How can you tell the difference between ‘over-reaching’ (usually good) and an unhelpful state of over-training? Learn the signs of overtraining and how you can plan and monitor your training to avoid it.
A warm-weather training camp is a great opportunity to accumulate quality kilometres and provide a spring-board for fitness ahead of the season’s objectives. The sudden increase in volume provides an injection of training stress which temporarily over-trains the cyclist. If managed correctly, this overload provides an effective stimulus; the body must be stressed beyond its normal state in order to improve.
When should you push through fatigue or take it easy?
In spring I took part in the Cyclefit–GPM10 Mallorca Training Camp. Over 7 days of riding we covered 722 kilometres and climbed 9,395 metres. It’s been my biggest week of training since returning to riding after a 6 year hiatus. After the camp, I wanted to make sure that I made good use of this sudden increase in training load.
Non-Functional Over-reaching: Training Camp Syndrome
Most cyclists are at risk of ‘training camp syndrome’. You can spot the symptoms and effects from a mile away. Your teammate returns from the warm weather camp. He’s motivated and keen to show off his tan so, after unpacking his bike on the Saturday, he’s out on the training ride on Sunday ready to rip everyone’s legs off. This continues for a week or so before everything goes quiet. Excuses begin to pop-up. He’s got a cold; sore legs; he’s too busy to train today. This is the form of over-training we’re used to hearing about. Without adequate recovery the over-training stimulus of the week in the sun becomes ‘nonfunctional over-reaching’ – non-functional because the over-reaching does not result in improved performance. Inadequate recovery will initially result in a stagnation, quickly followed by a decrease performance. Taking a few days off may feel like a waste of all the hard work, but you’ll thank yourself in weeks to come.
Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
Training is somewhat like making a bottle of champagne. Champagne begins with a base wine called a ‘cuvée’. Each training session you complete is like pouring a dose of cuvée into an empty bottle. Day by day, the volume accumulates. Yeast, sugar and nutrients are added in the same way that the appropriate nutrition, intervals and specific sessions complement your training. Once the bottle is full it is sealed and allowed to rest.
If the base wine is poor it will never become Champagne. If the balance of yeast and nutrients is wrong the result will not meet the vigneron’s expectations. Even if the mixture is perfect, if it is not left for the appropriate time the consequence will be a disappointing dribble, not a spectacular eruption of stored energy.
However, if the mixture is perfect, if enough time is granted, the contents ferments, pressure within the bottle builds and the wine is transformed into Champagne. At the appropriate time the vigneron decides that it is ready to drink. The ‘muselet’ wire cage is unwound and the cork explodes from the bottle.
Training For Your Champagne Moment
If you want to meet your cycling goals, you need to determine the appropriate training mix and provide enough time to let the ingredients ferment before you can achieve an explosive performance. Defining a clear objective and setting up a training diary is a good place to begin. This record could be as simple as a notebook or as complex as a digital platform. Choose an event, note down or upload the details of each session leading up to it: what did you do and and how did it feel? What was the result? Did your time or performance improve? Ride a regular route or conduct some performance tests to find out if you created an suitable mix of work and rest.
Websites such as TrainingPeaks and Strava allow riders to record sessions and quantify training stress. They can also help to take the guess work out of determining the mix between work and rest. If you train with a power meter, Training Peaks and Strava can also suggest how fresh or fatigued you are, enabling you to plan subsequent training sessions and rest periods accordingly.
Read more about using your power meter like a pro cyclist, here.
You Get Stronger When You Rest: Functional Over-reaching
You get stronger when you rest, not when you train. If you want to achieve medium to long-term improvement you must accept that training results in fatigue, which causes a temporary reduction in performance, followed by a period of recovery and a subsequent ‘super-compensation’ which should lift your performance to a new level. This form of over-training is positive and as such is called ‘Functional Over-reaching’. Opportunities for recovery should be planned regularly, perhaps as weekly rest days or monthly ‘easy weeks’. Greater training stress such as a training camp may require a block of low intensity days.
Measuring Fatigue & Improvement
Concepts called ‘Training Stress Balance’ (TSB in Training Peaks) and ‘Form’ (Strava) help to quantify the relationship between ‘freshness’ and fatigue; the balance between rest and training stress.
Fitness is accumulated through training stress – the steady drips of exercise cuvée – which creates fatigue. Freshness is the result of rest as you let the ingredients ferment. Once you have recorded your training for a period of weeks, algorithms begin to compute your Form or TSB and express it as a number. Negative numbers indicate a state of fatigue, positive numbers ‘freshness’. A TSB of zero indicates a state of equilibrium between freshness and fatigue. Over time, chronic training load accumulates, ideally in undulating peaks representing growing fitness.
Quickly Increasing Training Load
During the GPM10 camp my training volume rose quickly from 12 to 22 hours a week resulting in a sharp decrease in TSB as my daily TSS increased much faster than usual. The extent to which TSB affects a rider’s performance and potential for illness or injury varies between individuals. A pro-cyclist may not even notice a TSB of -40, but these figures are relative. Quickly accumulating a larger than normal training stress means that I am over-trained which will temporarily reduce my performance, even if I still ‘feel’ good.
The blend of steady base and high intensity intervals on previous weeks has provided the right mix of ingredients, but if I pop the cork now, the result will be flat. My body must be allowed to recover through rest or easy rides. The time this takes must reflect the depth of fatigue. From experience I know that I need to quickly decrease my training volume and keep intensity low to absorb the previous week’s training stress. When my TSB rises to between zero and -10, I’ll be ready to take on another hard session. The time it takes for TSB to rise is relative to the intensity and duration of the previous weeks of training.
TrainingPeaks provides some rough guidelines to suggest how much recovery you may need following a single training session.
Limitations Of TSS & Training Load
It’s important to note that TSS recommendations are only guidelines. Some riders, particularly masters athletes, may find that they require longer to recover, others shorter. If you are carrying out a polarised training programme including high-intensity Maximum Aerobic Power type efforts (e.g. 3-4 minutes at >120% FTP) you may discover that you require a number of days of very easy riding before being able to complete the session again at the desired intensity, even if the total TSS of the session was only 150-200 points.
Accounting For The Stress Of Every-Day Life
TSS or Training Load can not quantify the stresses of everyday life. These pressures and responsibilities have a significant impact on a rider’s capacity to tolerate training. A professional cyclist who can collapse on the sofa and take a nap following a long ride will likely be able to carry out demanding efforts on consecutive days. A busy parent who returns from training and immediately rushes into preparing meals and looking after kids may require much more rest before they can train hard again. Questionnaire methods such as Profile Of Mood States (POMS) and software such as RestWise can help to quantify the impact of these elements by asking subjective questions about your perceptions and how you feel before quantifying your state of fatigue or readiness to train/compete.
Training Peaks vs. Strava Definitions
“You can’t over-train but you can under-recover.”
Calibrating Your Senses: Do I Need A Power Meter?
You don’t necessarily need a power meter to monitor fitness or fatigue. Whether you have a power meter or not, you should learn to pay attention to your body’s sensations alongside data. However, a power meter is a useful form of ‘biofeedback’, providing an objective perspective that can encourage you to back-off when your emotions are telling you to train harder.
If you have a power meter, try to correlate the subjective sensations of training load, recovery and even over-training with the results you see in terms of TSS, Training Load, TSB and Form. This way, you can ‘calibrate’ your senses to understand how to plan and carry out your training more effectively.
10 Signs That You May Be Over-Training1. Changes in sleeping patterns
4.Increased muscle soreness/aches & pains/sensations of muscle weakness
5.Getting dropped by ride partners who are usually weaker
6.Heart rate slow to rise
7.Increased resting heart rate
8.Decreased Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
10.Failure to complete ‘normal’ workouts
The challenge in planning any training programme lies in developing the appropriate training mix: find the best cuvée which provides enough training stress to accumulate fitness, add the right ingredients at the appropriate time by deciding when to train at low-intensity, high-intensity, introduce strength training then allow enough time for fermentation: the process of tapering and rest before the performance objective. The solution is often to err on the side of caution.
- Build a deep base through lots of low-intensity riding (<75% FTP/60 min. Critical Power)
- Progressively build your Chronic Training Load (CTL). The rate at which athletes can build CTL varies, but 5-8 TSS/day per week provides a general guideline.
- Add high intensity (>106% FTP/60 min. Critical Power) when you can.
- Only tackle high intensity sessions when you feel fresh enough to hit the ‘big numbers’
- Be realistic about how much training stress you can handle – take into account the factors that TrainingPeaks or Strava can not record such as work pressures and family life.
- Be patient, there are no short-cuts to fitness.
- Train moderately and consistently.
- Rest often.
- Test yourself regularly to verify if the training is working or not.
Finally, remove the muselet, let the bubbles build, explode out of the bottle and seize your objectives.