Kathryn's secret weapons: food and rest

Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 5 of her series, Bertine takes some well-deserved time off to rest her mind and body.

After a month in Belgium, where I train, race and write at odd hours on a daily basis, I announce to my host family that I'm taking a day off the bike tomorrow. It is dinnertime. They put down their fries with mayo and stare at me.

"But you have to train," my host mom Els declares. "It's March."

I am then lectured on cycling in Belgium, and how brutal winters force cyclists indoors from December through February. March, therefore, means everyone gets on their bicycles. No arguing. When it's March, you ride. I explain to Els that, coming from Tucson, we have March every day. (Until June, and then we have Hades.) I've been training and racing all through the year. I'm tired. Even if it is March. So I'm going to rest for one day. Thus proving, surprisingly, I'm also getting smarter.

At the age of 35, I'm faster and stronger on the bike than I was four years ago when I started my cycling path. Any sports physiologist will agree; muscles and the cardiovascular system take time to build. So too, it seems, does the brain. And heart -- the metaphorical version, not just the squishy pumping one. In 2011, I have three things I didn't in 2010: a husband, a job and a journey. All three have calmed me, invigorated me, and given me a fantastic dose of dedication and perspective. Amazing what can happen when issues of singlehood, unemployment and life direction are replaced with love, career and personal happiness. Mental energy can be channeled into much better places. As an athlete, the clarity in my head and heart made me able to listen to my body much better than ever before. I was amazed at some of the things it said, like "Rest, you weirdo."

I used to train very hard -- all the time. The result was crankiness, exhaustion and burnout. So I began incorporating more rest days into my training program, cutting back on the junk miles and listening to aching muscles or creaky joints. I started eating more. Healthy stuff, but just more of it. I'd think, "Here I am, trying to get to the Olympics, training less and eating more. That's backwards." But guess what? It's working. Sure enough, when it comes time to throw down a hard interval workout or execute a tough race, my body can handle it and respond better than before. True, I'm not yet winning the world championships. But I'm able to stay closer to the women who are.

I explain this to my host family, and despite the fact that it's March, they try to see my perspective.

"Here," Els says, thrusting a plate of Belgian endive wrapped in ham and mayo toward me. "Eat more. Tomorrow we buy some special Belgian chocolate to help get you to the Olympics."

My head wonders if I'll need to run the "special chocolate" by WADA, but ultimately I listen to my body. "Gimme," it says.

So I take a rest day -- in March! -- and I visit some sights in Brussels, buy some chocolate and waffles, and proceed to have one of my best races the following week. Amazing what can happen when we actually listen to ourselves.

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