Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Maybe not DURING the actual race, but the person who logs a ton of mileage in preparation for an event is setting themselves up for success. We've all heard it at clinics from the world's best athletes: "time on the water" is what they say time and time again.
However, in our always busy lives, we try to maximize our benefits for time spent. That's the whole HIIT craze. You can get more calories burned, more endurance, increased VO2max, better anaerobic thresholds, be thin, get endorphins, and a slew of benefits in under an hour with HIIT. The internet says so...
Don't get me wrong. I L-O-V-E a good burner workout. They are quick, hard, and you feel pretty good afterwards. They don't require a lot of focus or attention, which also seems to fit the current modus operandi of humans (we're social media flippers, channel surfers, and we can't be asked to focus on anything more than a few minutes at a time). But this lack of focus, and lack of aerobic work isn't good for the mind or the body the way that those long, slow, steady paddles are. The HIIT have a place in the annual training plan. They have a place for stress reduction. They have a place for busy people that want to lose weight or improve fitness. But why are you working out? Why are you running, paddling, or exercising? If it is to look good in a bikini or speedo (yes, sir!) and lose weight, or to just grind out the stress of the day at work, then keep up the HIIT. But if you want to train to WIN a race, slow and steady has a bigger part to play than you may think!
A personal anecdote:
After the stress of packing up my life and moving to California, there was more stress. The town I moved to was ON FIRE which was additionally stressful. Then there were mudslides with more death and destruction, which continued the stress. I kept paddling through the smoke and the muddy water (where I paddle, for some reason unknown to this Marine Scientist, is where they think its safe to dump all the mud from the slides) which compounded my mental stress with physiological stress in my respiratory system and a little bit of a staph infection in my feet. I kept pushing harder on the water and harder in CrossFit. Why?
Because when life is stressful, we try to retain control. Even when the things that are happening are COMPLETELY out of our control; we're human. As athletes, one thing we can control is how we train. A lot of times when we stress out, we train harder. And harder. And... yes... harder. Because we CAN. Its in our CONTROL. We keep doing it until we're run down and tired and its too late.
I've always known that the base miles are super important for our vascular system. When we train below our anaerobic threshold, and more specifically, our ventilatory threshold; we're sending our body a signal that we are relaxed. At this effort level, breathing through the nose, and relaxing, our body is building new blood vessels to fuel our muscles with oxygen and rid the wastes. It's building these vessels so the system is more efficient later when you ask it to go harder. When we give an effort, our heart rate speeds up to get oxygen to, and wastes away from our muscles as quickly as possible. When it can no longer keep up, we must slow down. The heart can do its job better if we have more capillaries to accomplish the task (you deliver more O2 and remove more waste per beat, thus higher speeds at lower heart rates). You don't build these capillaries if you train too hard all the time.
This zone is of further importance when we talk about our brains. I had some "Ah-Hah" moments when reading The Feedback Fallacy in the Harvard Business Review article here.
Our Parasympathetic and Sympathetic systems; also referred to as "Rest and Digest" and "Fight or Flight" respectively, are activated by the type of workout we're doing. You may have heard of breathing exercises that activate your parasympathetic system to help in recovery. Which is a really great tool for in between workouts, doing yoga, and on walks.
My lightbulb moment: "The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates adult neurogenesis (i.e. growth of new neurons)"
it goes on to say that the parasympathetic system stimulates a sense of well being, better immune system functioning and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness. But I kinda knew that already. What blew my mind was ADULT NEUROGENESIS!!
Let that sink in.
We're always working on technique and trying to make paddling second-nature... our goal is to build NEURONS that put us in a state of flow where we're paddling efficiently on auto-pilot. We want to react to waves, bumps, wind; all conditions. We want each stroke to flow and be powerful. We all want to paddle with what appears to be effortless grace as we glide across the water. We CAN do that. But we will never get there training above our ventilatory threshold in the "fight or flight" sympathetic system.
To cultivate technique and flow we must stay at our base when the training calls for it. That's not to say there isn't a time and place for training our anaerobic systems. Higher intensity work will always be a key part of a properly balanced training plan (approximately 80% aerobic to 20% anaerobic to be more precise). We still must build our capabilities for lactate buffering, strength, and endurance. Each requires a little work in that anaerobic zone. The kicker, though: you can handle a much higher intensity and more load if you do more base... NOT the other way around.
Bottom line: you won't ever improve your technique if you go hard all the time. And paddling is more about technique than anything else. That's where MOST of us stand to gain the most speed for time/effort spent. Just some food for thought next time you've had a rough day at work, are feeling run down, or have life stress. Maybe skip the sympathetic paddle and do a parasympathetic paddle instead.