How to keep your training in check, and your body from hitting bottom. – By A.C. Shilton.
Cyclists are good at many things, but moderation generally isn’t one of them.
It’s when excess spills over into daily workouts that the real problems rear their heads. For all the athletes looking to coaches for help meeting objectives, some athletes have trouble knowing when to stop pushing. Over-training Syndrome (often abbreviated as OTS), the point at which a body endures more damage during exercise than it can repair, is a real concern for cyclists – especially those with lofty goals.
When most athletes are peaking, they’re right on the edge of over-training. Being on the edge is one thing; if you slip and fall into the deep crevasse of OTS, though, it can be a long, laborious climb getting yourself back into form again.
OTS is marked by many subtle biological signs, and one big, fat, bummer of a symptom: an exasperating reduction in performance. Of course, for many riders, noticing slippage in speed or endurance just encourages us to—you guessed it—double down and work harder.
Of course, this isn’t an excuse to stop pushing yourself, however “functional overreaching” is one of the most important tenets of training. It’s desirable; we want to push ourselves hard and dig deep. That’s what makes us better, but “non-functional overreaching” (a term often interchanged with OTS) is different. You get to this place where you’re tired and fatigued all the time, and that is when you have to really rest.
If you can catch yourself before the point of almost-no-return, you’ll be able to recover faster and get back to serious training sooner – which is why knowing the signs of OTS is so important.
Here’s your complete guide to figuring out whether you’re feeling sluggish because your sleep schedule or diet isn’t so great, or because you’re truly over-trained.
You Can’t Sleep
It’s this paradox: You’re tired but you can’t sleep , or your sleep patterns are disrupted. If you start experiencing insomnia, restless nights, or wake up feeling even more tired than when you went to bed, it may be a sign you’re training too hard. While the research is mixed regarding whether a single day of hard effort impacts sleep, it’s clear that over-training does impact sleep.
Your Heart Rate Seriously Changes
Research on OTS has found that several studies reported suppressed heart rate as a symptom of over-training. However, this finding is in contrast to what previous reviews had found—that an elevated heart rate was actually indicative of being over-trained. The bottom line, is that you should track your heart rate when you’re feeling good so you have a baseline. If you see a big change – either faster or slower while at rest – it could be a sign that you need a break.
You Get Dropped On An Easy Ride
If you have a power metre, this is when its data becomes especially handy. Three hundred watts is 300 watts, meaning that if you can normally climb a hill near your house at 300 watts but recently you’ve been struggling to hit 250, you probably need a rest day. For those without a power metre, Bicycling’s training log or a journal of your choosing can be a decent substitute. If you flip back through the past three weeks of the log and see nothing but “felt tired, had to cut it short,” scribbled next to each workout, ease off the gas.
You Haven’t Taken A Break in Forever
Most athletes have block training schedules that mix three hard weeks with one easier week. This ensures it’s never all hard, all the time. Exactly how much rest an athlete needs is highly individual. But the more high-intensity cycling you’re doing, the more rest you’ll likely need.
You Keep Getting Sick
One of the biomarkers for over-training is a suppressed immune system. We know that exercise generally causes a brief suppression of the immune system right afterwards, but then the immune system is enhanced. But when you’re over-trained your immune system starts to falter. Anything from a lingering cold to road rash or cuts that refuse to heal could be a sign that your body is overextended and struggling to repair itself.
Your Appetite Is Off
Athletes are generally a ravenous bunch, but over-training can change that. If you’re burning kilojoules, you should be hungry. If you’re not hungry, that’s a sign that you could be over-training.
You Keep Getting Hurt
Injury is a symptom that occurs when you’ve been in non-functional over-reach for a long time. Professional sports teams often give their players rest scores and pull players from games if they haven’t gotten enough rest. It’s not that they’re actually injured, it’s that their injury risk is higher. If you’ve had one injury after another over the span of a few months, hang up your bike for at least a few days.
Or, Just Take a Blood Test
Certain biological markers can indicate over-training – like decreases in testosterone and haemoglobin – but you’d need a blood test (and a good baseline) to accurately use these biomarkers. And since over-training syndrome has quite a few no-needle-required signs, it’s probably easier to simply look out for sleep interruptions and changes in appetite.
Also, know that a single bad day does not mean you’re over-trained. It’s actually pretty hard to end up over-trained if you’re riding less than 15 hours a week. Still, it’s possible – especially if you’re going out and hammering every single day.
Avoid at all costs the “I only have 90 minutes to ride, so I better go all out” trap. That workout, when done over and over again, will only leave you exhausted and mentally bored. To make things interesting, add in intervals of different lengths and intensities.
If you’ve truly reached the point of OTS, it can take a surprisingly long time to work your way out of it. Traditional wisdom is that you’ll need at least as many weeks of rest as you’ve spent with OTS symptoms, but that has not been shown in research and because we’re such a diverse species, it’s very difficult to say this will work the same for everyone. However, he says two or three weeks of complete rest is generally the minimum amount of time you’ll need to recover. And if you’re seriously over-trained, it’s not unheard of for it to take upwards of a year to truly get your mojo back.