By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
Cyclists and other endurance athletes are a stoic bunch. Unfortunately, your ability and willingness to absorb hours of training, strenuous workouts, and the fatigue that comes with them can make endurance athletes less likely to recognize (and slower to accept) the signs of overtraining. Here’s what you need to look for and what to do about it.
Sports scientists and coaches have varying ways to refer to what most athletes call ‘overtraining’. Some call it ‘overtraining syndrome’, which is a good because it recognizes that the causes of overtraining are multifactorial.
Some refer to it as “under recovery” to highlight that it is an imbalance between training stress and recovery. You don’t have to be training excessively to suffer the effects of overtraining. For Time-Crunched Athletes it can be difficult to accumulate an excessive amount of workload, but busy lifestyles, high-stress jobs, and poor nutrition can hinder recovery to the point they show signs of overtraining.
For the purposes of this article I’m using the term ‘overtraining’ because it’s what most athletes recognize.
Who Suffers from Overtraining?
Overtraining is not just a problem for highly-trained athletes or athletes who train 20 hours a week. The imbalance between stress and recovery can happen to athletes of any fitness or training level. The less fit you are as an athlete – either because you’re new to the sport or you’re training level is low – the lower your threshold for reaching an overtrained state. You have less capacity to absorb the physical demands, so the dysfunction happens sooner.
A rapid increase in training workload is a frequent cause of overtraining for novices or people who are starting with less fitness. Experienced athletes can also trigger overtraining symptoms by doing too much too soon. This often happens in the spring when warm weather, longer days, and event goals boost enthusiasm and commitment.
Athletes who are accustomed to a high training workload have a higher threshold to reach before suffering the effects of overtraining. Experienced or very fit athletes more often get into an overtraining situation because of prolonged period of training with insufficient rest and/or disruptions in their recovery habits (lifestyle/job stress, dietary changes, disrupted sleep, etc.)
Sign of Overtraining
Overtraining does not have a single cause, but rather, results from a constellation of factors. It also does not happen overnight. You don’t go from being fine to being overtrained in a week. It requires a prolonged period of imbalance. Here’s what to look for:
Diminished acute performance
It’s not just a background feeling of being tired and unable to recover. You’re workouts are a mess. You’re not hitting your targets for intervals and you’re quitting intervals early. You feel sluggish and heavy, and it takes longer to recover hard efforts.
The relationship between workload and recovery is dysfunctional and your acute workout performance is diminished, so the conditions for positive training adaptations no longer exist. You’re in quicksand. You’re working hard, but the longer you continue to struggle the deeper you sink.
Erratic waking heart rate
Tracking morning heart rate, bodyweight, and mood is a common way to look for signs of overtraining. Occasional changes that go away within one or two days are pretty normal, but significant changes in any of them, and particularly two or more, over at least a 5-day period are cause for further investigation. For waking heart rate, look for a +/- 7-10 beats per minute change from baseline.
Low Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability is another measure we use to see how an athlete is handling their training load. Using a heart rate monitor with the appropriate features, HRV measures the variability in the times between heartbeats. Higher variability is a sign your autonomic nervous system is reacting to changes in stimuli quickly, which is what you want. Lower variability is a sign your nervous system is fatigued and not responding to stimuli as well as it could. If you plan on using HRV, it is important to measure HRV consistently and immediately upon waking, as you need a baseline level to compare against. For more information, here’s an in-depth article on HRV from Corrine Malcolm.
Some people cry more than usual, others snap at their spouses and coworkers, but increased emotional volatility can be a sign of overtraining. It’s a matter of amplitude, not the specific emotion. Your emotional responses are disproportionate for the situation, particularly compared to how you normally respond.
Reduced sex drive
It seems pretty logical that you’d be less interested in sex when you’re exhausted, and research has shown that increased training intensity and duration can have a negative affect on libido – for men and women. Some of this may be due to hormonal changes, including the increase in stress hormone cortisol.
High perceived exertion
Not only will your power outputs be lower, but you’ll also feel like it’s more difficult than normal to produce those diminished results. This can be a sign of acute fatigue that’s perfectly normal during a training program. You’ll often see it the day after a particularly hard workout, or at the end of training blocks. The key difference is that it normally goes back to normal within a few days, or even a single day. When the mismatch between performance and perceived exertion is prolonged, it’s a cause for concern.
Along with higher-than-normal perceived exertion, heart rate is often less responsive to changes in intensity level during workouts. It takes longer and feels like it requires more effort for an athlete to get heart rate to rise. Following an interval or hard effort, it also takes longer for the athletes heart rate to come back down.
You may be overtrained when you get to the point where every day it’s a struggle to get out the door for a ride, you find more excuses to delay or skip rides, you’re bored with training, and you just don’t want to do it anymore. Again, this can happen every once in a while during normal training, but prolonged feelings of lethargy and low motivation are indicative of a problem.
While you would think that a big mismatch between workload and rest would make it easy to sleep, the opposite is often true. Overtraining can lead to insomnia, disrupted sleep, or just less restful sleep. New sleep tracking apps can be helpful for monitoring your sleep behaviors, like how often you stir and how long you stay in different levels of sleep.
Your immune system and your body are taking too much of a beating and not getting enough time or support to recover. An athlete who is overtrained may experience frequent illnesses and illnesses that take longer than normal to go away. You may also be more susceptible to both overuse and acute injuries and are more likely to start getting a series of nagging injuries.
What to do to get back on track
Living and training in an overtrained state is a pretty miserable experience. Here’s what to do about it.
Obvious, yes, but the unwillingness or inability to recognize the need for rest is how you got here in the first place. You’ve been digging a deep hole, and the first step of getting out a hole is to stop digging. Hang up your bike for a while, because riding it isn’t helping you feel or perform better.
How long will you have to completely rest? It is different for everyone, but I think one key milestone is when your lifestyle symptoms have gone away. If you’re headed in the right direction, your emotional volatility, sleep, sex drive, and overall energy level for your life, your partner, and your job should all improve.
More directly related to training, your morning heart rate should be consistently back to normal and you should feel rested and eager to ride again. Your enthusiasm for your goals should be strong again (or find a new goal). When you do return to training, your response to training should be back to normal: perceived exertion matches workload, heart rate rises normally with hard efforts and comes back down quickly afterward, etc.
Address work/rest balance for future training
You ended up overtrained due to a combination of problems with your training program and your lifestyle. Before you start training again, examine your program or talk to a coach who can help you adjust your workload. Be realistic about the amount of rest you will be able to get with the other priorities in your life. If your sleep hygiene is poor, fix it so you get more and better sleep. If there are career or family stresses that can be addressed and resolved, now is a good time to do that. Fixing these problems is important because otherwise, these aspects of your lifestyle increase your chance of experiencing overtraining again soon.
Tune up your diet
Consistently failing to consume enough energy to meet your energy needs contributes to overtraining. Part of the solution is eating more to give your body what it needs to recover and adapt. The quality of your diet is also important. This is a time to focus on eating fresh, whole foods, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a balance of carbohydrate, fat, and protein.
It’s also a time to look at your overall dietary strategy. Does the way you eat and your food choices adequately support your training goals? If you have been restricting a particular macronutrient for a perceived performance benefit, it’s time to re-evaluate its effectiveness.
Fortunately, most athletes never end up in a significant period of overtraining. Short-term fatigue or a few weeks of training too hard is common and easily remedied by a week or two of rest. But if you have been dealing with the signs and symptoms above for several weeks or a few months, it’s time to take action.