Friday, May 29, 2009

Thought on Overtraining

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece about overtraining. I want to make another brief comment about something I alluded to there but didn't flesh out. This will be just a passing thought. I mentioned that you have to overtrain to achieve a high level of fitness but that you also have to stop before going too far. Let me explain that a bit more.

When I do a talk I often ask the audience how many have been overtrained. Almost everyone raises their hands. My guess is that fewer than 5% in any such athletic audience, even with mostly very serious athletes, has truly achieved overtraining. And that's a liberal estimate. It's very difficult to achieve the overtraining syndrome. Accomplishing that requires a superhuman effort to overcome your body's extreme weariness which is a probably a built in mechanism to prevent death or at least bodily harm. I've only known of one athlete in in 30 years of coaching who I believed was really overtrained. It wasn't a pretty sight. He was a pro triathlete who told after he retired that he was never the same athlete again. He raced unspectacularly for three more years following that episode.

I can sense your confusion already. How can you overtrain and yet not be overtrained? Overtraining is a process; the overtraining syndrome is a result. The process of overtraining simply means that you must train at a stress level which would produce the overtraining syndrome eventually. That 'eventually' is poorly defined in the literature. It could be any where from a couple of weeks for an aging, novice athlete to perhaps a dozen weeks for a highly fit, 20-year-old. And to make matters even worse it's a moving target. It might take less stress to achieve the OT syndrome at the start of the training season than it would just a few weeks later when your capacity for stress has increased.

The process of overtraining is also called 'overreaching.' In order to intelligently overreach you must know what your body is currently capable of handling in terms of stress and then exceed that stress by a SMALL amount. Most athletes left to their own devices will try to exceed by as great a margin as possible. You must also know how long you can manage the overreaching stress load before the wheels start to come off (i.e., overwhelming fatigue sets in). I've found nothing better for this than the WKO+ software. I use it to manage the stress loads of the athletes I coach so that we achieve peak performance when we need while avoiding the overtraining syndrome. Even with the software it's still somewhat of a crapshoot as you can tell from this post. But I don't know how I did it before the WKO+ software came on the scene a few years ago. I wouldn't want to go back to that way of coaching again.


At May 31, 2009 9:51 AM , Blogger TATI said...

once you overreach, how do you determine just how long (days, weeks, etc) to recover in order to achieve peak form?? in other words, to balance slight loss of fitness for optimal race-readiness.

At May 31, 2009 10:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I would say from my experience in training and training with others that most succumb to an injury before they are officially over trained. One could argue that one is the same as the other (injury and over-trained).
With regards to some special forces members I have trained or trained with, their threshold for pain and perseverance, similar to an elite athlete, means they battle through the said injury and end up over-trained without a doubt. My thought is; that it is those who have a mental ability and threshold to push beyond what most can, are those more susceptible to being legitimately over-trained.
I think taking notice of someones general life habits and incentives is as important as any software. I relate it to those with a compulsive disorder like anorexia etc or a hidden incentive like making a living. When the mind is 'corruptly-fueled' it will push to hard and discipline and rationality will go out the window.
I think society conditions our lives to think 'more is better' and 'I must have this now'.
Sorry for the long comment.
Great blog and articles.

At June 1, 2009 5:04 AM , Blogger Folkert said...

I was a little puzzled by this blog: In the Friel books I read, significant space is used for warning against this "monster", so I am checking my wake-up heart rate and all, and now I read it is almost impossible to get over-trained... Joe, is this due to a change of insight? Thanks!
* Folkert/

At June 1, 2009 5:09 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Folkert--Good question. While achieving OT syndrome is very difficult to do you can easily reach the point that you become extremely fatigued, injured, sick, or burned out. These are the body's way of stopping you from going too far. They will cut into your training and set you back. No changes from before.

At June 1, 2009 5:33 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

TATI--To achieve optimal race readiness (i.e., strong form) typically takes 1-3 weeks of reduced training volume. During this time I have the athletes I coach do a mini-race simulation every 72-96 hours with recovery days between. These workouts get shorter as the peak period progresses.

At June 2, 2009 8:32 AM , Anonymous Ed said...

Your reply to Folkert helped a lot. I had the same question. For example, a few weeks ago, I started feeling heavily fatigued, lost my snap, and didn't feel stimulated by workouts, just fatigued. I figured I was overtrained and cut back on volume. Then, I read that fewer than 5% are truly overtrained and was confused. What I'm understanding now is that it is common for athletes to overtrain (verb), i.e., stop benefiting from training stimulus or even weaken from it. When you experience it, cut back. You may lose 2 or 3 weeks. If you ignore it and push on, you can reach a condition called "overtrained" (adjective) from which you might lose the season, or more. As a previous poster said, you'll probably collapse or get hurt before being overtrained. Maybe we could say that overtraining leads, in time, to overtrained syndrome in some individuals. In others, you never get there, but you do stop progressing and you must back off. Is this on the right track to understanding what you're saying? -Ed

At June 2, 2009 9:21 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Ed--Yes, you seem to understand it quite well.

At June 24, 2009 11:16 AM , Blogger Maverick said...


This was just the type of article I was looking for. Joe - I purchased your "The Triathlete's Training Bible" over 4 years ago when first getting into triathlons.

I have had a son since then that has limited things but I still train with biking/running. That said, I modified my diet but was still getting all the nutrients I needed and at the same time started getting back into HITT. BOOM! I hit a wall. My body has just been fatigued the last two weeks. I wondered if it was nutrition but more and more think I'm just fatigued right now. I had thought it was overtraining but I think your article shows me that I need to cut back for a bit.



At March 6, 2010 3:37 AM , Blogger Fred said...

hi joe,
i seem to hit the overtrained syndrome at the same time every year!
i take a suplement called beta-alanine along with creatine.
i started taking the beta-alanine on the 1st of feb and the creatine on the first of march.
my training was going good, felt stronger every session, then WHAM total fatigue in middle of feb, up to now i have not recovered even though i have cut my training right back!
this happened to me last year but to a degree where i could not walk or hardly get out of bed in a morning. doctor did say that it could be a lack of minerals in my system as the pain was like cramps (continualy) i did recover after 4 weeks off the bike and did have the best racing year to date,results wise.looking back at my diary i still cannot see where i went wrong, do you think my body is just saying enough is enough?
best regards NOTSOFASTFRED

At March 6, 2010 2:04 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Fred--overtraining is nearly always the result of not allowing for recovery and rest frequently enough. There's no way of telling you exactly how much you need and how often but it's clearly more than what you've been doing.


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