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CFS and pursuing your best life

BLOG: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

I’m not doctor, well, I like to occasionally call myself the ‘Margin Doctor,’ but that’s for fun and business related when margin shows up and there is a celebration of sorts to be had. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is no joke. Here is one definition: Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that lasts for at least six months and that can't be fully explained by an underlying medical condition. The fatigue worsens with physical or mental activity but doesn't improve with rest.

Wow. Can you imagine not feeling better with rest? Actually, I think many Fit Professionals can indeed relate to elements of the CFS definition. In fact, many have flirted with such a state of being and found their way back to normalcy. In May of 2022 I thought I might be approaching this state; fading energy, rest not improving, and many measures seemingly in freefall; both business and on the bike. After a robust and successful mountain bike training block in the sunny skies of Arizona, I returned to one of the worst springtime weather March and April’s on record. Although the region in Wisconsin managed to dodge that 8- or 14-inch springtime wet snow dump, it was wet and cold hovering just above freezing with very few sunny days. The training demands required at least some outdoor rides. Slogging along offroad as the frost exits the ground creating maximum rolling resistance on my personal soggy loop which lays out quite nice for interval work on the mountain bike. Yuck (the slog and the weather, not the loop). My training off road loop is roughly .9 miles for one lap, lets call it a mile. Endless laps – go hard, go easy, go hard, go easy, go hard, go easy… well, you get the picture. All in quest for a personal best in my ‘A’ race event this September. Intervals, after all, are a key tactical training requirement to improve on the bike. And consistency gets results. To take even a few days off will impact your fitness downward. And that fitness comes with a lot of work over a long period of time. One tends to be a bit greedy with it and the desire to keep it at least where you’ve ‘earned it’ to, is substantial.

Coming off the trek back to Wisconsin with the trailer full of bikes and weights and benches, and kits and kind of everything my wife, Shelley, and I use, I did feel a little bit tired. The long drive home, typically about 28 hours, also adds a unique fatigue: This combined with a two-hour time change hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. We take 3 long days to make the trip. Just cut 27 hours this trip back with Shelley’s superior navigation skills finding a super route going north of Kansas City.

So, hard training, long trip, gloomy weather, time change, hmmm. Does this add up to the doldrums on the trainer and in the not one-bit comfortable outdoor rides on the mountain bike? Not sure. To top off ‘hard things’ that were happening, It was time in the regiment for the infamous FTP test where you kick ass for 20 minutes and take .95 of that as your reference point for the next training block. This time of year, most would do this inside on their trainer. I noted a slight uptick in weather, and always value the number on the bike a bit more personally. So, I went outside and rode.

Most everything comes off this on a percentage basis used to calculate various training days that ultimately work your major muscular, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Its pretty interesting science beyond the scope of this blog; and I’ll be the first to say ‘I don’t even know what I don’t know’ about the science. But this fact makes me hungry to learn. Point here really is an FTP test is hard. It checks the box for your ‘hard thing’ to do each day. Not that you do this every day! But for a single day, it checks the hard thing box.

Anyway, I ride a personal best 20 minutes average power on my watt meter. I was relieved I didn’t drop and a bit disappointed it was only 2.7% better than my fall ride. I wanted more of course. Like I mentioned, the effort was in a ‘weather window’ and I did successfully dodge the rain that day, but not the crazy spring winds in Wisconsin. As usual, gusts to 16 to 20 mph that day. I did feel some satisfaction about being ‘the only one out’ on the road that day, at least on my end of town, that ‘braved’ the elements, especially for this test. Its just not so popular with cyclists. But a necessary evil if you want to progress effectively.

Ok, so feeling pretty good. My training benchmark gets moved up, albeit less than I wanted. I tried to talk my coach, a world cup XC mountain bike champion, into bumping the benchmark another 5 watts. He wouldn’t.

Turns out, from that day, for the next 15 days, my performance started to fade. Not just from the new benchmark, which would have been palatable for a period, but from the old one. No, rather it fell like a stone thrown into a pond, at least from my perspective. I get this springtime asthma uptick every year released by the molds that kicked up in the spring winds, but that is not a new thing. And I’ve worked through it successfully many springs. This was different. I do think the chronic asthma condition prevents quality sleep more than I’d like to acknowledge, but again, I’ve weathered these springtime obstacles many times.

Any of this sounding familiar to the reader yet? Remove the asthma thing, do you have a drop in a key and quality measure, like my watt meter, showing you that even with perceived efforts approaching 8,9, and 10 out of 10, you are still fading? Even after rest? It doesn’t matter what your sport, hobby, work or activity is that is driving this.

And its not all on the mountain bike. Work suffered over this period. Focus, motivation, and results. This part really is a cage rattler. After all, the proceeds from the workplace fuel the rest of our lives through the means provided. A three week or more drop in performance likely is going to be noticed by subordinates, peers, and superiors. Fatigue gets to a point you long for a mid-day nap every day. Wouldn’t that be nice! However, in today’s work cultures, very few, especially North American, allow a mid-day nap (1). Napping is just not a viable recovery add on for most Fit Professionals.

Its complex. I don’t believe I had CFS. But I do totally buy the possibility that without some changes, and changes right now, I’d be rolling down the trail possibly ending up there. And if that would happen, most certainly the goals I have on both the mountain bike and at business would certainly suffer. Suddenly, this s _ _ t gets really serious if it runs unchecked. My coach tried to explain that too many intervals and possibly certain changes in diet, including too much sugar off the bike (we call them ‘carbs’ on the bike), can hit type one muscle fibers causing them to lose their ability to perform. I’ll leave it there as I don’t’ understand all the science. Regardless, the feeling of pushing against a concrete floor on the bike and at work is real. And the numbers don’t lie. You, the athlete, and I did in this case, must be honest about your effort level. Did you really reach for that 9/10 or 10/10 effort? Only you know. A 9 or 10 out of ten efforts over a week or two with falling results is, I now realize, could be a clear sign you are not executing on the recovery. But you must be careful. The last two weeks of a tough twelve-week training block can feel similar to be sure. It’s not the result, it’s the perceived effort. Its mental stress and fatigue. During the hardest parts of the physical effort there is almost a panic. And I’m not talking about the feeling we asthmatics get when we are short air, its this, ‘oh my god, there is nothing there!’ kind of panic. As if the last three months of gains just may have vanished on you. It is a new and unfamiliar lack of ability to push. It is different to me, by a long shot, then the fatigue at a the end of twelve-week training block. What was easy for you, like holding x watts on a flat with no wind or hammering out a routine meeting agenda for your staff meeting, all of a sudden feel like you are acclimating at basecamp three on mount Everest. Yeah, you stay in the tent. Because one step out, and you’re just wobbling and exhausted. You might then avoid the push on the next interval or take a short cut at prep for the meeting. Maybe even call in sick. This is serious territory. You might think, ‘what have I done?’ You need to pay attention to this. I sure will in the future. I definitely have the mental ability to go attempt the workout. It happened as I transitioned with my coach in this case. Had a very difficult 2 min hard start way above my FTP (this is balls out for you non cyclists) with 10 mins at FTP with a short rest; repeat 4 times. Hard. I was ready to give it a go. Why? Even though I felt I would not come close to the target numbers, I did know I’d put up 9’s and 10’s out of 10 on effort. Bad idea. Quality coach stopped from this potentially damaging progression. And it took me being honest with him. Not bravado, or ego, or whining, good old honesty. This combined with data and a trusted third party looking out for my wellbeing and progression is effective and necessary in moving you to more personal bests.

As I write this blog, I’m right at the transition. That is the realization something is off. And a third-party stakeholder, well actually two, my coach and my wife Shelley, both make sure I know a few things. First, its ok to recover – that was my wife. I for the first time in seventeen months of training with this awesome coach blew off a ride he had scheduled (he was at a race and holiday so day off for him and no option for correspondence). My scheduled ride was a 4-hour endurance level ride at the end of an interval week. Super important in the scheme of things on the bike. But not super important as it relates to my health, my ability to be present for my family, and my ability to produce results at work. I took Shelley’s advice an skipped the workout. It was really very difficult to not ride. It was emotional. It started as feeling like quitting and Fit Professionals are not quitters, right? However, once I got inside the time window I was supposed to be riding, and as I sat on the couch determined to recovery the best I could, I noticed the absence of my typical energy level, the feeling in my arms and shoulders and legs and chest, just like the air is let out; gravity ruled in that moment. No, I wasn’t sick. Again, beyond the asthma, no symptoms. But the known factor is the long training block in Arizona, the recent ramp up of training, the spring start up rat-race at work, training a new management team, working on a Startup and just general life routine. It was all exhausting. I had found my line. And man, it snuck up so, so sneaky. Boom! Here it was.

A clear shared characteristic of Fit Professionals would be their competitive, no quite attitude. With Fit Professionals, this attribute really does manifest itself into action. Action continues. At work, with family, with friends, with the community, with the athletic or fitness goal. Its real. We move forward.

As much as I’m an advocate for ‘out of balance’ in some portions of your life over time, and sometimes a long time, to hit your most important objectives, I think ‘in balance’ must be recovery worked smartly into the hard days; and into the prolonged pushes, whether it’s a work project or several months of focused training chasing your personal best in your sport. All these ‘hard things’ wear you down: Those hard intervals on the bike. Same in the gym, or the CrossFit room, or the run, or the pool. Same for keeping up with the kid’s routines. How many of the readers have more than one kid (not that one kid is easy) in middle school and high school? It’s a good idea to stay fit just so you can keep up with those years! Ditto at work. That planning project, yearend routine, tax audit, or new initiative at work. Where the call of duty pushes you to your line, and sometimes over.

I am not endorsing NOT approaching and going over your line. In fact, for breakthroughs one must occasionally do just that, go over your line that signifies your limit in a particular area.

The issue is learning from this. Backing off so there is no CFS, because it is real, and it is serious, and it will set you back in a significant way. The point of this blog is, take your recovery as seriously as your training. Take your weekend rest as seriously as you do your prize project at work. Make recovery part of your routine. And be honest about where you are.

My epiphany ‘this time’ was how this snuck up on me. And how steep the drop off was. It rattled my cage. It definitely got into my head. It impacted way more than the mountain bike. Really reached into everything in my day. The challenge is still there. It is NOT crystal clear how much rest I need and when relative to what I was doing. But what I know is more recovery must be worked in. I’m competitive. I have big goals at my companies and for my Startup projects. I want a personal best in my A race in September. However, I must find a new balance. One where I push, but where I can keep the line going up, but maybe at a flatter slope. Maybe the plan should take some plateaus, maybe it should incorporate some steep sections followed by deliberate recovery sections, etc. I know my coach will work appropriate changes in based on his vast experience and access to resources.

It could be just that. A coach can act like a throttle on a car. And he can be the brake. The coach will use their experience to gage action yet still optimize improvement. It’s a trial-and-error phenomenon likely unique to each individual. Certainly, it can be optimized, but rest assured, you will find this fatigue zone as you progress on your self-improvement journey. And as long as it is caught and managed, its oddly satisfying to find it. In the fog of the fatigue, knowing the last five months you busted your ass and got results cannot be taken away from you. Its also anxiety reducing to come to understand backing off and recovery at the right time is necessary and will improve results even more. It is part of the process. And sometimes those close to you and those you depend on to coach, can and do make the right call, even if its not what you want to hear.

I hope that this has helped you in some way to more effectively become all you can be and to live your best life. If you are interested in more discussion on this topic or would like to consider TheFitProfessional1’s advisory, coaching, and consulting alternatives, let me know. Getting a trusted third party that cares about you, your objectives and looks out for your wellbeing besides your next personal best is a really good idea. Very best wishes for many great days! Rock on! Let’s get to work!

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(1) Please consider reading ‘Why we Sleep’ by Matthew Walker.

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