Toolbox: Recovering from Overtraining
One of the hallmarks of cycling overtraining and non-functional overreaching is that our performance suffers. Here’s one case study of how to diagnose overtraining, and figure out the best recovery strategy when it happens.
Overtraining is a multi-modal phenomenon, with many potential contributors. At its most basic, overtraining comes down to an imbalance between training stimuli versus adequate recovery. Training and training hard is what many of us love about cycling. It’s also the easiest thing to do, as our competitive nature generally thrives on flogging ourselves.
It cannot be overemphasized enough, but all the hard training that we do is only half of the equation. Without adequate rest and recovery, we can end up in a state of non-functional overreaching (NFOR), where our performance drops precipitously. Reaching NFOR is possibly easier for busy professionals who try to cram limited training time in amidst demanding jobs and family duties than it is for full-time professionals.
Along with performance drop, there are a host of other physiological and psychological changes, making NFOR difficult to systematically diagnose. These changes can include changes in resting or exercise heart rate, altered immune function increasing risk of infection, difficulty sleeping, and mood changes.
The instinctive response for many, when faced with a drop in performance, is that we need to suck it up and train more or harder. This is of course the absolute opposite of what we should be doing. If this keeps up, we can reach a full-blown case of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS), where our performance can drop for months if not a full year. Indeed, many cyclists end up quitting the sport altogether as a result.
Practicing What I Preach
This fall, I was flying at the CX practices early in the season at the start of September, to the point where I was keeping up with the fast guys in our club. Coupled with a consistent spring and summer of solid riding, I was eager to test myself in my CX racing category.
Well, the tests started coming in late September and the results were pretty ugly. After performing OK at a race across the border in Buffalo, I got absolutely skunked in my first Ontario race at the end of September, way farther back in the standings than where I stood the prior season. This was followed up by another relatively poor race in Buffalo. Then during a break in the schedule early October, I was getting dropped during our weekend club rides in places where I normally never get dropped. Besides the actual performance, I was finding that I simply couldn’t push myself hard, or that I was going slower and slower during my planned efforts.
Once that happened, I took stock of where I was and decided that I was getting into the edges of NFOR. This took a bit of a leap of faith and a tough diagnosis, as I remained mentally super eager to train and race. That is where you really have to trust the numbers, and where data comes in super handy.
Speaking of that, one obvious clue that my mental energies were also running on fumes was that, despite being a scientist and having power meters (often more than one) on pretty much every bike, I was starting to take a very laissez-faire attitude towards logging my training. This is usually the opposite of my routine, where I’d get every ride into WKO as fast as possible.
Lock Up the Bikes
Faced with all of the on-bike and off-bike cues, I decided to take some action that was almost heretical, namely to take a week completely off the bike in the middle of my prime racing season. Fortunately for me, this coincided with a national conference I was attending, so it was easy logistically and mentally to implement.
After the week of complete inactivity, I then did our CX race that my team was organizing in town. Even during warmup, I was feeling pretty dreadful. The race itself was certainly better than my last couple of races, with me moving a bit higher in the standings. Despite the lousy warmup, I felt I rode pretty well and felt OK during the race itself.
Even More Rest
So I was smart enough to take a week off and I’m back in the saddle and everything’s good again, right? No, and I think this is where read discipline comes in. While I certainly felt and performed better in the race, the lousy sensations during warmup was a red flag for me. NFOR and OTS is a tricky and sneaky customer, and takes longer to get rid of than most of us think. There is really one and only one solution, and that is rest and then more rest.
Realistically, given that I’ve been training consistently and hard essentially since last December, taking a few weeks off or easy is NOT going to matter in the grand scheme of things. Yes, while my top-end CX capacity may suffer, I still have a large aerobic base to keep me going. And more importantly, my main priority is to enjoy the racing season rather than flogging myself.
So I decided to take the past week off yet again, with only easy rides into work (35 min each way). Last Thursday, I did a 90 minute endurance ride just to test myself, and found myself feeling on top of the gears for the first time in weeks.
This Sunday’s race was another improvement, except for my traditional weekly off-piste adventures resulting in my bike wrapped up in tape and a course stake jammed between my fork and wheel. I felt really good during my warmup and the race itself, and moved up in the standings despite my tumble. For the first time all season, I actually felt myself “racing” rather than “riding.”
Revising the Rest of the Season
So now there are 5 more races over the next 4 weeks left in the season. What to do now that I seem to be on the rise again? Well, my plan is to take yet another week almost completely off. First, it’s hard to go wrong when dealing with NFOR to rest and then rest some more. Second, my schedule this coming weekend includes races on both Saturday and Sunday, so that’s plenty of intensity right there. Finally, my schedule comes to the rescue in that I have another conference on Tuesday and Wednesday, so there’s enforced rest built in.
After this week, I’m going to keep playing it by ear week by week before deciding whether to do any efforts during the week or just ride easy and race on the weekend.
Everyone is an individual, but I think there are some common themes that we can all take from my example of playing with fire:
• You can only push your body so hard for so long.
• Analyzing training is not just about numbers, but also interpreting off-bike cues and taking a big picture view of your entire life.
• Whenever you think you might be overtrained, the toughest thing to do is to rest, but it’s also likely the most beneficial.
• Once you feel you’re rested, rest some more.
If everything works out right, I’ll do the classic negative split for the season, getting stronger as the season progresses!
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 80 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he is currently co-editing a followup book “Cycling Science” with Dr. Mikel Zabala from the Movistar Pro Cycling Team. Stephen can be reached for comments at [email protected] .