It’s easy to go too long and too hard. Watch out for these warning signs and get back to smart training.
by Mike Schultz
Training for endurance events takes some serious dedication. There are long days on the bike, along with consistent time spent running and in the water. Like most things, though, too much can be a bad thing—especially true when it comes to training.
Overtraining is easy to do for highly motivated athletes—so just about all triathletes. Once you reach an overtrained state, excess fatigue, plateaus in strength, and decreased motivation will all follow. Below, I break overtraining down, discuss the most common ways to reach this state, and how to prevent it.
There are three stages of overtraining. Each stage is defined by certain levels of fatigue and recovery time.
1. Functional overreaching is the first stage of overtraining, and is actually one of the the main goals in training for a triathlon. Functional overreaching is basically training really hard and pushing your limits to the point where you experience greater levels of fatigue. Your body then adapts, and you get stronger and faster.
Symptoms: Higher rates of perceived exertion, a hard time elevating heart rate past zone 2, slight irritability and a decrease in motivation are all signs of an overreached state.
Recovery: You can recover from this stage of overtraining within seven to 14 days. This is what makes it functional. Learning how hard you need to push to reach this state, while keeping the recovery period short, takes practice.
2. Non-functional overreaching happens when you pushed just a little too hard with training, and symptoms last for more than two weeks.
Symptoms: This is technically the second stage of overtraining and is defined by the same symptoms as the first stage. (Subpar power, general overall irritability and the inability to complete workouts without experiencing high perceived exertion.) It’s critical to realize when higher levels of fatigue persist and recovery is taking longer than a few weeks from your last hard block of training.
Recovery: This state takes a longer recovery period: expect it to take two to four weeks before motivation and power outputs return.
3. The overtrained state is reached when high levels of fatigue last longer than a month. (However there is no “normal” time frame for how long an overtrained state lasts.)
Symptoms: If you are still experiencing the symptoms from stage one, for longer than a month, you are in danger of an overtrained state. One of the biggest signs, along with the other signs and symptoms, is the complete lack of motivation to race or train.
Recovery: Recovery can take anywhere from many months to years depending on how far you have trained into this state.
Below are the most common ways overtraining sneaks into our lives: too much volume, too much intensity, or a combination of the two plus subpar recovery. Remember that your level of fitness and experience will determine how much volume and intensity you can handle, as well as your ability to recover, but learning when you have reached your limit is key.
Too many weekly hours: More hours doesn’t necessarily lead to more fitness. It’s more important to be consistently strong through training while challenging yourself with longer days. You are going to need long runs and rides, along with brick workouts, but if you are consistently struggling through your second and third weeks of training with slower paces and lower power, you might want to reduce your overall volume so that you can train at a higher level more often.
Too much intensity: Races, competitive group rides, and those top efforts are all important when spaced out appropriately. Too much intensity too often, however, builds great amounts of fatigue fast. A fast one hour group ride or run can build greater fatigue than a slow “zone 2” workout for many hours. Space intense days with endurance days, and keep the hard effort days to two to three days a week.
Ignoring signs of fatigue: Doing this only prolongs your recovery time. Any day of training can be a hard day, so analyze your training over the week to recognize and mark your fatigue level. If most of the days during the week were hard, with the signs of overreaching, and it was a struggle to finish the week, then you need to adjust and rest. Ignoring these signs and pressing on is how you push into the next stage of overtraining.
Pushing beyond your limits too often is not only counterproductive, it’s not fun. The more often you can train with great motivation, and higher levels of power, the more gains in endurance, strength and fitness you will make, and the more training you’ll be able to handle. Learn as much as you can from your training and keep good notes. Don’t just track distance and pace, track how you felt. This allows you to look back, study your trends in fatigue, and make smart decisions moving forward. The goal is always to train hard, rest harder, and repeat.
Mike Schultz is the head coach and founder of Highland Training. He is certified with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Personal Trainer and as a USA Cycling Certified Coach.