Overtraining ~ The fitness abyss
information in this factsheet follows on from the previous graph-laden
treatise of Intensity v Volume and
Fitness v Rest. This factsheet
should be particularly relevant at this point in the season (June/July/August)
as it explains what can happen if you constantly chase your fitness at
the expense of recovery.
Okay, let's get this out in the open straight away. As a confirmed
slacker, at no point in the past, present or future have I ever, or will
I ever, suffer from overtraining. Or, to give it it's posh title,
Unexplained Under Performance Syndrome.
frequently underperformed, but never due to training too much! So, what you are about to
read is a combination of anecdotal evidence, information I've picked up
from athletes who've come to me, journal reviews and plain old snake
oil and voodoo, with some smoke and mirrors practitioning thrown in for good
Having said all that, please
take note of the following content. This is serious stuff.
You can wreck your whole season, and more besides, just for the sake of
a little objectivity, planned rest and quality recuperation.
There's no point being the fittest person on a sickbed. How sad
would that be?
Anyway, here we go! Last time we looked
at the correlation between fitness and freshness. It was reflected
in the magical medium of graphs. Graphs are good, graphs can be
used to reinforce perceptions, forewarn peaks and troughs or something
to bore the rest of the family with. Here's where we left off last
You can see after a very
steady September and October I was as fresh as a daisy on the 1st
November with a Training Stress Balance of 12.9
and a Chronic Training Load of 33.
So I was very fresh, very untrained and at 72 kilos, carrying a little
"pre-winter, winter weight". I was, in the words of Valentino Rossi, "verrry 'appy".
Come February, I was
considerably less fresh, with a Training Stress
Balance of -65 (yes that's a minus sign!)
but had driven my Chronic Training Load
to 87.9; an all time high! I struggled to keep my
weight up to 72 kilos, as I didn't want to be too lean too soon but also
didn't want to have to be losing weight too quickly come the season
As all the best financial
analysts do, I could have predicted the continuation of the graph to
finish the year with a CTL of 200 and a TSB of -100. How good
would that be? Not very is the answer. At some point along
that projected path would be disaster; a fitness cliff edge from which
there is only one direction, down.
Stay Away From The Edge...
Our job as athletes is to get
as close to our cliff edge as we can, without going over it. We
need to be a Road Runner, not a Coyote. Most people don't know
where their edge is until they've gone over it. For some, it's too
late and at best a season is lost.
To be honest,
most of us (through general fatigue) will be forced to stop at some point
at or near the edge; just in time to grab that hanging branch of
recovery. But you have to realize you're near the edge and you
have to reach for the branch. Failure to do either, again, will
result in a lost season.
It takes a very, very
motivated and obsessively driven athlete to go in to full blown
overtraining. Most non-professionals suffer from what I term
"extended-overreaching". It's still not good, but it is fixable a
damn sight easier than its bigger, uglier, half-brother, overtraining.
Balance is Key
Improving as an athlete, to realize your true potential, is
undertaken by finding the constantly moving "adaptation
balance point" between training and recovery.
too little, or conversely recover too much, and you will always
underperform to your potential due to a lack of fitness.
Train too hard, or fail to
adequately recover, and you will always under perform to your potential
due to a lack of freshness.
As we said last time, find
the fitness/freshness balance point through correct levels of
training/recovery and you find your form; and form (with a degree of
tactical acumen) wins races.
people recognise the signs and remain in balance. This factsheet will
help you identify your limit by pointing out the signs and signals your
body sends to you to protect you from overtraining. All you have to do is recognise them, then act
on the information they're sending you.
The harder you train, the fitter you get, the harder it is to get more fitter. Not a classically structured sentence
in an Oscar Wilde sense I grant you,
but stick with it and I'll explain...
Say it's November and you do
a twenty minute interval at 230 watts and get an average heart rate of
195 bpm. Then, after a day's recovery you do it again; your heart
rate is now 193 bpm.
Carry on repeating for a
couple of months and come January (apart from being bored stupid) your
heart rate is now 165 bpm. You've become very good at 230w, 20
minute intervals. So good in fact that it's no longer challenging
or developing you as an athlete. In fact, it's probably now
classed as a recovery ride! That, dear readers, is adaptation.
At some preceding point
(which is a lot, lot sooner than you think) you should have increased
the power or effort duration to advance your adaptation point. As
you'll recall from previous factsheets, athletic development is achieved
through manipulating the Frequency, Intensity or Time of a given
As the weeks pass, the
adaptation and development gained from carrying out this exercise will
diminish. If you added 10 watts every third week to the session,
your fitness would have risen significantly, along with the training
stress, but not necessarily the fatigue.
At some point your fitness
gains will reach a plateau. At some point you will reach a level
of fitness beyond which the returns on effort diminish significantly or
disappear completely. Realize this and move on. Don't keep
doing the same things and expect different results. It's the first
sign of madness.
definitely the best way to find your adaptation point is to carry out a
Performance Evaluation Test.
The results from the test will validate your previous block of training
and set the training levels for your next. Never underestimate the
value of a test and always regularly place one in your training plan.
Overreaching is a fantastic feeling.
When you get back from your first five hour ride of the year and have
that warm glow of happy tiredness about you, you know it's all coming
You were slightly tired
before you set out, but you knew you'd prepared well and you knew you
had it within you to achieve your goal for the day.
Having objectively reviewed
your plan, you knew that once you'd dusted this puppy you'd have a
recovery week. During that recovery week you'd perhaps have that
Indian meal you'd promised yourself as a reward for eating well and
working hard in the previous three weeks.
At the back end of the
recovery week you'd have taken a performance evaluation test and
validated your training gains and set new benchmarks for your next
psychologically you're now ready to bounce back and take on more intense
sessions. You knew all this because you'd prepared a structured
training plan that had built in overreaching and in built recovery to
allow maximum, controlled, sustainable adaptation to take place.
Our body can cope with this
gently rising level of training stress and fatigue for quite some time.
Keep it up and you are well on your way to winning a nice shiny trophy.
Overtraining is a horrible, lost, empty
feeling. When you get back from your first five hour ride of the
year and have that battered, cold desolation of extreme exhaustion about
you, you begin to think it's all falling apart.
You were very tired before
you set out, having not slept well the night before. You knew
you'd prepared as hard as physically possible. You even threw in a
few last-minute extra sessions because you thought you'd underestimated
your requirements so tried to "top-up" your fitness levels. You
did this because you didn't think you had it within you to achieve your
goal for the day.
Having subjectively reviewed
your plan, you knew that once you'd dusted this puppy you'd have to skip
your recovery week because your training can't be working if you're this
slow. Your world is beginning to fall apart and the only way to
get back on track is to train harder and skip a few rest days.
You know all this because
your structured training plan now has more red ink and scribbles on it
than one of my old school reports. Fear of failure is driving you
towards the cliff edge. Training is becoming a chore to endure and
life is pretty bloody miserable. And what's worse, you've had a
cold for the last three weeks!
body cannot, and will not, cope with this inflated level of training
stress and fatigue. You are about to become very ill indeed and
become the recipient of this hard earned but totally undeserved badge of
Except, there's nothing
dishonourable about it. You just failed to recognise the signals
and continued to push on with commendable, but misguided verve. No
one can knock your commitment, intelligence maybe, but commitment never.
It was so easy to prevent
this situation arising. If only you knew what to look out for.
We're all different and we're all different at different
times. Training hard gives you the capacity to train hard.
But training harder and harder and harder will, without adequate rest
and recovery time, lead to some or all of the following:
Exhaustion, rather than fatigue
Inability to sleep
Reduced sustainable power outputs
Increased resting heart rate
Reduced maximum heart rate
Niggling injuries or cuts that won't heal
or not getting rid of colds
Not looking forward to training
Lack of concentration
Tactical confusion in race situations
Abandoning a race or training session
Then getting really angry/sad about it
Loss of focus on the goal
Easily psyched-out by opposition
Negative internal voice
This is a by no means, excuse
the pun, exhaustive list. If you notice any of the above, you need
to consult your training diary (or better still, get someone else to
look at it for you) to see if you are either
training too hard, or not recovering fully.
DO NOT ignore the subliminal
and sometimes explicit messages your body is sending you. No one
ever lost a race through taking a rest day!
Prevention rather than cure
It's far better to surf the wave of training adaptation than
crash and burn in the white water of overtraining. So how can you
tell where your break point is?
a power meter, and Training Peaks, it's easy. All you need to do
is monitor your reaction to your training stress. Without a power
meter, you just need to be more diligent in keeping your training
records up to date. You need to record the quantity and quality of
your training and make a note of how you feel before, during and after
your training sessions.
Analyse & Consult
It may seem a little anal,
and over-the-top but the better you become as an athlete, and the closer
you get to your goal, the more these attentions to detail matter.
It really is that important. What have you got to lose by trying
it for a month or two?
There are many ways to
monitor your training some, in my opinion, are better than others.
Here I'll try to give the pros and cons of each method.
Miles or Kilometres
Some riders break their training down in to distance over a
given period. A week, a month or a specific training block.
It's was probably all we did in the 80's because that's all we
I remember each January,
Cycling Weekly used to print a centre page pull out of graph paper so we
could plot out mileage and impress our friends!
It was the first question you
asked when you met another rider. How many miles have you done? Some didn't do interval training until they had a
1000 miles in their legs. Mileage is a start, but it gives no indication to
the effort or intensity expended to cover the distance measured.
Some riders break their training in to hours. This was a
favourite of coaches in the late 80's early 90's. If you can train
for 10 hours a week, that's 500 hours a year. You then measure your effort and recovery cycles on
time and periods of time.
Again, time suffers the same
issues as distance. Without a quantifier of effort it's difficult
to measure the quality of the time trained and the fatigue caused by
that time spent riding. Ten hours of club runs give a far
different training stress than ten hours of 60 second killer intervals.
Rating Perceived Effort
This was the scale that pre-dated heart monitors. Borg
identified two scales; a 1 to 10 and a 6 to 20. The lower number
was easy the higher number very, very hard. The 6-20 numbers were
supposed to relate to perceived heart rate activity divided by 10.
You can still use it, but
often when at the end of a training block or on a bad day, you'd be
more inclined to over-rate the effort you were putting out. For
inexperienced athletes, it's very easy to under train using
My three "Scally" brothers believe that you are "allocated" so many heart beats
to last your entire life. When you've used them all up, you go off
to a better place. They don't train, they don't run, they don't do
anything that may burn up heartbeats at a faster rate than they have to.
Even though I'm the oldest, I expect to outlast them all!
However, heart rate was the
way to go before power meters arrived, and they still offer a
semi-viable proposition. Although obviously you need to monitor
time spent in your heart zones for this to be of any use. But at
least we now have a quantifier against which to measure our effort.
You'd be mightily surprised
of how many people I see with heart monitors that don't know their
resting, or maximum heart rate!
Also, when you're tired you may
have problems getting your heart rate up to previous highs. Some people see this as
a problem (for the wrong reasons) and train harder to get their heart in
the "right" zone. The spectre of overtraining is just
around the corner...
By now you all know my thoughts on using a power meter.
The power meter itself won't make you a better rider, but using the
information it provides will. Training Stress is the tool that allows
you to identify the quality and quantity of your training, against your
current level of fitness.
Monitoring Training Stress
a power meter, as
you saw from the previous sheets, you have the
capacity to record and understand the Training Stress Score (TSS) placed on your body.
Using these tools, it's
possible to record the cumulative stresses over a period of time.
Each session, as can be seen on the right, gives a TSS score which is
based on your current level of fitness. 250 watts for 45 minutes
in November gives a much higher training stress than it does in the
middle of July.
We can plot this information
on a graph with training peaks.
From experience I know when
I'm getting to my point of diminishing returns. At the end of a
steadily increasing three month block of three weeks on, one week off, I
start to get "the signs". Just like graphs, sign's are good.
But only if you take notice of them.
It starts with a dizziness if
I stand up too quick. As sad as I am, I see this as a good sign.
If I continue training hard for a further week, I get mouth ulcers and if I still don't
back off, a week later I'll get a cold sore. Nice!
It's my aim, to get
all of these symptoms at the back end of February, just before the
season starts. It's then my aim, to make sure I don't get them
again until June when I begin to peak for my main objectives.
The more of the above signs I
get, the closer I'm getting to the edge of my personal sustainable
training effort cliff.
As I write this, three weeks
24 hours of Ventoux, and two days after having my backside
kicked all around Brittany by
Hinault I have that tingle on the top lip that means just one
thing. It's nearly time to back off...
But the beauty of measuring
and constantly monitoring my TSS is that I already knew that.
Now we come back to our graphs. If you remember, I
pushed myself to an all time high for the middle of February.
Here's what happened from February to June.
You can see that even though
the competitive season started in April, I've slacked
right off. In the intervening period between events, I recover and
throttle back on both intensity and duration. The high pink spikes
are events; the yellow lines indicate levels of freshness; and the blue
line is current fitness.
I let the fitness bleed away
because I knew I would be unable to sustain such an intensity in the
early season. I need to be fit for Ventoux and possibly the
Le Mans 24 Hours in August. So I need to have fitness room
in which to move. And I'm safe in the knowledge that my fitness is
already in the bank and I can push to a monthly TSS of 2600 without
Here's a years worth of numbers to peruse to give you a sense of how to
manipulate training to give the TSS (Training Stress Scores) you desire.
It also shows the "flow" of a training year as the season moves from:
September & October ~ Recovery;
November to January ~ Winter build;
February & March ~ Pre-Competition;
April & May ~ Early Competition
▼ June to August ~ Competition
I've highlighted May to show
how, after the back off in April I spoke about in the graph immediately
above, I came back with PB's in one, five and twenty minute power
outputs. Despite riding in May the equivalent of twenty-six and
three-quarter 25 mile TT's.
It also shows I'm heading in
the right direction for June/July/August when the big events take place.
I'm still fit and still fresh despite peeking over the edge of the cliff
for a little look-see in February.
Look deeper in to the
numbers. So far this June (18 days recorded)I've covered 455 kms
in 17 hours and 12 minutes. In September I did 450 kms in 17 hours
33 minutes; very, very close on both counts.
But look at the Training
Stress Score, 1355 against 942; a 30% increase in intensity and stress
loading. As we said earlier, time and distance do not give the
full story. June, as was May, has been a full-on month.
Recovery from overreaching is really quite simple.
Throttle back for a week at least and preferably two. No races, no
heavy training just a one hour recovery ride every other day and maybe a
two hour one at weekends. Even try a total week off the bike.
It won't kill you, honest.
Recovery from overtraining is
way beyond the scope of this factsheet and this website. It may
need medical treatment and quite possibly counselling from a coach or a
sports psychologist. Overtraining is often a manifestation of
As we said, we're more likely
to be suffering from "extended overreaching". Plan your training,
extend yourself each week for three weeks, take a dip; then repeat.
It really is that simple.
Sorry for such a long factsheet but this is
important stuff. Here's a synopsis of what you need.
Your mission as an athlete is
to find your balance between Training Stress to progress,
and Recovery to allow adaptation and (when used with a progressive
pre-competition taper) super-compensation to take place.
Objectively monitor your
training to give you the information you need to progressively structure
your sessions in a way that will keep you fresh, motivated and
progressing. Above all, keep it fun.
Whichever way you do it,
measure your training with a consistent methodology. If you think
all this is too much faffing, then you'll probably get beaten by a less
capable athlete who has prepared better. It's an old cliché but
it's true; train smarter not harder.
Many amateur racers spend a
great deal of their season in a permanent state of "extended over
reaching". They don't (because they don't have the physical
capacity or constitution) get in to full blown overtraining but they
often constantly under perform because they're nearly always under recovered.
Plan your recovery as carefully as you plan your efforts. The
rewards will come.
Don't just train to, or by,
numbers. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. All
the clues are there to help you. It can start with bright yellow
urine (dehydration) and end with a super depressed immune system, with no
salt and vinegar on your chips because the inside of your mouth is like a
character from Hellraiser.
Don't overtrain, overreach,
then taper and overachieve! There you are; a race winning formula
in one sentence. This coaching lark's easy!!
Until next time...