Friday, February 15, 2008

Malaise, Ennui, and Other Signs of Overtraining

  • Washed-out feeling, tired, drained, lack of energy
  • Mild leg soreness, general aches and pains
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Sudden drop in performance
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Decreased immunity (increased number of colds, and sore throats)
  • Decrease in training capacity / intensity
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Depression
  • Loss of enthusiasm for the sport
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased incidence of injuries
  • Compulsive need to exercise
If you've been in this sport for a while, I'll bet you already know a bit about overtraining. If you're new to triathlon, you'll probably experience a little bit of overtraining soon. As a coach, I have athletes dropping like flies. This winter has been terrible for various flu and cold viruses, to the point that the hospitals have been crowded with patients complaining of respiratory illnesses; I believe that has greatly contributed to the rash of athlete illness I've seen on my team, particularly since they were getting sick even during the first week of training. But I also know that we've been training hard, and that I coach a group of middle-aged women who seem extraordinarily reluctant to slow the frick down! So I'm sure that their midwestern work ethic has made them easy targets for all the nasty bugs out there.

As an athlete, I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, here, because as strongly as I've encouraged them to lay off for a few days and give their bodies a chance to recover, I'm currently experiencing:
  • A washed out feeling, tired, lacking energy
  • Mild aches and pains, soreness, and stiffness everywhere
  • Insomnia (and freakin' nightmares, y'all)
  • Decrease in training capacity/intensity (I've had a hard time even getting into zone 3 this whole week)
  • Loss of enthusiasm for the sport (haven't lifted weights all week)
  • A compulsive need to exercise
And yet I'm still totally convinced that I just need to keep training for one more week, to make it to that next recovery cycle.

Experienced athletes will be able to relate to this common connundrum (and newbies, take note): we sort of suspect that we're overtrained and should back off, but simultaneously wonder whether we need to work harder instead. If we don't back off and proceed into some hardcore overtraining, we risk the fitness we've built over the past months, but if we do back off, we feel like we will lose fitness anyway! The supreme irony is that symptoms of no enthusiasm or motivation to work out occur along with a compulsive need to exercise. You'd think that if we feel so blah (for lack of a better term) about scheduled workouts, we'd avoid them like the plague; instead, we add extra workouts on.

Practically, here are some steps to take if you suspect you're overtrained:
  • Take the time to prove to yourself beyond any doubt that you are indeed overtrained. The best way to do this is to keep track of resting heart rate and performance stats in a training log (the digital log at Trifuel is a good resource for tracking this information). If your resting HR is up by at least 10% for three days or more, take note; if you see a sudden drop in your speed or wattage, take note; this provides concrete evidence that you're overtrained, so there's no convincing yourself that you should try to muscle through a rough patch by working harder.
  • Take one to three days totally off, and reduce your volume by 20% for the rest of your training week (or whatever microcycle you use).
  • Get a full seven to nine hours of sleep each night, eat healthy and track your nutrient intake, and drink lots of water. This gives your body the tools it needs to recover and rebuild fully.
  • Stretch, use a foam roller, do some yoga, maybe even consider a sports massage. Give your muscles some love!
  • Give yourself a mental break from the sport. As you finish your days of rest, allow yourself to get psyched out a little. You should feel excited to get back into training.
  • If, like me, you're almost to your recovery week anyway, continue moving your schedule up a week.
I know from personal (current, even) experience that it is ridiculously difficult to put on the brakes and bring your training to a halt; we want to train through this mess, dammit! But take it on good authority: if you try to keep going when you're overtrained, you're going to do more harm than good.

(As a personal aside, I have this problem regularly; I am going to look at my training schedule and consider a three-week mesocycle, instead of the four week cycle under which I'm currently operating.)

[Props to About.com for the convenient list of overtraining symptoms; it was much easier to cut and paste than to think all of those up myself]

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