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Avoiding Overtraining

Cooked, smashed, shattered & wasted: all adverbs used to describe a challenging training session. Day after day, week after week, month after month, athletes grind away in hopes of performing at their absolute best on race day. It’s normal and expected for an athlete to delve into the depths of their own personal hell while suffering in training. An athlete doesn’t achieve their best performances by being overly conservative in training.

However, that doesn’t mean you need to be uncontrolled or reckless to achieve your true potential. If an athlete continues to resist their body’s desire for rest and recovery despite a decrease in performance, they’re setting themselves up for an extensive slump.

Use the following tools to help you determine if you’re in need of rest:

Keep a Training Log:

Look back at your training log. Although extremely beneficial, numbers aren’t always the best indicator of your level of fatigue. Have a look at your post-workout comments. Do you see words like, “cooked” or “tired” more than “amazing” or “strong"? Are you crabby, irritable, sleepy or unmotivated? What is you stress level? Are you ill? If there are more negative than positive or encouraging comments, it's time to rest.

Weekly Self-Assessment:

Reference your diary weekly or better yet, complete a Weekly Self Assessment to hold yourself accountable and catch any potential issues that may interrupt training.

Heart Rate:

Training on a tired body is OK, but when is it not? If your HR is higher or lower than expected for a given workload, there may be a need for rest. Even accounting for appropriate decoupling, athletes should avoid situations in which they are putting out easy watts at greater than steady HR and vice versa. As Couzens points out, if an athlete's body is dealing with or absorbing other stressors going into a workout (indicated by high or low HR) the training response that the athlete gets from that workout will be compromised.

Morning Warnings:

Below is a table created by Joe Friel which can be found in his latest version of The Triathlete's Training Bible. Any one of these warnings by itself is probably not enough to warrant a rest of recovery day, unless it’s extreme. However, two or more warnings on an awakening may be enough to take it easy that day or rest.

Low Heart Rate Variability:

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation in heart rate that occurs when we breathe in and out at rest. Higher variability is better, and indicates a well-recovered, calm state, whereas persistently low values of HRV indicate chronic stress. HRV has to be measured at the same time of day to be meaningful, and measures should be compared to the individual’s baseline in order to show significant changes indicative of temporary imbalances.

How is this beneficial to athletes? A daily HRV measure can most easily be thought of as an indication of training readiness. You can work harder during training (and will enjoy it more) if your body is in an unstressed state and are less likely to suffer overuse injuries (Wegerif, 2016).

In an optimal coaching scenario, I'd be able to see my athletes face-to-face each morning before and when they train. I would ask them questions in real-time, read their reactions and prescribe their training or rest for the day. However, I do most of my coaching remotely and it works extremely well as long as my athletes communicate effectively. It’s my job to ask the right questions that get the most out of their training and determine when they need to rest, even if it wasn’t in the plan during the current microcycle.

Symptoms of overtraining or the need for rest are highly individualized. Pay attention to any potential red flags in your training to reduce the risk of unplanned disturbances in your training cycle. In order to determine what’s best for you, work with a coach to maintain objective accountability, keep a training log and focus on the process of slowly and patiently building fitness. Remember: the only performance that matters is the performance itself. Don't be a hero in training.

"Never stand if you can lean, never lean if you can sit, and never sit down if you can lie down."

-Joe Friel


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