As we head into summer, you’ll no doubt be increasing your training load and will be keen to enter some races. The desire to compete and train can often mean that recovery takes a back seat. It’s sometimes difficult for us to imagine that training too hard for a race or competing too often can actually be a bad thing and have a detrimental effect on our long-term performance. In fact, over-training can actually be a lot worse than under-training!
So how do we define over-training and, perhaps more importantly, how can we spot those early signs of over-training?
We all know that we need to train hard in order to improve our performance. However, it is important to be aware that the relationship between our training load (i.e. how much, how hard and how often we train) and performance, is very individual and ‘one size’ certainly doesn’t fit all. For those of us that are relatively new to triathlon, a smaller training load is likely to result in large improvements in performance. Conversely, for those of you that are more experienced triathletes, it’s likely that you’ll have a much higher training load but only benefit from relatively small increases in performance. The temptation to push harder and train for longer is, therefore, understandable but there is a fine line between getting those rapid results and over-training.
These improvements in performance, however big or small, are the result of the way in which your body adapts to an increasing training load. This adaptation process relies on a sufficient, and regular, training stimulus to bring about a physiological change. In other words, we need to train above a certain ‘threshold’ level in order to push the body, make ourselves feel tired and activate our physiological repair mechanisms. This process of intensifying training is a normal part of a well-structured plan.
We’ve all felt tired after a heavy training block and this acute fatigue (tired legs, sore muscles) is only to be expected, but with adequate recovery, it will disappear, and your body will adapt to the increased training load. Recovery should therefore be the ‘bedrock’ of any training programme. We all have to juggle work and social/home life commitments and so there is a temptation to skip a rest day as a result of missed training. If you continue to train when tired, your body will suffer increasing levels of stress which could lead to further fatigue, over-reaching (short term excessive training), possible over-training and under-performance. We then find ourselves in a vicious circle where training is increased in reaction to under-performance rather than increasing the recovery period. Therefore, over-training tends to be an accumulation of training stress (and sometimes non-training stress) which results in a more long-term reduction in performance and can take several weeks or months from which to recover.
Pic below: Jamie Beale having a well deserved cup of coffee after completing the Maratona dles Dolomites.
Quite simply, pushing hard is an important part of training but over-training will occur if you continue to push yourself beyond your body’s ability to recover.
Whilst it may be easy to define over-training, for most triathletes, spotting the signs may not be quite so black and white. As we’ve learnt, over-training results from stress or exhaustion due to a long-term imbalance between training (and sometimes non-training related factors) and recovery. However, it isn’t an exact science and is very individual. Some of the signs of over-training may include an unexplained decrease in performance, changes in mood state, excessive fatigue, the need for additional sleep, frequent infections, continued muscle soreness and loss of training/competitive drive. However, it can be all too easy to simply classify potential over-training as a lack of fitness or ‘just a bad patch of training’ and ignore it. At these times, we really need someone like a coach to help us spot the early signs of over-training and implement the necessary changes to our training. At trainSharp, the coaching team and exercise physiologists use several subjective, wellness and physiological measures to ensure that the potential risk of over-training is kept to a minimum.
It’s not all doom and gloom! Athletes suffering from over-training and under-performance tend to recover more quickly provided they are managed in an appropriate way. As you might expect, rest and regeneration strategies are central to recovery from over-training.
Sometimes, going out for a nice easy ride or run in your low aerobic active recovery zone may be an appropriate way to manage those itchy feet. These sessions would only take place a couple of times a week but would gradually increase in intensity/volume over a 6-12 week period. Cross-training is an ideal way to avoid the psychological and physiological stress of a single sport and can provide a nice break - good thing you're a triathlete! As the additional volume becomes acceptable, training intensity can be increased. Other techniques such as massage, counselling and nutrition may also be incorporated in your managed recovery strategy.
As with most things, prevention is better than the cure. Ensuring you have sufficient recovery to balance your training will be key to your success!
The best way to ensure you have sufficient recovery is to take a long-term cyclical or periodised approach to your training. This enables recovery days and regular lower volume recovery weeks to be scheduled into your training plan. Training volumes/intensities gradually over a specific length of time (say 3-4 weeks) resulting in periods of over-reaching. As we’ve learnt, these heavy training weeks are required in order to ensure there is the sufficient ‘overload’ needed to promote adaptation and enhance future performance. During these heavier training weeks, you may experience a reduction in performance before you enter the recovery phase of your training plan. Coaches employ this cyclical approach to ensure you have adequate recovery to balance the heavier training period whilst minimising any de-training effects.
You shouldn’t be tempted to think that training harder and longer all the time is necessarily better. In fact, for most endurance athletes, the majority of their training (~80%) should be at intensities below the lactate threshold. The remaining 20% would be split between steady threshold training (between the first and second lactate threshold) and higher intensity interval training.
It’s also important that you make the most of your recovery time, by focusing on your nutrition. This helps ensures that your body’s glycogen stores are replenished and you have sufficient protein for repairing those tired muscles. Sleep is also an important factor in recovery and should not be under-estimated – don’t be afraid of taking a cat-nap if you have time! Additional recovery strategies can be used to compliment the rest periods and are often used in response to a particular acute stress on the body. Such strategies may include cold water immersion, massage, stretching, compression garments and antioxidant supplementation.
Perhaps the take home message is to ensure you periodise your training and include recovery weeks. Remember that your training philosophy should never compromise quality for quantity. Listen to your body, if you feel too tired to undertake a session at the appropriate intensity, take a rest rather than complete the session sub-optimally.
John Feeney is a sports scientist and performance coach with trainSharp. If you are unsure about any aspects of training and recovery or would like details of the triathlon coaching package, then email trainSharp for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.