What is overtraining?
Put simply overtraining or OTS (Overtraining Syndrome) is less than adequate rest for the amount of training one is doing. As seen in Figure 1 - Overtraining Graph below, the body never fully recovers before the athlete makes a return to hard cycling/training, which places more strain on the body, dropping the performance ability of the cyclist to a new low level. The phrase 'Under-Resting' is therefore a more accurate description of what is occurring.
7 Symptoms of Overtraining
The following 7 symptoms of OTS, has been summarised from Bicycling.com's article: 7 Signs You’re Riding Too Hard-and What to Do About It
1. You're experiencing regular issues with your sleep
If you're tired but you can't sleep, you wake up more tired than when you went to bed, or your general sleep pattern is disrupted you may be experiencing OTS. The research on whether a single day of hard efforts affects sleep patterns is still undecided but the negative affects OTS have on sleep is clear.
2. Your resting heart rate is much higher or lower than usual
There are conflicting studies of athletes experiencing both lowered and elevated resting heart rates during OTS. You should take some baseline heart rate readings when you are feeling good and well rested so that you can compare them to your heart rate readings when you feel you may be experiencing OTS.
3. You get dropped on an easy ride/your power is low
If you have a power meter then determining OTS will be a lot easier. If your power is lower than usual and 200 Watts feels like 300 Watts then OTS could be upon you. If you don't have a power meter but you're getting dropped on a bunch ride that you can normally keep up with, or you're struggling to get up a hill you normally smash, it may be time to have a rest.
4. You haven't had an easier week in a while...
Usually well structured periodised training includes a certain number of hard weeks followed by an easier week. If you are having hard weeks every week for longer than a month or two then you'll likely end up with a bad case of OTS. The exact amount of rest that an athlete needs is highly individual, however as a general rule the more high intensity training, the more rest an athlete will need.
5. You keep getting sick
If you are getting regular colds, have cuts or cracked lips that wont heal, it may be due to overtraining. Following exercise the immune system is suppressed momentarily before being strengthened, however with OTS, the immune system is weakened.
6. Your appetite is off
If your cycling a lot then you should be seriously hungry and be eating very regularly. However if you're not feeling hungry for a lengthened period of time it may be OTS kicking in.
7. You get regular injuries
When your muscles are being pushed harder and harder without sufficient rest, your muscle fibres and supporting ligaments lose strength and stability. If you've had a few injuries, one after the other it may be time to take a few days off the bike.
Your blood tests prove it
If you have a good baseline blood test to go off when you were well rested then getting a blood test when you've been feeling off for a few days to check your levels may be a good idea. During OTS a few biological markers will be altered such as decreased haemoglobin and testosterone.
Training Hard vs Overtraining
It is important to understand the difference between functional overreaching and OTS (non-functional overreaching) When done right, functional overreaching (as see in Figure 2 - Functional Overreaching Graph) involves pushing the body to and beyond its limit in the short term and then giving it sufficient rest to allow for super-compensation. During super-compensation the body rebuilds stronger than it previously was, in order to be able to withstand a larger volume or a higher intensity of exercise.
Compare this to OTS where the body is not given a sufficient amount of rest to allow the body to rebuild properly and super-compensate.
7 Steps to Avoid Overtraining
1. Listen to your body
The best way to avoid overtraining is to listen to your body both on and off the bike. If you've had a period of longer than a week or two feeling run down and tired, then going hard on the bike or continuing training is only going to degrade your performance. Have a few days off the bike and recovery days (Zone 1) until you are feeling energised and strong, remember rest is just as important as training.
2. Check your resting HR
Get some baseline resting heart rate readings during a period where you are well rested. By comparing your results during periods where you may be experiencing OTS you will be able to see whether you HR is sufficiently different. Everyone's HR will be affected differently during OTS, however from our experience and recent studies a higher resting heart rate upon waking of around 10 beats/minute can be experienced.
A more in depth way of tracking your bodies daily fatigue is by using a heart rate strap under identical conditions every morning to test you Hear Rate Variability with an app such as My Ithlete. It is important to note however that getting accurate, reproducible readings is difficult and without strong knowledge of the interaction of training principles and human physiology, such methods can potentially confuse you more than aid your training endeavours.
If you have a power meter, then comparing your power with how your body is feeling and the effort required to maintain wattage on different days is going to be the best way of determining whether you have OTS. If you are failing to complete efforts at a certain wattage you can usually sustain then it's time to rest.
By paring your power meter with fitness and fatigue graphs on services like Strava and Training Peaks, you can visually look at how fatigued you are at any given point in time. As a rule you should aim to be increasing your fitness (Strava) or CTL (Training Peaks) by 7 points per week, as increasing it drastically higher than this each week for a month or longer will spike your fatigue (Strava) or ATL (Training Peaks). As everyone can deal with a different degree of training stress, if you don't have a coach it is a good idea to use trial and error to see how far you can push your fatigue numbers before your body needs a rest.
5. Food and Water
Without sufficient calories, the right nutrients, hydration and electrolytes you will simply not be able to push your body as hard or recover as quick, which can lead to OTS occurring more easily. For a breakdown, check our blog post: 4 Tips To Keep Energy Levels High On The Bike 🚴
Sleep is an easy one to nail in principle, but something many of us struggle to stay discipled in at various times. As a general rule, studies continue to maintain that at least 8 hours of sleep should be had to gain the full benefits of rest for training adaptions to take place.
Taking naps of around 30 minutes during the day also benefits the body's recovery.
Caffeine should be avoided within a few hours of sleeping, as even when you are able to fall asleep, your sleep quality can be affected.
The best way of avoiding OTS is to rest when you've been feeling tired and unmotivated for a number of consecutive days. Taking time off the bike can be difficult, but just keep in mind that if you don't rest sufficiently you will never actually improve your performance.
Get a Coach!
Through shifting the management of your training schedule to a coach, you're incorporating someone who knows the training and rest balance inside and out. Getting a professional to set your training schedule, gym workouts, nutritional protocol, technique work and peak timing for events, allows you to reach a sense of calmness that training yourself can't provide.
Velo Goals is a personalised and custom cycle coaching service tailored to each athlete, at affordable subscriptions of $39 (Bronze), $59 (Silver) and $99 (Gold). Velo Goals is able to work with any cyclist from the beginner to elite level athletes. Checkout the Velo Goals website here to learn how we work with every athlete to become stronger and faster than they've ever experienced.