Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Overtraining Threshold

It’s that timer of year when overtraining is likely for some athletes. Here are a few thoughts on how to keep this from happening to you.

Throughout the Base and Build periods the workload should be just great enough to produce stress marked by fatigue and adaptation, but not so high that the overtraining syndrome results. The level at which overtraining symptoms first appear is the “overtraining threshold.” The overtraining threshold is a moving target. The workload that causes overtraining when fitness is low may be easily tolerated when fitness is high.

For experienced athletes there actually are times when the overtraining threshold is exceeded in order to produce the highest levels of fitness. This is called “overreaching" and is illustrated in the accompanying graphic. The key here is to reduce the training load at the right time while overreaching so that the overtraining syndrome doesn’t occur. If it does it may well take several weeks to recover. This is rare but there are some athletes who push themselves hard enough to achieve it. Most of us will back off long before we get to that level.

As adaptation occurs with improving fitness, the overtraining threshold rises. In other words, it takes more workload to overtrain the athlete as fitness improves. The workload must rise if fitness improvement is to continue. Most athletes recognize this phenomenon and allow for it by increasing the number of intervals within a workout, or by extending the length of a workout, or by doing repeats at a greater effort. The problem is that most athletes try to rush the process, but it’s simply not possible to speed up the changes that happen at the cellular level short of using drugs. The human body adapts to changes in workload slowly and steadily. And each individual athlete has his or her own unique rate of adaptation. The trick is to discover what your rate is and then pay close attention to it when determining training workloads. This isn’t easy. It is best to err on the conservative side.

How can the overtraining threshold be identified? It’s tough to nail down, in part, because it’s always changing, but also because there are no universal and absolute standards. For example, I can’t say what a certain resting heart rate—either high or low—means for your level of overtraining. That must be determined individually. I’ve found, however, that there are several categories of markers that may predict when you are exceeding your overtraining threshold. They are:

+ Fatigue which doesn’t go away with 48 hours of low workload or even time off from training. The legs feel tired or there is general body weariness that lingers even after taking it easy for two days.

+ Little control of emotions — evidence of anger, feeling sorry for yourself, moodiness, depression, grumpiness. In short, you are hard to live with. A spouse or roommate may be the first to recognize this.

+ Performance declines. For example, you are slower at a given heart rate, or for any given speed, heart rate is higher than usual.

+ Self-confidence declines. This may be the best marker, but it’s hard to assess. One way to do it may be in the athlete trying to visualize accomplishing a very high workout or race goal. If it seems out of reach and farfetched, self-confidence may be low.

When any of these markers show up and linger for more than three days, there’s a good chance that the overtraining threshold has been exceeded. At this point the workload must be reduced immediately until you are back to normal. Then take time to evaluate what level of workload produced the problem, and make adjustments as you start back into higher workloads.

By learning to recognize your overtraining threshold and keeping the workload below it while designing the season around your limiters and strengths, you’ll improve race performances both in the short and long term. That’s smart training.


At May 9, 2009 9:51 PM , Blogger Vincent said...

Great post, I was wondering though, is it possible to overtrain in one sport and not globally?

I feel this way often while biking, however, sometimes during the same weeks when I feel like my biking has hit the wall I'll be having the greatest run workouts of the year.



At May 10, 2009 12:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,
W/ your cyclist's training bible plan I was successful in some of my goals in 2008. This year I trained more(not to the T) according to your total heart rate training book, some of the changes I made was, specifically, doing tempo sooner (I could be wrong here, but you had a similar pattern for all the base periods, w/ a progression in volume). I also borrowed the testing protocol from 'Workouts in binder" by Dirk Friel, which has a 30 minute all out time trial. I did this, because I wanted to focus more on quality then quantity (I followed the 500 hours plan last year and 400-450 plan this year). I think I am overtrained now since I did too much intensity.
My first question is: can a temporary fever and achiness all over be a symptom of mere overreaching or exceeding the overtraining threshold? Or would that sound more like overtraining syndrome. To add more detail I tried to take a recovery week last week, but I included a few hard rides, but w/ reduced time at intensity, except the all out test on the Arizona Snowbowl road, which I failed to maintain the intensity, that I have been able to maintain earlier this year. However, I did double my hours at work which is Janitorial work(lots of walking, scrubbing, vac, etc.)
My second question is: Did I misunderstand you in Total heart training and did I make a mistake doing the 30 min tt in the base periods? Would the 30 min tt, EVER, be good during your base plan(s) and when would it be ok? Sorry, for so much typing!

Nathan R.

At May 10, 2009 7:10 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Vince--OT leaves you globally tired. Again, very few people can drive themselves to this level of exhaustion. If you do there is no doubt you are completely and utterly fatigued no matter what the actvity is.

At May 10, 2009 7:13 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Nathan--Fever is not usually associated with OT. That sounds more like an infection. Now being run down due to OT may open the door to infection. So I'm not ruling it out.

The 30-min test may be done at any time in the training year.

At May 10, 2009 6:07 PM , Blogger Coachhrd said...

Good stuff. At 43, I have a tendency to "overtrain" at times and risk injury. Thanks for the help in this area.

At May 11, 2009 2:02 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Joe. Really good info. Over the years i also find psychological or emotional stress (such as hassle at work etc) can affect your ability to train hard and recover and can lead to over training symptoms.


At May 12, 2009 3:35 PM , Blogger Rebecca DeWire said...

Thank you so much for this post; you have no idea how timely this is! I have been struggling for the past month with some psychological issues which I now understand are just some overtraining symptoms. I was starting to wonder if something was seriously wrong with me. Realizing that I am just experiencing some overtraining symptoms in my preparation for IMCDA is a huge relief. I am going to take 5 days off and see how I feel after that. Thanks again and I am so grateful to have read this post.

At May 16, 2009 1:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being that my performance has declined, even after a rest week, but having not gotten into the most intense training period yet this year, (except my 20k tt, cat 5first place finish, in February and 20 minute tests as well as a few 30 sec, allout, short hills) should I rest a few more days, then get intense? Or should I return to a base period? I am the Nathan in the comment above, if it helps (Hence the achiness). I mean am I toast, for maybe having started too early or too much intensity for a while, or am I just overreached (Becaue I got an infection/fever that only lasted 7 hours), and need a few days of rest?

How much intensity is ok during the base periods (percent of total training time, for instance) w/out hindering my peaks? Thanks.

At May 16, 2009 3:10 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Nathan/Anon--Several of these questions I can't answer. They "depend" on many other variables. If heavily fatigued the usual course of action is to take a day off and then train easily (short-low intensity) until you start feeling good again. If just overreached it should take 3-5 days at most. If more than that then something else is going on.

At June 2, 2009 8:13 AM , Blogger plum said...

Timely article Joe. I just went through a pretty tough 2-month period, checking off all the symptoms you described above. My spring training volume is low compared to some, maybe 3-5 hours per week. However, those hours are very intense and very focused, and almost entirely in zone 2. Some might think you can't burn out in zone 2, but I contend you definitely can.

After a few months of emphatic spinning on the trainer, I just couldn't do it; I couldn't even break out of Zone 0. And it's not that I resented the trainer; actually I loved being on it. But one day my energy was completely sapped. Once the weather improved and the roads opened up again, I got out there and didn't feel like I had what I should have had. Every day was a fog of fatigue. I had practically every test known to medicine performed, and everything was perfect. Then came the compounding self-doubt. Then came the second-guessing of my HR zones. I took 3, sometimes 4 days off at a stretch, but I was starting to despise riding. I hated the way I would feel during and after hard efforts. Along with a serious look at nutrition, it took several weeks of cross training and finally a modest, very strong ride to begin to break out of it.

It was a confusing time; I could check off almost every psychological symptom of overtraining syndrome, but the physical symptoms - painful legs, higher resting HR - they just weren't there. Perhaps it was just a 'burnout' syndrome in my case.

At June 2, 2009 9:25 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Plum--What you describe sounds very much like the overtraining syndrome. The symptoms vary by individual. Why this is so remains a mystery. Probably has to do with many circumstances including the type of training that led to the condition.

At July 31, 2009 2:13 PM , Anonymous Morgan said...

Can overtraining be caused or aggravated by illness? I know an athlete who had mono in January, and has continued to train. She completed her first 70.3 in June and has had numerous AG wins and top 10 finishes, but is now exhibiting signs of overtraining - fatigue, reduced heart rate during exercise, "heavy" legs, discouragement and even depression. But it's hard to "diagnose" because it's easy to attribute the fatigue to lingering symptoms from the mono. Setting aside the foolishness of continuing to train while recovering from something so serious, do you think that could have contributed to possible overtraining in her case? Or do you think it is more to do with lingering symptoms of her illness?

At July 31, 2009 6:07 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Morgan--Gosh, I have no idea about her symptoms or cause. But illness does not cause or contribute to the onset of overtraining syndrome. Likely to be the other way around.

At April 9, 2010 9:05 PM , Blogger jayfb said...

Joe, I'm training for my first racing season and am now entering Build 1. I've just finished reading The Mountain Biker's Training Bible, but still am not sure about workload, which I measure by multiplying each of the zone's numeric identifiers by the number of minutes spent in each zone and then adding them up. My question is: If volume peaks at Base 3 and intensity peaks during the Peak periods, when does workload peak? Is it during the Peak Period as well?

At April 10, 2010 3:10 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

jayfb--Intensity peaks in the Build period. Workload stays roughly the same in Base and build. Just comes from different mix of duration and intensity. Workload decreases in Peak peiod.

At April 20, 2010 8:10 AM , Blogger Mr. Black said...

Hi Joe! I'm 18 and a cat 1 roadie so i have devoted considerable time and effort to being really good at riding my bicycle really fast, and I'd really like to keep doing that. about a year ago i started to show symptoms of overtraining but it did not become serious untill about 4 months ago when i lost tons of watts for no apparent reason and started displaying more troublesome symptoms. I visited the doctor and got blood tests but they couldn't find anything so after looking back on my training and such we're pretty sure it's overtraining.
I've read the cyclist training bible and (select parts of) the lore of running but are there any other reasources to help come back quicker to competion? There has to be something else besides rest I can do to get fast again.

Thanks, Steven

At April 20, 2010 2:45 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Steven-I'm sorry to hear that. If I had to put a number on it I'd say that rest was 90% of the cure for overtraining. Lowering life's other stressors and diet is perhaps 10%. Rest!


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