What's Cool In Road Cycling

ProShop: Overtraining Prevention – Rest!

I realize it may seem early in the race season to write an overtraining and recovery article. Well, that is exactly why I wanted to approach this important subject. It’s the end of March, a lot of the country is just getting ready to race (except here in California of course) and spirits and motivation are high. This is the optimal time to discuss this all-important topic, so you can prevent it from happening this year and have a long, successful season.

For this article, I took a slightly different approach by first asking a coach, Dr. Aldo Sassi of the world-renowned Mapei Center in Milan, for his perspective and advice. We then took the riders perspective with Dario Cioni, our trusted professional and all around good guy, who just happens to work under the guidance of Dr. Sassi:

The Coach

Pez: First, let’s discuss a bit of the dreaded over-training syndrome. How do you educate your riders to recognize when they need recovery to prevent overtraining from occurring in the first place? In other words, what are specific characteristics you want them to identify before the overtraining occurs?

Dr. Sassi: There are several signs and symptoms of over-reaching, which is the condition that often precedes over-training. Primarily, increased fatigue in training for comparable efforts measured by power or HR. Sudden (within a few days), significant (8-10 beats or more) and persistent decrease of the heart rate for a determined power output at threshold or at maximum effort. Muscle pain from a simple attempt at a tempo training intensity. Sleep disturbances. Loss of appetite or desire to train and possible mood disturbances.

Pez: You use the term over-reaching. Can you briefly explain the difference between over-reaching and over-training as they are often used interchangeably?

Dr. Sassi: There is not a clear delineation, although over-reaching usually precedes over-training and can be characterized as a shorter-term phenomenon. Over-reaching can actually be a positive training response where the body is stressed just enough that benefit will occur. The key, of course, is to then begin a recovery period to enable the body to benefit from the over-reaching. If you let over-reaching persist too long, that is where things get hazy, as the result becomes a marked decrease in level of performance which eventually results in over-training.

Pez: So now let’s approach the recovery component. How important is recovery to you and your athletes and how much to you emphasize it as an important element of training?

Dr. Sassi: An optimal training process is based on the alternation of training load and recovery in order to allow the adaptation induced by training stimuli to take place. Hence, it is of great importance that both the recovery days within the week (micro cycle), those within the month (macro cycle), and between the yearly seasons take place. Too often athletes underestimate this essential need, and when they don’t improve their performance, they usually increase training volume and intensity, thinking that is what is needed to improve. More often, this lack of improvement is due to the lack of recovery between training sessions, not because you are not stressing the body enough.

Pez: Any other general advice about recovery and prevention of overtraining?

Dr. Sassi:
• A good training periodization and design outlined by coach and athlete.

• Adequate daily recovery (i.e. regular sleep and proper lifestyle)

• Listen to your body, and learn to recognize the different forms of fatigue

• Nutrition that suits your training and life needs

The Rider

Pez: How much emphasis do you personally put on recovery during intense training and after races?

Dario: To me, recovery is probably the most important element of a training plan, but also is the most underestimated. As riders, it seems like we are more focused on not training enough, versus asking ourselves if we are getting adequate recovery.

Of course, I want to train when there is some fatigue or I will never train enough! This is especially true for stage race preparation. To do this I try to follow training plans even if my legs are a bit tired. I then focus on making sure I don’t overdo it and go over the edge by making sure I back off a bit on the wattages, but still attempt to finish the workouts I am supposed to be doing.

I also think that complete rest days, totally off the bike are very useful, specifically for your head!

Pez: So after a hard training session or period of racing, how do you know you are recovered and you are confident about resuming your program?

Dario: If your legs are not painful going up the stairs and you cannot wait to go out training then you’re ready. If you do them two at the time then you are super-recovered! I realize that sounds simple, but for me I try not to over-analyze things and just go with my gut feel and experience.

Let’s summarize:

• I think the most important point expressed by Dr. Sassi is how riders fear that their lack of improvement is be more related to not working hard enough rather than insufficient recovery. What scares most athletes is the fear of resting too much, and not showing improvement. This is not a simple concept to master, especially as athletes age, since with increasing age comes longer recovery times. It’s up to an athlete and their coach to develop good communication and really determine what work/rest interval is best at a particular time of the season. As fitness increases, so does the ability to recover. As the season progresses, recovery times may also change. There is no formula that can predict the optimal ratio of work to rest. So it constantly needs to be evaluated and reviewed during the year with your coach, especially when coming off sickness or injury.

• The best way to cure overtraining is to prevent it in the first place. Learn to recognize the symptoms before it happens and do not be afraid to add additional rest as part of your program. As we always say, it’s better to be over-rested than over-trained.

• Dario’s simple statement regarding knowing when he is ready to resume training after hard efforts; “can’t wait to get out and train” is so important. How often when you are tired have you not wanted to ride your bike? Allow your head to also contribute data about when you should resume your training.

• Over-reaching, if applied properly can have a positive impact in your fitness level. Multiple days of structured training, stage races or multiple race days on a given weekend are all examples that can lead to over-reaching, but at the same time, benefit your fitness. The key, once again, is the balance between hard work and rest.

• I think it’s important to understand that fatigue can take on many forms and endurance athletes, especially cyclists, experience what is called peripheral fatigue, where the legs are mostly affected. There is no question that the mind and body are linked. Like Dario said, when he feels like he can’t wait to get on the bike, it implies that his legs are good to go.

• One additional item worth adding about recognizing possible over-training is the inability to sustain certain power or HR levels. Perhaps you can get your HR or power up to the level needed, but not being able to sustain that level compared to previous “good” efforts is a sure sign that rest is needed.

• Learn to understand the difference between overtraining and “not being fresh.” I still think that HR is an excellent indicator to help recognize over-training and tiredness. When overtrained you can’t sustain a relatively-high HR, and it takes you a longer period of time to reach that HR. When you are fresh, you can get your HR up very quickly; when “not fresh” (but not over-trained), it takes you longer to get the HR up to the proper level, but the ability to sustain that HR is still there. Being “not fresh” can easily be remedied with a couple of easy days on the bike.

• From a medical perspective, there is currently no specific test that can determine over-training. You can, however, take the step of seeing a doctor, get a blood test and learn if you have any of the key markers of over-training are present. This can be a good first step, as it then eliminates the things we can’t see without taking the medical route of identification.

Ride safe and ride strong,


About Bruce
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.

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