Put the Brakes on Overtraining|
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Each season, an athlete should have a purpose, a goal, and a reason for all the training. One or all of these are usually centered on an important race or set of races. The high priority races are established at the beginning of the training season and always seem to be approaching rapidly. So the time to put all that training, eating, and resting (yes, resting) to the test will be at that important event. So the question is, "Will you arrive at the starting line feeling fresh, energized, and ready to compete to your potential? Or will you arrive tired, grumpy and ready for a nap?
How well you plan your training and recovery will determine your state of preparedness on any specific day during the season. Most athletes have enough motivation to drive themselves to train hard day after day. The challenge that I run into as a coach is trying to get them to balance that motivation with enough patience to assure they get adequate amounts of rest. Without that rest, their bodies won't be able to recover from the days, weeks, and months of accumulated training stress.
Gains in fitness are the result of both training and rest. Without training, the body will not be stressed enough to cause the adaptation that will make it stronger. Without rest, the body will not be able to recover from that stress and will eventually become so overloaded it will begin to lose fitness. Eventually, if you continue to place an increasing amount of training load (or stress) on your body without providing it with the opportunity to regenerate, you risk pushing yourself into a physiological and psychological state known as "overtraining." If you reach that point it can take weeks, months, and, in some cases, much longer to completely recover.
One way to avoid this undesirable situation is to schedule regular recovery days into your training week and follow blocks of progressively overloading your body with a block of unloading that stress. This process falls under the philosophy known as periodization. It's not a new concept and it's really rather simple on the surface. The real trick is finding that balance between appropriate amounts of overload and adequate recovery. It can take months and even years to dial in the correct amount of training and rest that leads to optimal results.
The key is to start out by following some basic guidelines and then making adjustments to suit individual needs and responses. There are several good sources for information about how to develop a complete periodization schedule. Included in that list are; Tudor Bompa's Periodization, Theory and Methodology of Training and, Joe Friel's The Cyclist's Training Bible. You might also want to check out Edmund Burkes' Optimal Muscle Recovery.
Based on developing a format that builds a training program around recovery, I'll give you some basic guidelines to start from. The actual training that you do should be based on the specific demands of the events that you're training for, and on your experience, strengths, and weaknesses. I find that most athletes generally have a good concept of those demands, but need more help in structuring rest and recovery into their training plan. So I'll start there and will address specific training and periodization in detail during future articles.
Recovery can be classified as; daily, weekly, monthly (3-5 weeks), and yearly. Daily recovery begins with keeping the body fueled and rested. Appropriate nutrition is an important factor to daily recovery. Your body needs adequate nutrients to rebuild muscle tissue and replace the carbohydrates the body stores. One of the recommendations in Burke's Optimal Muscle Recovery is based on current research that indicates a relationship between the balance of carbohydrates and protein ingested after a workout and the rate of muscle recovery and glycogen replenishment (stored carbohydrates). Burke refers to it in his "R4 system." He recommends (among other things) that you take in sufficient fluids and electrolytes, take antioxidant supplements, and replace carbohydrates and protein as soon after training as possible. After exercise he recommends that you consume 1 gram of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight and include protein at a 4 to 1 ratio. That means that for every 4 grams of carbohydrates you should consume 1 gram of protein. Of course, Ben and Jerry's might have a 4 to 1 ratio, but wouldn't provide you with the same nutrients that a balanced meal would.
A full night's sleep is also important if you want to perform day after day. The body will do most of its repair work while you're sleeping, so if you cut it short or have a restless night's sleep then you're not getting the full opportunity to recover. One night of poor sleep is not tragic (try sneaking in a nap) but several of them begin to take their toll, not just on your ability to converse intelligibly, but also on your body's ability to recover quickly. A sudden inability to sleep well on consecutive days can also be an indication that you've been pushing too hard and not allowing enough recovery time. Some other indicators to watch for (I call them my vital signs) are: a sudden change in morning resting heart rate; a sudden loss of body weight; continuous muscle soreness; your usual workouts seem harder than they should; unusual mood swings or depression; unwillingness to train or compete; and, loss of appetite.
These are all good markers to track on a daily basis to monitor whether you're getting too close to your body's overload limits. Back off if you ever have any doubt. It's better to take a day off than to risk pushing beyond your limit. I tell my athletes that if they have any doubt they shouldn't work out. I'd rather have them arrive at the starting line feeling like fresh juice than burnt toast.
If there are other activities in your daily routine that also produce stress they should be considered in the total stress-load accumulation on the body. For example, if you work a crazy 10-hour shift selling overpriced stocks to screaming maniacs, or spend two hours in rush hour traffic surrounded by screaming maniacs, you might need additional rest. Stress can come from different places — family issues, chasing 2-year-old twins around the house all day, money concerns, school, and a host of other daily routines can contribute to the overall stress on an athlete's body. Keeping a balance between training and your "other life" is a must, but is often the most difficult task.
Weekly recovery means inserting active recovery days into your weekly training plan. The number of recovery days and their frequency will depend on your individual needs. I usually recommend two or three recovery days per week. I'll follow up one to three days of training (depending on the length, intensity, and purpose of those days) with one to two days of active recovery. The general formula is that the more total stress, the more recovery you'll need. One of those recovery days could even be a complete day off. Don't be afraid to take full days off. Even professional athletes (you know, the ones that train for a living) get days off. The key is to make sure you're getting some kind of rest, active or passive. I have athletes tell me that on their active recovery day they like to do several hours of easy riding at 70% of their maximum heart rate. That may seem like an easy workout for them, but it's still a workout. Active recovery should not reach a level that would be considered training. Use active recovery days to assure that your body is ready for another quality workout rather than using them to push your weekly hours up. The idea behind active recovery is to increase the flow of blood to the muscles and expedite the recovery process by delivering nutrients to them and helping to remove waste products.
An example of an active recovery ride would be to ride on flat terrain (or a stationary trainer) with light resistance and a slightly slower cadence than usual. This can be as little as 30 minutes, or up to about two hours. Heart rate should not reach higher than 65% of your maximum. Remember, it's not a dang "workout," it's a recovery. Relax, and let it happen! This is the time when your body is preparing itself for the next bout of training overload. By allowing yourself some time to recuperate, your next workout can be higher quality.
The next type of recovery is based on the amount of progressive overload your body can handle during two to four weeks of training. When you're setting up your training schedule (and following the principles of periodization) it should be based on blocks of gradually increasing amounts of training stress followed by blocks of recovery. The blocks of training stress should be enough to challenge your physiological (and to some extent your psychological) systems, and the blocks of recovery should be enough to allow the body to unload that stress and adequately recover. It will take some time to dial in what is an appropriate amount of training and how much recovery is needed. It's wise to err on the side of too little stress than to push too far and risk reaching the point where you've placed so much stress on your body that it won't recover quickly.
These training blocks can be just about any length that works. Generally, they will be from two to three weeks. During these blocks, you'll be alternating between training days and active recovery days (or days off). You might be gradually increasing the amount of training per week or maintaining a constant training level. You'll want to be monitoring those vital signs that can give you clues into how your body is responding to the training stress carefully during these blocks. This is where you have to learn to find what your body's limits are. It's wise to approach those limits carefully and not expose yourself to too much training stress too soon. It takes many years of consistent, appropriate training to reach the volume of training that a top pro athlete can handle. Too much training too soon is a formula for overtraining and injury.
The recovery blocks are generally one week long, but can be as long as two to three weeks or as short as three to five days. During these recovery blocks the total amount of training stress should be reduced to a level that allows you to arrive at the next training block fresh and recovered. If you start your next training block before you're fully recovered you may not continue to gain fitness. If you extend your recovery block too long you could start to lose fitness. This is when you really need to be paying attention to your "vital signs" and listening to what your body is telling you.
A fitness test at the end of each recovery block can give you an indication of both your state of fitness and recovery. This test can be as simple as riding at the highest effort that you can maintain (or a specific heart rate) on the same 10-mile stretch of road, and measuring average heart rate, speed, and time. Be sure that the conditions (weather, meals, days of rest, time of day) during this test are as similar as possible (this can also be done on an indoor trainer). If you're getting fitter then you should be getting faster or maintaining the same speed at a lower heart rate. If you're feeling sluggish and can't manage to maintain your usual pace then you may be overstretching your body and/or not allowing for enough recovery.
The last of the recovery blocks is as long as a month or more and should follow the end of your race season. This should allow your body some down time to rejuvenate from the stresses of the training and racing you've done and get it prepared for the approaching training season.
If you're thinking that there are a lot of personal choices here and not as many absolutes, you're right. Training and coaching are not exact sciences. There are many general principles that are followed, but each athlete will have different needs and will respond to training and recovery differently. The closer you get to your personal training limits the more careful you have to be about maintaining a balance between loading and unloading the training stresses. That's why it takes some time to dial in an optimal training program.
If you're not using feedback from a coach to help you determine what is appropriate for you then you should be listening carefully to the feedback your body is giving you. Most athletes can hear what their bodies are telling them, but they ignore it. If you ignore fatigue, it won't go away. The only things that I've found that will go away when ignored are your teeth and your girlfriend; fortunately, I still have my teeth. You must give your body the opportunity to recover from the accumulated fatigue caused by the stress of training. Ignoring that process can set your training back farther than pushing ahead will get you, and could leave you ready for a nap at the start of an important event.
Editor's Note: Thomas Chapple is a licensed USA Cycling coach, a certified personal trainer, and a triathlon coach.