Lots of triathletes train too hard: to over compensate for the times when they haven’t trained consistently and to reach that performance level that they “need”. Here Susan DuPont lets you know the five warning signs that signal a triathlete heading into over training.
Why Triathletes Overtrain
Most triathletes are haunted by the constant paranoia that taking time off from training will immediately result in a decreased level of fitness. We feel that missing a workout will negatively affect our performance at our next race and we stress for days over a workout that might not have gone as well as planned. Therefore, we do ALL of our workouts regardless of how we feel and we are racked with feelings of guilt, frustration, and despair whenever we miss one. Since most triathletes are Type A personalities, this type of obsessive behavior is normally beneficial and critical to our success in triathlon.
We are driven, determined, and forever in a forward motion; these qualities enable us to achieve success in both triathlons and in the outside world. We walk a razor’s edge in achieving just the right balance between triathlon, family, and work, but occasionally we may fall off that edge and become trapped by our own training. At this point, our training actually becomes detrimental to our success as an athlete.
Alberto Salazar, the great marathon runner, believed in a “more-is-better” mindset. He reckoned that if 120 miles per week was beneficial to his performance, then 200 miles would be even more beneficial. Unfortunately, this line of thinking only resulted in destroying Salazar’s body and left him literally unable to run. So you’re not Alberto Salazar and you don’t log 120 miles in a week, much less 200, so you don’t have to worry about overtraining, right? Wrong. Everyone is susceptible to overtraining (even someone who is as lackadaisical in her training as I am). Learning to recognize the early symptoms of overtraining plays a huge part in its prevention.
As someone who has struggled for years with sleeping issues, I know firsthand how important sleep is to an athlete. Likewise, a sudden change in your sleep pattern may very well be the first sign of overtraining. Many athletes believe that the more you train, the better you will sleep. No statement can be further from the truth. When your body is under an enormous amount of physical stress, sleeping can become difficult, if not downright impossible. Your body needs sleep to help repair itself from the workouts that you are putting it through, but when your body is too stressed out from these workouts, it simply goes into a state of restlessness, a type of physical purgatory, thereby preventing you from your much needed zzzs.
An overtrained athlete may find that it difficult to fall asleep at night, or in my case, have no difficulty falling asleep, but then wake up continually throughout the night. Either scenario will leave you feeling tired and drained the following morning. Ask most athletes how much sleep they need to perform adequately and they will tell you 8-10 hours. If you find that you are only getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night even though you are actively trying to get more, then cut back on your training volume to see if it makes a difference. Odds are, you will find yourself sleeping much better.
Physical Fatigue and Muscle Pain
It makes sense that when you are at the height of heavy training that your body should feel tired. However, this is not necessarily true either. Yes, your body will feel tired, but you should not feel like you have just completed a race or are coming down with an illness, nor should your energy level drop to the point that you do not feel like doing anything after your workout. Continual or abnormal aches and pains can be an indicator that you are overtraining. Common aches and pains are one thing, but wanting to go home after work and crawl into bed is another.
Do you find yourself avoiding or dreading climbing stairs after a workout? Are you sore for hours after a workout? Do you find yourself with dead legs more than a day after a hard bike or run? And most importantly, do you find that it is difficult to finish a workout? Athletes who are getting the right amount of training do not feel any more tired than a non athlete; in fact, they may actually have more energy. But if you feel like you are jet lagged repeatedly for days on end and have been no where near an airplane, then perhaps you are overtrained.
Mental Fatigue and Depression
Exercise is a mental break for me. As an educator, I constantly have to outthink, outsmart, and outwit my students on a daily basis. I spend long hours reading, analyzing, planning, and researching literature and educational pedagogy to help prepare my lessons. My brain often hurts when I leave work each day. Training offers me a break from this mental strain. I don’t have to think; I simply have to swim, bike, run. It is a liberating and welcoming break from the monotony of my job. However, mental fatigue, especially in the form of depression is a prime symptom that you may be overtraining.
Do you find yourself burned out mentally after a workout instead of energized? Do you dread having to get up and complete a workout? Do you find yourself sad, anxious, or generally bummed out throughout the day? Does the thought of a long run or bike ride leave you feeling blah? While most of us tend to think that overtraining symptoms appear in only a physical form, your brain can also send signals. An increase in self doubt, a deflated ego, and an overall feeling of frustration about your training progress may be warning signs that you need to take a break.
Decreased Performance and Delayed Recovery
In the contest between quality and quantity, you should always choose quality. However, most triathletes faithfully follow the latter and spend countless hours training. We tend to think more is better and will put ourselves through the paces even when we feel like dog poop. While logging long hours is an important part of training, if your workouts are becoming continually lackluster, then perhaps you should back off for a few days.
A decrease in performance is a clear signal from your body that you are overtrained. STOP! Continuing to train when your splits are sub par can lead to injury and further mental and physical fatigue. Likewise, if it seems to take you longer than normal to recover from a workout, then your body may be trying to tell you it is overtrained. If your muscles are continually pushed to their limits and not given adequate time to rest and repair themselves, then your recovery time is going to become increasingly longer. The end result may be something similar to Salazar’s physical destruction, so listen to your body!
Athletes don’t like taking time off due to illness. Unless we have a high fever or are vomiting profusely, we tend to suffer through workout after workout regardless of our physical state. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Do you find yourself racked with headaches or feeling like you are coming down with a bug? Are you suffering from numerous colds, or stomach viruses? When your body is overtrained, your immune system becomes compromised and you become more susceptible to illness. If you find yourself always with the sniffles or always on the brink of catching something, then perhaps you should actually take some time off and allow your body to rest and repair itself. Overtraining may take many forms, but an increase in colds or stomach bugs should definitely be a warning sign that you could be doing too much.
So Are You Guilty Of Overtraining?
The next question is how to do I fix it?
Depending on the extent of your overtraining, the solution varies from each athlete to the next. For some, taking a few days off from exercise completely can cause wonders both mentally and physically. For others a week off or longer may be needed. While I prefer not to exercise at all during my “breaks,” you do not have to completely eliminate it; just simply make sure that you are not pushing yourself in the same way you do during your training.
Low volume and low intensity should be your goal. Take your bike out for a scenic ride, but refuse to look at your time. Take your dog out for a walk, but don’t try to run. Return slowly to your training and pay attention to your diet. Binging on sugar and lots of empty calories can mimic a lot of overtraining symptoms, so try to eat in a responsible and healthy manner. You don’t have to get rid of the chips, but you don’t have to eat a whole bag in one sitting either.
“Controlled stress” is the key to managing your workouts in the proper manner. You want to do just enough in your workout to stress your body to the next level, but you don’t want to do so much that this stress becomes detrimental. Controlled stress is a lot like a balance scale. Too much hurts your body and too little doesn’t help. Overtraining simply puts way too much emphasis on one side of the scale and your body and performance suffers as a result.
The key to proper training is finding that right balance. There is no harm in taking time off to recover from overtraining. We all need breaks every once in a while and training is no different. If you fit more than one of the above criteria, then reevaluate your training status. Do not feel that missing your workouts will hinder your performance; instead it might have the opposite effect and leave you feeling refreshed and ready to go.