When I was finishing up the hike in September, I figured "Hey! I'm in great shape! My endurance is great. I'll just use that endurance and enroll in a marathon for October or something! It'll be cake. Afterall, when you are used to putting in 20 mile days back to back, one unweighted 26 mile day on flat ground will be nothing!" Plus, I figured, I was so used to exercising for 10 to 12 miles per day, that I'd be able to just transition into shorter sessions with much higher intensity with no problem whatsoever. I figured by the end of the year, I'd be like an Olympic athlete.
Aside from the glaring facts that 1) very few people have even a remote chance of reaching the elite status of Olympic athlete and 2) at age 43, my window for competing in the Olympics has pretty much closed, I had also forgotten two very important concepts of fitness training: specificity and recovery.
Specificity refers to the concept that the way you train will reflect the physiologic changes that take place in your body and the functional improvements that result from those changes. So, if you train for speed, your training activities will be performed at a high velocity so as to produce an increase in type II muscle fibers which are most active in high speed activities. If you train for endurance, your training will be more of the long slow distance variety, targeting type I and type IIA fibers to produce improvements in the aerobic capacity of the muscles at lower speed. In other words, train like a sprinter and become a good sprinter. Train like a hiker and become hiker trash.
So, yes, I was used to putting in 20 mile days back to back and one unweighted 26 mile day on flat ground would have been nothing...if I were walking. Running 26 miles on the other hand? Would take some training. In running shoes. While running. No marathon for me in October.
And the high intensity, shorter duration workouts I jumped into? Left me really, really, really sore. It was like I had never worked out in my life! Because essentially, as far as my muscles were concerned, I hadn't worked the elements of power and high force production in 6 months. I may as well have been sitting on the sofa eating Doritos. (Ok, not really. But essentially I was asking my muscles to perform in a way I hadn't asked them to perform in 6 months and wondering why they were protesting.)
And speaking of protests, my feet were protesting. For the last -- oh-- month of the hike, my toes were completely numb and my feet would swell up at night. I had gone up one full shoe size because of the chronic swelling in my feet, even with my nightly use of compression stockings, ice, and self massage. After I got home, I decided I'd take it easy until the numbness in my feet went away and then I'd be ready to hit it hard!
It reminds me of treating patients after sports injuries or even surgeries, who would see that the swelling was down and assume they were ready to go back to full contact play. "Oh, no," I'd tell them. "That was just the first step. We got rid of the acute swelling, and now we have to rehab the underlying injuries and the muscle imbalances that contributed to the injuries. That's step two. After that, we can work on conditioning to get you back in shape for your sport. That's step three. And then you can work with your coach and athletic trainer to go from practicing with the team (step four) to fully playing (step five). Don't try to skip the steps! You just get re-injured." Oh, wasn't I self righteous!
Yet when it came to me, I completely disregarded my own recovery! That six week long inability to feel my toes? Was a chronic overuse injury. (Metatarsalgia and mild plantar fasciitis. With maybe a touch of achilles tendonitis. Whatevs. It's all the same fascia) I waited until the swelling was in check, and then tried to jump from step one right to step five without proper strengthening and conditioning. Oh, wasn't I a bone head!
Even in the absence of an injury, recovery is a vital part of any training program. No athlete completes an Ironman and does a speed workout the next day. No runner completes a marathon and plans hill repeaters the following week. No Olympian steps off the podium ready to hit it hard tomorrow. And for good reason. These athletes know that they need to recuperate, both physically and mentally from all the hard work of their training and from the high intensity of their event. Workouts become more generalized, less intense, and at a much lower volume in an effort to give themselves a rest and prevent burnout.
Luckily, even though I can act like a complete bonehead sometimes, I am pretty good at listening to my body. And even though my head was saying "The intensity was so low!" my body was saying "The volume was so high!" My body needed rest.
So this October, I've done some trail running, some walking, some road running. I've toyed around with some bootcamp style workouts and calisthenics. But I've also rested. I stretched. I allowed my really really really sore muscles to take the day off instead of pushing through it. I let go of the illusion of being like an Olympic athlete by the end of the year. (But not my plans to watch every single event of the upcoming winter Olympics as is feasibly possible!)
In November, my goals are to be more consistent and lay down a nice, solid fitness foundation. Life off the trail takes a lot of athletic prowess, after all!