Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Overtrain

It’s been quite a long time since the last post. I’m hoping to keep this blog alive, but I recently moved to a new part of the state and started a new job, and getting settled took more time and energy than I predicted.

I also increased my training load considerably after moving. I’ve written here about the much more numerous and serious hills in my new location; in addition to riding much more vertically, between mid-August and late September I also greatly increased my distances while simultaneously trying to increase my average speed. All within the first four weeks of a very stressful move, and starting the new job.

For those of you who are considering greatly increasing both volume and intensity in your training, while going through a big life stressor, allow me to offer a word of advice:


In mid-September, after about a month of this ridiculous load, my body simply said, “I quit.”

It took me too long to figure what was happening. Being in my first year of real endurance training, I’d read about overtraining, but I’d never gone through it, so I didn’t recognize it. It started innocently enough; I was sleeping very poorly. Since I occasionally go through bouts of this, I trained right through it, thinking perhaps the extra effort I was putting in was helping relieve the stress. Mistake number one. Life stress and riding stress have to be added together when considering training load. They are two halves of a whole.

I kept adding intensity and volume. I hit my distance goal for the season about three weeks after the move, riding farther than I’d ridden in two and a half decades. Each long ride included numerous hills far steeper and longer than the ones I was used to in my previous location. Meanwhile, my performance stats kept improving. I figured, as long as I was adapting positively, I should keep increasing my load (provided I took rest days and lighter weeks here and there). Mistake number two. If you’re increasing your training stress in more than one factor (intensity, frequency, or duration), be aware that your body is bearing an enormous stress.

I did five days of lighter riding after my personal distance record. After that, I felt like Superman – like I could ride anywhere at any speed I wanted. So, after the rest week, I did a six-day stretch with two intense time trial workouts and two separate days with hill repeats on that big hill – the final day including a few one minute max efforts within the hill repeats. Crazy.

I simply lost sight of the how often I rode intensely. It was like crack; the more and harder I rode, the faster I got. On the road, I was thinking, “I’m ready to ride with the big dogs. I know I can hold my own.” I felt so excited.

All this, of course, during the first three weeks of a stressful new job, and a new apartment in a brand new area.

I’m sure you can guess what came next.

The Saturday after those hill repeats, during a routine, moderate spin, I realized I felt like utter crap. The entry from my training log says:

Feeling sluggish, irrtiable, uninspired today. Seasonal allergies bad.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!!!

Yet, onward I pushed. Thinking it was a fluke, the next day I rode a moderate distance, and ended up dragging myself through it. I hated a good portion of that ride. I had started feeling exhausted at work, sometimes to the point where I had to turn out the lights in my office and sleep for 25 minutes just to finish the day. I did finally figured out that I had gone too far, but there, too, I made a mistake. I only backed off a little, instead of getting off the bike altogether for at least a week as I should have. I just didn’t see the big picture.

I dug a huge hole for myself, and, long story short, I ended up having to do little to no riding for the better part of three long weeks. My allergies were raging. I was sickly-thin and couldn’t gain weight.

I started doubling up on helpful nutritional supplements like ginseng and B vitamins, eating mountains of healthy greens, and adding red meat to my diet. I firmly re-established my sleep cycle, and did light cross-training like hiking, yoga and long walks. By the time I started feeling even a little healthy again, I had lost months’ worth of fitness, which I’m currently still regaining -- slowly.

And so it was that I learned the limits of my body. Overtraining is a very real thing. In retrospect, and after a lot of research, it’s easy to see the signposts. The exhaustion during the day, poor sleep at night, and increased allergies all started long before I had problems while riding. I could have started extra rest right then and probably saved many weeks of recovery time later.

And then again, had I taken a serious break once I did find that I couldn’t ride well and that I was hating the act of riding (other common signs of overtraining), I could have still saved time and fitness.

Training is tricky; usually “less is more,” especially for those of us solidly into middle age and with demanding lives. Then again, sometimes “more is more;” some days that extra intensity is just what I need to blast out the blahs. But when a lot of symptoms are cropping up at once, it’s time to get off the bike and rest.

I can’t say that you’ll always come back stronger – sometimes, you might lose a bit of fitness. But at the very least, you’ll lose a lot less than you would if you pushed through it.

So, that’s where I’ve been all these weeks. With luck, I’m solidly back now, and you’ll be hearing from me.


No One Line said...

I really appreciate your account of overtraining. This past year was my first season of racing, and though I didn't have time to really focus my training, I was commuting a lot (150-200), adding sprint workouts, and racing at the track every week. Combined with the life stressors that you mentioned - I had a new, very demanding, very full time job. I got terribly sick the last week of July, after a month of feeling on top of the world. And afterward, I just couldn't rebound.

It was a good learning experience to hit, and for this upcoming year I'm taking care to plan some off-times. Consistency at race series be damned. I'll take a week off here and a week off there lest it cut my season and my mental and physical health much shorter than I want it to.

Velosopher said...

NOL, really good to hear from you again. And nothing makes me happier than to think that someone could benefit, even a little, from my mistakes (even if its just to learn that there are others out there making the same mistake!).

Boy, your account does sound eerily similar to my experience. I enthusiastically support your decision to build in rest periods, that might not even be suggested in the usual training literature. I hope to do the same. One reason I'm not sure if I'm going to try racing this year for the first time is that I'm not very good at doing things less than 110%. It's a very celebrated trait in our society -- too celebrated. It has a distinct downside.

One training book I like very much that takes the issue of rest and overtraining quite seriously is "Cycling Over 50," by Joe Friel. I was only 44 when I first read the book, but I found it really helpful, having only been moderately active for many years prior to starting *my* first year of serious endurance training.

I try, in Velophoria, to celebrate the value (and benefits, and joy) of life-balance, rest and recovery. Thanks for underscoring that!