Ned Overend at age 35 won the first UCI World MTB Championship in 1990 in Durango, Colorado, and won again in 1991. In 2015 at the age of 60, he won the first US Fatbike championship. On training, he said, “I do exactly what I have always done; it just takes me longer.” A prior four-week training block now takes him six to eight weeks because he needs more recovery. (Friel, Fast after 50)
Needing more recovery is one of the inevitable consequences of aging. However, like most other effects of aging, you have some control over this by practicing good recovery. And the fitter you are, the faster you recover.
I’ve written a column on 9 tips on recovery in your 50s, 60s and beyond.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes a chapter on recovery and examples of how to include recovery in different training programs, weeks, months and years.
Overload vs. Overreaching vs. Overtraining
How do you know if you’re training too much or too hard? There’s a progression from training overload to overreaching to overtraining.
Overload from training is productive. You ask your body do to a little more than it’saccustomed to and with a day or two of recovery you get fitter.
Overreaching is an accumulation of training and/or non-training stress resulting in a short-term decrement in performance, which may take from several days to several weeks to recover. Overreaching is risky. A fatigue week is overreaching: You work out really hard without recovery days, doing much more than you are accustomed to doing in a week. For example, a training camp or a week-long tour. You can recover from overreaching with about two weeks of very easy riding and other recovery activities. But if you don’t build those very easy weeks into your training, you may slip into overtraining.
Overtraining is an accumulation of training and/or non-training stress that results in a long-term decrement in performance, which may take from several weeks to several months to recover.
Note that overreaching and overtraining are the result of an accumulation of training and/or non-training stresses.
1. Ignoring symptoms of potential overtraining
How do you know if you’re on the verge of or have fallen into overtraining? You may have heard that these are indicators of overtraining: a change in morning heart rate, or a change in body weight, or a change in how fast your heart rate drops after a hard effort. However, research shows that there is little correlation between any of these and overtraining.
One key indicator is declining performance. Everybody has an off day. But if you’re not riding as fast or climbing as well for several days watch out!
The other key indicator is your mood. We all have a day here and there when we blow off a workout. But if you think, “I really don’t want to train!” for several days, watch out! Too often a roadie responds to either of these key indicators by forcing him or herself to get out there and ride — exactly the wrong response. If performance drops significantly and/or you aren’t excited about riding, take a few days off before you fall into overtraining.
2. Ignoring non-riding stressors
Improvement comes from balancing training stress and recovery:
Training Stress + Sufficient Recovery —> Improvement
However, it isn’t quite that simple. Through a series of experiments on rats, Hans Selye, M.D., discovered that the physiological response to a perceived harmful event or threat to survival is the same whether the threat is from aggression, extreme temperatures, malnutrition, or exercise to exhaustion. The stress response is to all kinds of stress. This is a key point for training:
Amount of Stresses (plural) + Sufficient Recovery —> Improvement
But what if these are out of balance?
Too Much Cumulative Stress + Insufficient Recovery —> Exhaustion (Overtraining)
This means that gauging how much training stress you can handle depends on the presence of other stressors in your life. Some stressors can be reduced, e.g., by getting enough sleep or a good diet. Some stressors can resolved, e.g., the stress of constantly having too much to do. Some stressors can’t be resolved, e.g., an ill parent, but you can deal with the stressor consequences by reducing training stress, e.g., by going for fun rides, progressive relaxation, etc.
I’ve written a related column: Anti-Aging: Too much stress
3. Too much too soon
You build fitness progressively. You need to increase the workload periodically to continue the overload-and-recovery pattern. Workload includes everything that takes energy, not just riding your bike: strength training, after dinner walks, even gardening. I had one client who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. He did a training century in the heat and humidity. He paid attention to his hydration and electrolytes and had a great ride. When he got home he mowed the lawn … and was surprised how exhausted he felt the next day.
Here are three rules of thumb:
- Week to week increase weekly volume by 5-15%.
- Month to month increase monthly volume by 10-25%.
- Year to year increase annual volume by 10-25%.
In general new riders and chronologically older riders should follow the lower percentages and veterans and younger riders may choose to follow the higher percentages.
4. Improperly adding another type of overload
Adding another type of training, e.g., intensity workouts or strength training, while you are increasing your volume may be too much.
There are five types of overload:
- Duration. How long you exercise, for example, how far you ride on your weekday and weekend rides or how many hours you spend doing strength and flexibility exercises.
- Frequency. How many days you do a particular kind of exercise, e.g. cycling or strength training.
- Volume. The result of a. and b.
- Intensity. How hard you exercise, e.g., adding faster or hillier rides.
- Modality. The type(s) of exercise, e.g., cycling, running, hiking and XC skiing are different modalities of aerobic exercise. Strength, flexibility and balance training are other modalities.
I write workouts by time not miles. This allows me to add up the total workload from all the client’s activities.
Periodically changing the type of overload will help you to improve and prevent boredom. However, when you change the type of overload, recognize that at first it will be more stressful and so reduce your total weekly training hours initially. If you add a new type of overload, e.g., intensity workouts to your existing riding miles the total overload may be too much. When you add intensity reduce total volume.
5. Too many hard days
How many challenging workouts you can handle in a week depends on both your chronological age and your riding experience. Experienced riders in their:
- 20s and 30s usually can handle three or four hard training days a week with two or three easier days including two recovery days.
- 50s usually can handle two or three hard training days a week with three or four easier days including two recovery days.
- 60s and beyond usually can handle one or two hard training days a week with four or five easier days including at least two recovery days.
“Hard” means more challenging, e.g., more miles, or faster rides or intensity workouts. Hard also means changing the type of exercise, e.g., incorporating resistance training or cross-training.
Every rider should take at least one day off the bike.
6. Too much volume
Almost all of my new clients ride too much. Even if a rider follows the above rules of thumb there are diminishing returns from continuing to increase the miles. The amount of recovery a rider needs is a function of the training load. The more miles ridden the more recovery that is needed. But there’s only so much time and riding more miles means less time for recovery. If you have an extra half hour, instead of riding more spend the time on quality recovery.
I’ve written two related columns:
7. Too much intensity
Intensity workouts are like prescription medicine. If you take right dose of the right kind of medicine at the right times you’ll get better. But if you take the wrong kind of medicine. Or too much or too little. Or at the wrong time(s) of the day you may not get better and you might even get worse!
I’ve written a column on: 6 kinds of intensity training: which one is best for you?
In addition to doing the right kind of intensity training for your personal goals, you need to do it correctly to improve rather than overtrain. If you’re supposed to do an intensity workout but aren’t in the mood or feel sluggish get on your bike for about half an hour. If you start to feel good then do the intensity. But if you don’t feel better then go home. Never force yourself to struggle through an intensity workout if you can’t put out the planned efforts, i.e., target RPE, HR or power. You’re getting no benefit from the workout — you’re just increasing your fatigue and will need more recovery.
I’ve written a column on Why no pain, no gain is wrong
When you’re doing an intensity workout always stop when you could do one more repetition or a few more hard miles. If you try to force a little more out of your body you risk a lower quality rep with little benefit – just increasing fatigue.
Riding with others can present a challenge. Your buddies may be fitter or not have a specific purpose for a ride or just want to kick butt rather than getting fitter.
Here are two related columns:
8. Ignoring individuality
Many of the above problems — ramping up too soon, too much volume, the wrong kind of intensity — often result from ignoring individuality. Each of us differs genetically, in terms of fitness, overall life situation and psychology. These influence how much you can train and the rate and magnitude of training adaptations. Following a generalized training program or training like your buddy may not be the best for you. You could be training too much or too hard. Or not enough. We’re each an experiment of one. Determine for yourself what produces improvement.
9. Not balancing training and recovery
Neal Henderson, in an interview with VeloNews, said, “I try to seek the point of maximum adaptation to the minimum of training stress, rather than to try to achieve the greatest level of fatigue. Excessive fatigue does not guarantee improvements or adaptations.” Henderson is the former director of Sports Science at Colorado’s Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and USA Cycling’s Coach of the Year
The key is balancing training stress with recovery so you get improvement, not breakdown. You can balance stress and recovery during a workout, during a week, over a month or period of weeks, or throughout the year.
10. Poor recovery nutrition
When you’re riding you’re burning fuel from carbs and body fat. Every rider – even skinny racers – has enough fat but you’re body can only store so much glycogen from carbs. It’s important to replenish the glycogen after a ride. If you don’t, you could build up a chronic glycogen deficit.
To start your recovery nutrition, toward the end of a ride finish any food and drink you have left. Off the bike start eating things you like that are primarily carbs. I’m recommending “things you like” instead of specific products because there’s no specific recovery product or food that’s any better than other food. And if you like it you’ll consume it! I eat low-fat Wheat Thins.
You’ll get more glycogen faster if you eat those carbs within 30 minutes of getting off the bike (the glycogen window). Eating in the glycogen window is critical for roadies working out twice a day or doing very long rides (for example, a multi-day tour) when there is limited time after a ride to recover for the next ride. For the rest of us start eating carbs within an hour or so and continue until your next regular meal.
Only about 5% of your energy while riding comes from protein so you don’t need a lot of protein to recover. What you eat at meals is sufficient to rebuild muscle.
Calorie King is a great resource to find out the mix of carbs, fat and protein in a food or drink.
Also start drinking fluid you like (except beer!) to rehydrate. There’s also no magic rehydration beverage. I like smoothies: fruit and non-fat yogurt mixed together in a blender. Keep hydrating until your urine is a clear yellow stream.
I’ve written two related columns
11. Poor quality recovery
While you’re riding you’re also producing metabolic waste substances. We often think of lactic acid as an example. Fortunately, when you slow down and have enough oxygen the lactic acid is burned as fuel. However, other waste products remain, which need to be moved to your kidneys and excreted. These waste products are removed through blood and through the lymphatic system. Your heart pumps your blood and transports the waste to your kidneys. The lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump. It relies on movement of your body parts to move the lymph along. Moving your muscles gently after a hard ride helps to remove that stuff. For this reason, the soigneurs massage the pros every night.
I’ve written this column on Ask the Coach: How massage helps
A true active recovery ride also helps to move waste products from your muscles. On an active recovery ride you should be going so slowly you’re almost embarrassed to be on the bike.
Even riding at a brisk conversational pace damages your muscles a little and the harder you ride the more muscle damage. The muscle pain after a ride, particularly the next day, is often the result of the chemical irritants your body produces to help with the healing process.
Your body produces Human Growth Hormone to repair muscle damage and HGH is only produced while you are asleep! Most people need eight or nine hours of sleep but few get that much. Another client is suffering from chronic fatigue. He has good days and bad days on the bike. He eats properly but he only sleeps five or six hours a night. Each week he reports to me how long he slept each night. We’ve talked about why he goes to sleep so late and he’s making changes. My first goal is to get him to average at least seven hours a night. And then more.
Overtraining syndrome is a result of the cascade effect, which explains the failure of complicated systems such as your body. If one of the above 11 points is a problem, e.g., riding garbage miles, it has a bit of an effect on your riding. And your diet doesn’t support your training. And you skimp on sleep because of a big work project. And so on. Just one of the 11 points won’t cause overtraining. But the cumulative cascade of problems may result in overtraining.
The process is subtle and you probably won’t recognize what’s going on until the cumulative effect results in a cascade your body can’t handle. If you’re fortunate you may just get sick; however, if the cascade is too great you may lapse into overtraining.
With the above 11 points in mind look at your riding and non-riding habits and your overall lifestyle. Where are there potential problems, the cumulative effect of which could be the cascade effect?
Pay particular attention to the two primary symptoms of overtraining: decreased performance for multiple days or lack of enthusiasm to ride for several days. If you perceive a symptom park your bike in the garage for several days or longer if necessary.
Bottom line: It is much easier to avoid overtraining than to recover. When in doubt about how much or how hard to exercise, listen to your body and do less.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond. The book’s chapter on recovery covers in much more detail how to gauge your total stress load from life, how to balance training and recovery, how to improve your recovery and how to avoid overtraining. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
My eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance explains in much more detail the best recovery nutrition, the value of stretching and five different stretching techniques and teaches you how to give yourself a massage with your hands or with a hard foam roller (the pillar of pain). I also cover true active recovery activities, compression garments, icing and using whirlpool or hot tub. The techniques are illustrated with 14 photos. Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance is only $4.99.
My eArticle Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate or Power to Improve Your Cycling explains in detail your physiology, which type(s) of intensity training is right for you based on your personal goals. I then explain how to do intensity training including whether RPE, heart rate or power is best for you. The 41-page Intensity Training $4.99.
My eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros explains the recovery nutrition and hydration pros consume after a race. Their buses typically have kitchens and chefs to feed them as soon as they’re off the bike! Eating and drinking like the pros offers us the same nutritional benefits, which we can customize to our own needs – typically at a fraction of the cost of commercial sports food and drink, if we choose to make our own. Eating and Drinking Like the Pros is only $4.99.
My eArticle Nutrition for 100K and Beyond covers in detail your daily diet and specifically what to eat before, during and after a ride. I originally wrote this for 100K+ riders; however, the material applies to anyone who rides for several hours or more. Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.