While cyclists need training stress to promote physical adaptations, too much of it can have the opposite effect. A prolonged period of insufficient recovery and excess training stress can lead to non-functional overreaching, and ultimately to overtraining syndrome.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining begins and ends with stress. Training stress is a productive form of stress that promotes physical adaptation. When you do a workout, you incur training stress, which challenges different physiological systems and breaks down muscle tissue. As your body mends itself through the recovery process, it returns to its baseline or grows stronger— a process called supercompensation.
While the relationship between stress and recovery is what makes you faster, rest and stress usually aren’t balanced after every workout. To get faster, you’ll often need to overload your body with more stress than it can quickly recover from. This is called functional overreaching. By overreaching, you gradually take on more stress than your body can actively handle.
There are limits to how much stress your body can handle, in both the short and long term. After a few days of hard workouts you’ll need a day or two of rest to let your body recuperate. Eventually, after a few weeks of stress-filled workouts followed by rest days, it will be time for a more complete chance at recovery. That’s when you should take a recovery week. After your recovery week, you should be rested enough to begin a new training phase and start building on that stress again—with an even greater capacity for work than before.
Balancing proper recovery and appropriate amounts of stress makes it fairly easy to recover from an accumulation of stress. However, if you exceed your body’s capacity for stress with too much intensity, too much volume, and insufficient recovery, you risk entering non-functional overreaching territory.
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Non-functional overreaching happens when you’ve dealt more stress to your body than it can productively handle. It’s an unproductive space where additional stress no longer serves to make you faster. Non-functional overreaching can reduce performance and cause persistent fatigue. If your training stress delves into non-functional territory, it will take longer than a typical rest week to recover, potentially requiring additional weeks completely off the bike. But the real concern with non-functional overreaching is that doing it for too long it can result in a serious medical condition known as Overtraining Syndrome, or OTS.
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS)
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) occurs when an athlete’s accrued training stress significantly exceeds their ability to recover. This syndrome develops over time and is the cumulative result of a variety of different choices and factors.
While OTS isn’t particularly common, it’s a very serious diagnosis that carries hefty consequences. Depending on the time an athlete has been training in an overtrained state, it can take months or even years to recover from. In some cases, Overtraining Syndrome can result in irreversible changes to important systems in the body, ultimately altering an athlete’s physical state forever.
Luckily, there are warning signs that occur well before OTS, during non-functional overreaching. Even better, there are prevention methods every athlete can implement to maintain a sustainable training regimen.
Overtraining Symptoms and Signs
- Trouble completing any form of physical activity.
- Elevated heart rate or irregular heart rate activity.
- Diminishing results and performance despite a similar training load or an increased training load. (PR’s and power goes down when it should be increasing)
- Persistent fatigue even after lots of rest and time off the bike.
- Trouble sleeping or irregular sleep patterns.
- Persistent muscle soreness.
- Increased Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).
- Reduced rate of recovery.
- Feelings of depression and overall changes in mood.
- Trouble handling cognitive tasks.
- More susceptible to colds and the flu.
- RPE stays elevated even after rest or a recovery week.
What Does Overtraining Feel Like?
Looking at this list, you may notice that a number of these symptoms are also associated with the onset of normal training fatigue. In fact, you’re probably already familiar with how a number of these symptoms feel. The key difference between normal fatigue and OTS is the persistency of the symptoms. A day or two of a few of these is likely just a normal side effect of training, but if these symptoms become persistent, it’s cause for concern. An athlete dealing with non-functional overreaching or OTS will feel persistent fatigue and symptoms that don’t subside with rest.
How to Know If You Are Overtrained
Because every athlete is different, the symptoms of overtraining can vary on a case-by-case basis. Further, OTS and non-functional overreaching can be tough to recognize, because they’re the end result of many small habits over a prolonged period of time. Reaching either point is a gradual process.
For many athletes, sleep is one of the first things to go. If you begin consistently having trouble sleeping, this can be an indication that you’re overdoing it. Continuing to feel fatigued after rest days or rest weeks is another sign you might be pushing too hard. When these more gradual changes are paired with typical OTS symptoms it’s time to reconsider your training.
How Much Training Leads to Overtraining?
What makes recognizing overtraining all the more challenging is that there is no set formula leading to it. Your ability to recover, age, experience with training, off-bike stress, response to training stimulus, nutrition, and sleep all play a role in how well your body handles a training load. A professional athlete might train twenty hours per week and be fine, while an amateur athlete in a precarious situation can overdo it with a third of that training load.
Too much intensity and too much volume are what leads to both mild and chronic cases of overtraining. The exact quantity of either is subject to other variables in your training formula. For example, if you’re not getting enough sleep or fueling your training, it’s going to take a lot less training to bring you into an overtrained state. On the other hand, if your sleep routine and nutrition are perfect, but you’re skipping recovery and ignoring signs of fatigue, it will eventually lead to a similarly bad place.
Overtraining happens when you ignore the signs your body is sending you. What matters isn’t how much training you’ve been doing or how intense your workouts have been, but instead how you feel in response to your training and your recovery.
Recovering from Overtraining
While Overtraining Syndrome isn’t common, it’s also not something to take lightly. It can take months, and in some cases years spent off the bike focusing on recovery to make a full recovery. In more severe cases, when athletes ignore the signs of overtraining for too long, it can lead to a point of no return. Ultimately, if you suspect you have overtraining syndrome, consult with a medical professional about treatment before you resume any type of training.
For athletes struggling with non-functional overreaching the recovery process is not nearly as serious. Athletes can typically recover from OTS by spending time off the bike, avoiding strenuous activity, and fueling and sleeping well. With that said, the threshold between non-functional overreaching to OTS is murky at best. Depending on the severity, athletes in this state may still need to take significant time off.
How to Avoid Overtraining
At the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to prevent overtraining than it is to recover from it. Not to mention, all the things that help prevent overtraining can boost your performance, anyway. You can be proactive by paying close attention to how you feel as you progress through your training plan and to always take your rest and recovery as seriously as your training.
- Follow a structured training plan with dedicated rest weeks and rest days.
- Take your rest days and recovery weeks as seriously as you do your training (Don’t skip any rest).
- Listen to your body, because you know yourself better than anyone else. If something feels off, take time off the bike, lower the intensity of your workout, or swap your prescribed workout for something easier.
- Nourish yourself with appropriate fuel before, during, and after your training.
- Take notice of off-the-bike stress and feel free to move workouts around based on how you’re feeling.
- Don’t shortchange yourself on sleep or down time.
Fueling well, sleeping well, taking time off, accounting for off-bike stress, and listening to your body are all key to ensuring you maintain a healthy relationship with your training cycle. As an added bonus they’ll also help you get faster.
In addition to these prevention steps, be mindful of the overtraining myths that have the potential to mislead athletes.
Myth 1: Overtraining Syndrome Only Happens to Professional Athletes
It’s a common misconception that overtraining is only something that happens to professional athletes training at extremely high levels. While you do need a decent amount of intensity and volume to overtrain yourself, overtraining is not limited to a professional-level training load. You can potentially overtrain with a low-volume training week if the rest of your training circumstances put you in a vulnerable position.
Myth 2: Everyone Recovers From OTS
Athletes dealing with severe OTS can train themselves past a point of no return. It’s always better to air on the side of caution even if you don’t think you’re at the point of actually having overtraining syndrome.
Myth 3: Training Stress Alone Leads to Overtraining
While training stress is often a positive form of stress, your body doesn’t distinguish between stressors. All that stress just ends up in one big pile. This means other forms of stress can add on top of your training stress, to put you at greater potential of overtraining.
Myth 4: Recovery Just Means Time Off The Bike
Recovery is not merely time spent off-the-bike or doing more easy spins. Recovery means taking care of yourself with the right nutrition, rest, and self care.
Examples of Overtraining
If you’d like to hear from an athlete who’s experienced these things themselves, athlete Jamie Berry joined podcast host Jonathan Lee to discuss an experience with overtraining onset by personal stress at school, too much volume and intensity, and a personal battle with RED-S Syndrome. You can listen to his full episode as well as read the run down here: Recovering from Red-s and Becoming a Healthier Athlete With Jamie Berry
For additional anecdotes on overtraining you can check out this thread on the TrainerRoad forum and participate in the discussion with other athletes.
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