muscle soreness. Generally, if you are trained enough, this isn’t too common a problem and muscle soreness is a sure obvious sign of over-work. Part of the fatigue and recovery process is for muscles which have been worked to the point of breakdown to recover and the micro lesions get repaired. This is how muscles get bigger and/or stronger. When the exertion is enough, this may result in DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness, that can last for a few days. DOMS is a whole subject onto itself, and it’s not what we’re concerned about here, but similar long-lasting effects without the soreness.

Muscle work is done by a process called the Excitation–contraction coupling mechanism, whereby an electrical discharge at the muscle initiates chemical events at the cell surface, releasing intracellular calcium, which causes calcium sensitive proteins to contract using ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate, produced from glycogen or fat) ultimately causing muscle action. Lower ATP is part of the post-swim energy depletion mentioned above. However for long-term fatigue, the problem is not a lack of phosphate, but an impairment of the excitation–contraction mechanism, and possible other causes. This article, which is based on some actual studies such as this and this, says that part of tiredness, the inability of the person to make the muscles work to what they had previously, is actually also related to changes in the brain and communication between the muscle itself and the intra-cortical area of the brain. It seems like, (if I am reading it all correctly), there is a negative feedback loop operating between the two, with responses from the muscles during a tiring activity signalling the cortex to reduce the force (contraction) that can be applied. That mean it’s not just the muscle’s inability to function but that there is a central nervous system (CNS) fatigue also (whereas the muscular aspect is metabolic fatigue) and it seems that the CNS fatigue is the one that takes longer to recover from, that makes us feel low after long swims. On one study I read, (I seem to have lost the link for that one), it was found that immediately after stopping due to perceived exhaustion (on a cycling stress test), the muscles were still capable of exerting three times the work necessary for the test.

As this study says, “Fatigue from SDE [Short Duration Exercise] may arise primarily from metabolic mechanisms, whereas fatigue from LDE [Long Duration Exercise] involves an additional slowly recovering nonmetabolic mechanism that may arise from impaired activation, beyond the cell membrane, at the level of excitation contraction coupling”. Symptoms of CNS fatigue include lack of motivation, poor mood, impaired cognitive ability and incorrect perceptions of exertion levels –  where we think we’re exercising/swimming harder than we actually are. Sound familiar? The body needs rest and we need to avoid injuring ourselves. Fatigue cold (and has been) even described as a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis. If we didn’t have fatigue feedback, we’d overuse muscles and probably injure ourselves but at the same time, endurance performance itself is limited by perception of effort as the primary reason for stopping. (More to come on this in another post,as so often happens when I start one of these science-based posts). Possible causes of fatigue, long-term and short-term:

  • DOMS
  • CNS fatigue (neurotransmission problems)
  • Insufficient hydration
  • Low insulin
  • Increased ammonia in blood
  • Disturbed hormone and electrolyte levels
  • Other nutritional (vitamin or trace element) deficiency
  • Low glycogen
  • Tryptophan depletion

This isn’t a comprehensive list, just what I’ve come across. I had to stop at some point. :-) I’ve found some impossible to understand (for me) speculation about potential mitochondria damage, and I’m sure there are other possibilities that are completely mainstream. This is all very well and interesting, you probably won’tsay, but what does it mean in terms of recovery? How can we shorten recovery or do it better or differently. Is there anything that helps? I think we’ll stop here, more study is called for, maybe we’ll return to this at some point. :-) There are no smilies in scientific papers.

Lane direction signs

Swimming through it – the value of long swims – addendum

Something was niggling at the back of my mind last week when I wrote the article on  the utility of doing longs swims, and what I’ve learned from them. I felt I’d forgotten something but couldn’t place it.

A question this week prompted me exactly what it was. Amongst the reasons for doing long swims is to get used to knowing how you feel after said long swims, and to understand and improve your recovery process.

After I wrote the article I happened to be checking something else in my swim diary/log, (which now has about five years of detail) and I noticed that almost exactly two years previously on the same weekend, 30th April, 2010, the Magnificent Seven did our toughest ever training session. It was to be a 30k in the pool followed by a trip to the sea for a swim. We completed about 28 kilometres in nine hours (including breaks) before The Boss left us off the hook, finishing strongly with 400 I.M. and at least as I recall, Liam, Eddie and myself ending with butterfly. My training dairy notes show I felt “strong and good”. And then we all decamped to Liam’s House at Ballycroneen for a sea swim taking about an hour to get dressed and get there.


For the Aspirants complaining of the cold this year … the water that day in 2010 was 7.5°  Celsius with onshore wind and overhead waves, and we’d come from the warm pool in Source. We changed in Liam’s garage and walked down wearing coats and I was quickly in the water, no point hanging around, having looked carefully at the breakers and headed straight for a Wave Channel I could see at the west end of the short beach. Eilís was watching on the beach, unusual for her to go near the coast.

I swam through the inside channel gap and duck-dived the outside waves and very quickly I was out back, beyond the breaking waves. By this stage I realised no-one had followed me. I played around body-surfing in the waves for a few minutes and headed back in. A couple of the guys were in shallow water, the rest were out, and everyone was shouting or giving out to me, all having thought I’d been lost at sea!

Ever since, Eilís has been suffering a type of cognitive dissonance, on the one hand knowing I understand waves and tides very well and  on the other, thinking I can’t be trusted around the water. Attempts to explain were ignored; that this was completely normal for my usual training since after all I had no-one to train with, that I made a point of understanding what I doing, and that getting through waves is easy if you understand the principles and that I had been a surfer for years, all were wasted. And the fact that there were six other extremely strong and experienced swimmers present that day was also lost on her. Ever since it’s been the day Donal could have drowned. :-)

But I digress, as usual.

The cold swim that day helped to loosen tight muscles but recovery from the long swim was slow over the next week. I wrote sometime back in 2010 that local Sandycove English Channel Soloist Danny Coholane had identified that every hour training over eight hours added another week to recovery, and we were all agreed on this (having previously swum six, seven and eight-hour training swims).

Swims of five to seven hours took about five days to a week to fully recover. The two training swims of eight hours that year took almost two weeks to recover.

So what do I mean by recovery? As I described in an email during the period there’s a feeling of having little energy or ooomph when you are swimming. Times drop away, swims become much more physically and mentally challenging, you feel like you have nothing in the tank. It varies of course for everyone, but I generally feel okay for a couple of days afterwards and the slump comes for or five days after the swim.

One thing I noticed this year is that extending the time above six hours to eight hours was no longer accompanied by an extra week increase in recovery, the slump lasted about the same time.

So feeling this slump is not the direct value of the long swims, but a side effect. The actual value is in knowing that this feeling is normal, and that you are also Training To Recover.  Too many people don’t seem to consider this aspect. Why go so far into your reserves for a Channel or other swim that you are done with swimming for months or up to a year afterwards?

Related articles

Swimming through it – the value of long pool sessions (loneswimmer.com)

24 miles in 24 hours (loneswimmer.com)