by Fred Matheny
Hard training doesn’t always lead to better performances. Combine it with inadequate recovery and you’ll almost certainly get worse instead of better. How can you avoid this depressing phenomenon, known as overtraining? How can you recover better?
Stress is Cumulative
Pro cyclists rarely overtrain. They ride enormous mileage (on the order of 400 to 600 miles a week) and they slug it out in long stage races. But pros have plenty of time for rest and recuperation. All they do is ride, eat and relax.
On the other hand, recreational riders usually log only 5 to 10 hours a week. This is deceiving, though, because our workweeks stretch to 40-plus hours and most have additional responsibilities at home. In fact, the average recreational cyclist probably has a lower miles-to-rest ratio than a pro.
Never forget that stress is cumulative. If the boss is ragging on you about that overdue report and your personal relationships are coming unglued, you’ll have little energy left even for modest training. You’ll also have less ability to recover from the training you do manage to fit in.
Symptoms of Overtraining and How to Recognize Them
Overtraining symptoms aren’t always clear cut. But if you experience several of the following, beware.
• Lowered performance. When your time or speed worsens even though you’re training hard, suspect overtraining. Here’s the rule: If you’re getting worse despite hard training, you’re probably getting worse because of hard training.
• Apathy. If you have to pry yourself out of bed for the Sunday morning ride, you may be suffering from chronic fatigue. When you’ve lost your normal enthusiasm for cycling, it’s a clear signal that you aren’t fully recovered and your body is crying for rest. It’s not a sign of personal weakness.
• Desire to quit. A strong desire to quit is a classic symptom that you’ve pushed too hard. Organized events should make you eager to ride hard or compete. If you’re lethargic, tired and feel like taking the shortcut home or not riding at all, you’ve left your competitive fire out on your training roads.
• Increased irritability. Your family members provide the best early warning of over-training. They’re the first to notice when your normally sunny personality turns grumpy.
• Disrupted sleep. Overly tired cyclists often fall asleep easily in the evening. In fact, they usually feel drowsy in the afternoon. But they often awake at 3 or 4 a.m. unable to relax. This pattern of inappropriate fatigue is a sure tip-off that you’ve overdone it.
EXAMPLE! It was my second season of bike racing. Along with my wife and infant son, I moved to Boulder to take an eight-week class at the University of Colorado. Boulder was rapidly becoming the center of the U.S. cycling world, home to the Red Zinger Bike Race (later to become the Coors Classic), the germinal American stage race. I was coming from a small town with no other cyclists so Boulder was a revelation—riders training everywhere and frequent races.
I was a newly minted Cat 2 and got caught up in the enthusiasm. Up at 5:30 a.m. to meet a teammate, we did intervals twice a week, a long ride in the mountains on a third day, and raced on the weekends.
I also tried to lose weight. I had been an offensive guard in college but cycling had peeled off 40 pounds automatically. Now I wanted to lose another 10 so I severely restricted my calories. I wasn’t eating enough to fuel such demanding workouts and “running on empty” meant that not only did I feel miserable all the time, I couldn’t sustain the volume or intensity of my previous training.
Soon my performance began to drop drastically. I had gone through the lower categories quickly and placed highly in the district time trial, but I was having trouble staying with the Cat 1-2 pack in spite of all the interval training.
My motivation took a similar nosedive. When I began the early-morning interval routine I didn’t need to set my alarm. I was so excited about the dawn hammerfest that I woke automatically. That didn’t last. Before long I was nearly comatose when the alarm went off. Rousing a hibernating woodchuck would have been easier. Worse, I found my mind wandering during class and I had to fight a monumental battle with myself to head for the library to study in the afternoon instead of taking a nap.
I fell asleep at 9 p.m. but woke in the middle of the night and stared at the ceiling for hours before sinking into oblivion again. And I was beyond grumpy. My wife noticed that a lot sooner than I did.
It took a whole off-season of easier activity to recover. And ever since, it has taken much less of a training load to bring on the symptoms again.
Intensity is a drug. As we have seen, hard training makes you better—until you exceed your capacity to recover. Then hard training makes you worse. So think of intervals, racing and tough group rides as powerful medicine, medicine that can, in the right dosage, make you improve. But prescribed incorrectly it can make you ill indeed.
This isn’t just a metaphor. If you suffer through a bout of overtraining and chronic fatigue, “illness” will seem exactly the right description.
How to Prevent Overtraining
• EVALUATE YOUR TOTAL WORKLOAD. When job demands are high, cut back on your training. If you’re coaching your child’s soccer team every weekend, long rides may have to take a temporary back seat.
• MONITOR YOUR BODY. Learn the overtraining symptoms above and be keenly aware of how you feel. If you’re experiencing symptoms, reduce training before it’s too late.
• DRINK ENOUGH. Be sure you’re adequately hydrated. According to Andy Pruitt, former director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and former chief medical officer for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Cycling Team, “Most cyclists are chronically dehydrated.” Put a bottle of water on your desk at work. Drain it and refill it throughout the day. Your goal is clear, copious urine. If you don’t get up at least once in the night to urinate, you aren’t drinking enough.
• EAT ENOUGH CARBOHYDRATE TO REPLACE YOUR MUSCLE GLYCOGEN. Consider a carbo replacement drink designed to aid recovery.
• REST. Easy to say, hard to do. You love to ride, right? But if you’re a victim of overtraining, rest is the first remedy. For three days, nap instead of training. In your daily activities, follow the pro racer’s rule: Never stand if you can sit, never sit if you can lie down.
For the rest of the week, take short, easy walks. If you normally lift weights, consider two light workouts. If you’re having severe cycling withdrawal symptoms, overhaul your bike—don’t ride it. Or watch some cycling videos from the prone position. Get significant quality couch time.
During the second week, try some easy rides but only if you’re feeling much better. Use a heart monitor to stay under 80 percent of max.
After this two-week recovery period gradually resume normal training—but only if you’re hungry to ride. You should feel re-charged and invigorated, chomping at the bit to hit the road.
When you’re back into your normal riding routine, remember to avoid the excessively hard work—and the lack of recovery—that got you in trouble.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.