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Overtraining

Last updated 2011-02-27 - Send Feedback
Related: heart rate, training

Legal disclaimer: Since we are not doctors, never follow anything based on health-related topics on this or related sites without first consulting with your doctor or other trusted health professional.

When training rigorously (placing strenuous demands on the body day after day), the risk of illness rises significantly, but even if illness is avoided, a training schedule that provides for inadequate recovery can lead to a steady decline in performance, which is called overtraining. Or one can simply not make any gains in performance.

Personal experience

I’ve had one bout of overtraining some years ago, which took nearly 6 weeks to recover from. I found myself getting slower and slower on each ride, with my heart rate reluctant to rise even with a harder effort, almost an oscillating effect as if there were a drag on my efforts.

At the time, I had been studying the physiology of training, and I recognized the symptoms after about 2 weeks, backed way off for 4 weeks, which did the trick (which I could begin to feel): the rest allowed a major recovery, and I went on to have my best race of the season, a 2nd place in a mountain bike race (would have been 1st but for a flat!). Had I foolishly persisted in training hard, I doubt I would have even attempted the race.

Staying alert for overtraining

By using a heart rate monitor and power meter, one can track training progress objectively, watching for signs of declining performance, e.g., a higher heart rate for the same wattage. The same can be done on a fixed course (same route) using heart rate and time: if the heart rate increases for the same amount of time on the same route, then your body is either not rested, dehydrated or getting ill, or the conditions are different (hot weather).

There is some normal and reasonable variation in relative effort (heart rate and power), but a trend to higher heart rate and lower power is a shot across the bow— pay attention.

Think about the above— a hard workout degrades the body, but it is rest and recovery that make the body stronger. If that process is cheated, the body gets weaker, or makes no progress.

No improvement in fitness is pre-overtraining

An improvement in fitness means either a lower heart rate for the same performance, or the same heart rate at a higher level of performance. If neither is occurring, training is ineffectual, and thus one must ask why.

If results are not improving after a month, then something is wrong in approach. Even for those already in peak condition, at least small gains should occur with correct training.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as more rest and easier workouts, assuming you’re already training at a serious level. Or sometimes the type of training is the problem, and the mix of aerobic/anaerobic type training must be adjusted.

It’s OK to stop and enjoy the flowers— it won’t hurt your training program!
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