How to avoid Overtraining.

I’ve mentioned this once or twice before, as part of my posts on training and the use of data. However, it has occurred to me that a dedicated post may be of more use. Like most of us, I’ve overtrained at various points in the past – I’ve also studied it as part of my degree.

Firstly – what exactly is overtraining? In the Cyclists Training Bible, it’s defined as a decreased work capacity (i.e. inability to train, decreased performance or simply a fitness plateau) resulting from an imbalance between training and rest (i.e. not enough recovery). For many of us, the natural response to poor Race performance is to train harder, most of the time this isn’t the answer.

For me, it happened during the Summer of 2015. I found myself with a large amount of time on my hands having just finished my exams. At the time I’d never read anything about how to train properly and made the assumption that more was always better. I increased my training volume from eight to eleven hours per week. As you might imagine, it wasn’t pretty. I endured months of frustration, puzzled by a lack of improvement and regularly finding myself too fatigued to ride. I learned the how to avoid overtraining, the hard way. Here are some tips.

 

  • Include recovery periods within your training.

Remember – it is during recovery that adaptation and therefore improvement occurs. Exercise itself will break muscle down. From time to time you need to take a break in order to offload cumulative fatigue and allow yourself adequate time to recover.

This applies even if you aren’t following a structured plan. A good rule of thumb is to halve your usual training volume every 4th week (make it every 3rd if you are over 40 or are new to the sport). I wouldn’t advise completing any high intensity sessions during the early part (i.e. the first four days) of a rest week. These weeks can also be used to taper for races and carry out any tests.

 

  • Increase volume or intensity in small increments only.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more hours of training, or riding hard every time will always make you faster. It will work as long as it is done with a degree of caution. It is advised not to increase annual training hours by more than 5-10% year on year (this works out at around 1 hour extra per week).

This is particularly relevant for anyone coming from a Sportive background (more on this here). You might decide to include a greater number of high intensity sessions than before, to prepare for short & sharp races. If doing so, reduce volume. The idea is to keep your training load the same, or to increase it by a small, manageable amount.

 

  • Don’t train when ill.

Another one I’ve learned the hard way. My advice would be to avoid training all together if you have any signs of cold or flu – especially if the symptoms are below the neck (i.e. aching muscles, fever). It will likely make the problem worse – prolonging your recovery time. In extreme cases, training when ill can be fatal.

Missing 1-3 days of training will have a negligible affect on your fitness. Much better to miss one or two sessions in order to recover from illness than push on and have to take two weeks off.

 

  • Listen to your body. If you feel too tired you probably are.

We’ve all been there. A hard interval session or five hour endurance ride planned – only you feel knackered and really don’t want to go out. Chances are, there is a reason for this. Either stay at home or complete an easier session instead.

Numbers can also be useful here. If your power output is very low for a given perceived exertion, it’s time to turn round. The same applies to heart rate if abnormally low or high (say 10 bpm difference). Back in July I ignored one such warning and carried on – I had to take ten days off afterwards.

 

  • Optimise your recovery.

This is really several points contained in one. Obvious as this sounds, the better your recovery the smaller the chance of overtraining and the greater the performance gains. Here are a few tips;

Eat right. Stick to natural foods whenever possible. Refuel appropriately during a ride, consume a good quality recovery drink during the first 30 minutes after it has finished. If you can, avoid alcohol – at the very least don’t consume it on training days.

Get more sleep. Your bed is one of the most effective recovery tools. If you can, try to get an extra hour or so of sleep per night. For more on this, click here.

Avoid stress where possible. Ok, for most of us this is much easier said than done. We all have commitments outside of Cycling. If you often find yourself very stressed – it can be worth looking into relaxation techniques. Click here for more on this.

Save hard sessions for days off – or after work. If you have a physical job, it’s better to complete a training session after coming home (I appreciate this isn’t always possible). The harder the session, the more you’ll need to rest in order to recover from it. Ideally, you’d train in the morning and spend the rest of the day lying down, with the inclusion of a midday nap. Of course this is highly unrealistic in most cases, but you get the point.

Don’t Race too often. Racing is hard, very hard. Yes it is good to get experience, and there is no better training to prepare for racing than racing itself. However, too much can easily lead to overtraining. You are more likely to miss warning signs during a Race than in training – carrying on could be dangerous. Once again, if in doubt listen to your body and rest. If nothing else; racing is far more fun, crashing less likely and chances of a points finish higher if your legs and brain are fresh.

Take a break at the end of the Season. This does tie in with the first point but I wanted to give it special attention. It’s yet another mistake I’ve made – trying to carry all my fitness from one season over to the next. What this lead to was a severe bout of overtraining, 5 hours per week was all I could physically manage. In much the same was as a rest week at the end of a training block, taking 2-6 weeks away from riding is designed to completely offload fatigue. After a busy Race season, physical and psychological tiredness are likely to have set in. Click here for a useful GCN Video.

You don’t have to take the time off immediately after your last event. In fact it can be useful to carry    on training for a month or so, simply because it makes the Winter shorter. In addition, there is no reason why you can’t exercise during this time – just be sure to make it low volume and low intensity. Now is the time to try other sports or simply spend more time with family, it will leave you feeling refreshed and highly motivated to get back in the saddle.

It’s not a bad idea to take a shorter break in the middle of the season, for much the same reasons as discussed above. After taking ten days off at the beginning of August I came back in the form of my life. I had more success in the last three weeks of the season than in the previous four months

There we go. Hopefully, doing all of the above will allow you to avoid overtraining and have a successful season. In reality, there is always some trial and error involved in determining optimal volume and intensity. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn the signs that indicate you might be pushing it too much – there is no universal set of symptoms. Here however, are some common ones to look out for.

. Physical

  • Decreased performance, or plateau.
  • Weight loss.
  • Appetite loss
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Increased susceptibility to illness.
  • Increased resting heart rate (4-5 bpm or more above normal and you shouldn’t train that day).
  • Frequent injuries
  • Greater than usual muscle soreness

. Psychological

  • Apathy
  • Lethargy
  • Concentration problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest (applies to both cycling and life in general)
  • Mood swings
  • Low self esteem

You’ll have noticed that most of these symptoms are fairly generic. Hence why it can be tricky to know for sure if you are overtrained. As a rule to thumb, if you experience any number of these symptoms without any other obvious cause – take a couple of days off and cut back on volume for a 1-2 weeks. See if the situation improves. Take overtraining seriously, it has ended careers and probably has negative long term effects. It often ends in complete burnout, causing people to drop out of the sport all together.

 

For today, that’s all. As always, any constructive feedback is appreciated. Goodnight.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “How to avoid Overtraining.

  1. This is exactly why I don’t race. I ride every day, only taking rain days off. In the summer I can go months before I take a full day off. I do mix easy and hard sessions in so it’s never “on” all of the time but I know I ride too much… Just can’t help it. Riding makes me happy and I have too much stress at work to not take advantage of some happy time every day.

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