This is a story of Marjaana Rakai, a wife, mom, coach and an age-group triathlete. With a background in cross-country skiing, she discovered long-distance triathlon in 2015 and wanted to find out how good she could get. While still on that journey, her focus has shifted away from pure performance at the cost of her health, to putting her health in the driver’s seat. Now, she allows her prioritized health to unleash her performance.
With ambitions to qualify for the World Championships in Kona, she embarked on her Ironman journey in the fall of 2018. Initially, Marjaana responded well to hard training and achieved third place AG in her first Ironman in 2019. However, in the summer of 2021, she found herself exhausted and waking up with horrible headaches. After extensive medical tests, she was told she had overtraining syndrome with a dysfunctional hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis system (see figure 1).
Maffetone PB, Laursen PB. Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy? Sports Medicine – Open. Volume 2, Article number: 24 (2016). Full access here.
Recovering from overtraining meant letting go of the routine she had been on since 2018. It took her six months of really easy training under her Sports Medicine Doctor’s supervision. The main focus was to feel good. Stress was lowered. She was given the green light in November to get back into triathlon training.
Marjaana intuitively knew she needed someone to look over her training to make sure she didn’t fall back into the old habits of overdoing it. She had already tested the Athletica platform earlier in 2021 and liked the way it worked. She contacted Paul and decided to give Athletica a new go under the guidance of coach Paul using Athletica’s Coaching software.
The initial testing week allowed her to re-define all her training zones, including threshold heart rates, cycling power, swim and run paces, without intensive lab testing.
“I love how the intensity zones are automatically updated as I train and run races and my fitness increases without having to do additional testing. Previously, my training programming would “hang behind” because it was waiting for someone to input new zones. This program is brilliant!”
As a busy mom of three young children, with all their hobbies, school runs and being a coach herself, life sometimes happens and sessions need to be changed, sometimes skipped. As an athlete, it feels like a relief to know that if a session, or five (!) gets missed, it is not a problem for Athletica to re-calculate the training program, still making sure the athlete is optimizing performance.
“When you have a coach who has spent time thinking through a training week, it can sometimes feel like a pain in the behind to ask to change the plan because of illness, work, kids are sick, the cat just died etc. When you have Athletica adjust and re-adjust your training week in seconds or minutes, without getting mad or frustrated, the coach and athlete can focus on the essentials.”
When March rolled along, Marjaana was confidently excited about the 70.3 Ironman Dubai. As always, the training block never goes exactly as planned, or hoped, and she had developed tendonitis after cross-country skiing in Finland. This prevented her from running too much at all for most of January and February.
Besides this niggle, Marjaana contributes her performance to the fact that she was really happy and healthy. She had the energy to train, work AND have a busy family schedule. She was regularly engaging in self-care like meditation and yoga which she felt was allowing her to calm the nervous system that previously had been on hyperdrive. She felt like she was right where she needed to be in her journey.
“Health really does come first. Sure some training days are hard and you’re tired and just want to go to sleep. But overall Athletica’s plan has never felt like I am digging myself into a hole. In fact, the plan always seemed really easy. The hard days are hard, but they never go over the top where I feel like I can’t recover. And because of my overtraining experience, I am really more in-tune to watch the signs that my body is sending, like bad sleep. Specifically, when waking up to night sweats, headaches or excessive swelling or numbness in my hands. The plan is always keeping me busy and training happily. And when life throws lemons, Athletica makes lemonade by adjusting the plan!”
Back to the race day in March, on a very hot day, she snatched third place in the 40-44 year group and qualified for the 70.3 Ironman World Championships in October.
“It was not a perfect race after playing yo-yo with a bunch of guys on the bike and feeling low energy due to sloppy nutrition. I just wasn’t feeling hungry and didn’t take enough energy in the days leading into the race, which probably was partly due to nerves and unwillingness to end up with GI issues on the run. The heat hit me like a brick wall as I got off the bike. I didn’t know how I would be able to run 21K in this heat and felt like I had nothing to give. But having my family and friends there to cheer me on I just had to find the willpower to put one foot ahead of the other. It was pure Finnish Sisu all the way. I even walked parts of the run. I was so cooked. But after the last turn back at about 17K I experienced a flow and was able to bring it home. It was at the end of the run that I managed to pull a minute lead on the girl who was in third place at 17K.“
Having been overtrained, Marjaana has been a little apprehensive about doing a lot of high-intensity intervals, but the way Athletica’s sessions are designed and the load calculated personally for her just works!
“I don’t carry the extreme fatigue I used to, AND I keep on improving! I used to think my biking was the weakest link, but now I know I am the strongest on the bike! This is giving me so much confidence going to St. George, as the bicycle path I use in Dubai is pancake flat. My power on the bike and speed on the run has improved tremendously over the short few months. The way I train now is by playing to my strength while improving my weaknesses. I used to do at least 2 min long VO2 max intervals and found those incredibly taxing. It would take days before I felt I was fresh to hit it hard again. But with Athletica, the hard days don’t feel as hard because VO2 intervals are based on HIIT Science, and I am doing 30s really hard followed by 30s easy. This allows me to hit HIGH external load (power) while keeping internal load lower compared to longer intervals. I LOVE my 30/30s.”
“I feel extremely lucky to be able to play this game in triathlon, and because of my experience with the health issues with overtraining, I really appreciate the feeling I have when I’m healthy. I am still learning and trying to balance out the hard work and feeling of health, but with Athletica and Paul, I am always reminded: The Feeling Trumps All. Keep listening to my body and adjust as needed.”
“Athletica and the whole team behind it have been so incredibly supportive of my journey and I am proud to represent them as an ambassador. As a coach, in the future, I am also going to use Athletica with my athletes in running, triathlon and cross-country skiing. And that is the true testimony of how much I believe in this system!“