We know training is essential to improving fitness and performance, but we often neglect recovery and adaptation. What happens when we get that balance wrong and veer into overtraining?
For any athlete, regardless of their sport, hard training must be performed to improve. Immediately after a hard training session, athletes experience temporary weakened performance. However, sufficient recovery allows the body to recover even stronger, leading to improvements in performance. As cyclists, many of us are led to believe that riding our bikes longer, harder, or more often will result in greater fitness gains. Combine this with warm weather, sunshine & group rides and you have a great recipe for lots of training.
If you are training hard week after week without allowing for sufficient recovery, you might find that the extra time in the saddle is not paying off. You may also find yourself feeling deflated, unmotivated, or even that riding your bike is becoming more of a chore than a delight. In this article, I aim to address a widespread issue among cyclists (and endurance athletes in general): overtraining syndrome, also known as OTS.
What is Overtraining Symptom?
Many of us might be familiar with general achiness and soreness of overreaching after a couple consecutive hard days of training. Fortunately, a few days of dedicated rest is enough to overcome the effects of overreaching.
Overtraining, on the other hand, typically occurs when athletes continue to overreach. This can result in a downward spiral of constant fatigue, decreased performance, and potentially quitting the sport. Sports scientist Dr. R Budgett defines OTS as “a condition of fatigue and underperformance, often associated with frequent infections and depression which occurs following hard training and competition. The symptoms do not resolve despite two weeks of adequate rest, and there is no other identifiable medical cause.”
Figure taken from Budgett, 1998.
This figure shows potential changes in an athlete’s performance (eg threshold power) along the vertical axis and time along the horizontal axis. For an athlete with training and sufficient recovery, shown on the top half of the figure, we see that their performance is expected to increase over time. Towards the bottom half of the chart, we see an example of an athlete who is consistently under-recovered for their training sessions. While some under-recovery is okay (overreaching), consistently training without adequate rest results in OTS, which may take weeks to recover from.
Effects of Overtraining?
For many athletes, the main complaint is often a decrease in their performance. This either means that the same workouts subjectively feel harder to complete, or that athletes aren’t noticing any breakthrough performances – increases in FTP, 5 min power, etc.
Overtraining can also have negative impact on your mental health as well. Overtrained athletes will often report decreased positive feelings and increased feeling of negative feelings, including depression, anger, and anxiety.
Signs of Overtraining?
It can be hard to know when you are overtraining outside of the standard muscle soreness. However, there are few signs of overtraining that you can monitor for:
- Unusual muscle soreness
- Extended recovery time
- Increased occurrence of illness
- Inability to relax
- Insomnia or poor-quality sleep
- Lack of energy & focus
- Feeling depressed, anxious, or moody
- Decreased enthusiasm for riding
How to avoid Overtraining?
Now that we’ve discussed some of the symptoms and effects of OTS, we can briefly discuss some strategies to mitigate the risks of OTS for your training. I’ve outlined 5 important steps below:
- Prioritize Recovery: For many athletes, under recovery is the result of excessive intense or prolonged exercise, competition, or other stressors
- Limit Intensity: As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t have more than 2-3 high intensity wrinkles each week. High intensity days doesn’t only mean interval workouts but could also include a hard group/club ride or smashing yourself while chasing Strava Segment personal records or KOMs/QOMs. The remainder of your wrinkles should be at a lower intensity level, such as Zone 2 in a 5-zone model. Keeping the intensity of these rides low is essential for allowing adequate recovery from your harder wrinkles!
- Nutrition: Ensure you are getting enough calories to cover what your body needs for training and repairing your muscles.
What to do if you’re overtrained?
The primary method to begin recovery from overtraining is to rest! You may even need to completely stop cycling and exercise in general for several weeks, then ease yourself back into training via cross-training. Secondly, you should review your eating habits. Are you depriving your body of the protein and carbs that it needs after your hard training session? Consider meeting with a nutritionist to create a nutrition plan that provides the nutrients and energy that you need for your training. It can be mentally challenging to take a break from training, so finding a someone – a friend or family member – to help listen to you and validate your feelings can be beneficial.
As cyclists, we like to push ourselves, especially during the outdoor riding season. As we covered in today’s article, remember that training hard also requires sufficient nutrition and recovery. That’s all for this month. Stay safe, ride fast, and I’ll see you again next month.
Budgett R. Fatigue and underperformance in athletes: the overtraining syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine 1998;32:107-110.