Signs of Over Training

Overtraining is something that we are all guilty of at some point.  I know that it happens to me a couple times a year and I’ve seen it happen to several people while training for their races, especially Iron distance racing.  With the Ironman distance racing just around the corner for several of us I thought this would be a very appropiate thing to blog about.
 
If you took advantage of the Ironman Louisville deal where you signed up during a certain time frame to recieve a free training plan you may want to take that plan with a grain of salt.  The problem with a group training plan is that it doesn’t take several things into account such as: current fitness level, athletic history, work hours per week, type of work someone does, and countless other things that influence the total load on the body and what the body can handle.  A simple equation may look like this for load of an athlete while training:
 
Volume + Intensity + life = work load
 
Different people can handle different volumes of each depending on, but not limited to, the above listed factors.  Someone might be able to handle a max of 18 hours of training at the peak of their Ironman training if the rest of their life allows them to.  For example, when I was working 3 days per week I found that the max I could train per week was around 19-20 hours max and still be able to recover and function in my daily life.  However, now that I’ve cut down to 2 days per week, I can handle about 5 more hours of training per week.  As the stressors in my daily life decreased I am now able to add more volume or intensity to my training, maintaining the total workload as before when I was working three days per week.  As time goes on and my body adjusts the the training load, I may be able to increase it more.  But for now, this is where I’m at.
 
So, just because you handle 15 hours one week doesn’t mean that 15 hours another week is equal.  If you spend more time at work on your feet than normal, have family obligations or anything else that adds a little extra to your plate, you may find that your body will start becoming over trained.
 
So what are the signs of over training?  The first few signs are something that you may not even notice, but your friends/family will pick up on right away.  Irritability and lack of motivation are two of the first two things to show up when the body is not recovering from training adequately.  The next thing you may notice is being overly tired and lacking energy just to do the daily activities of life.  I’m not saying that setting the alarm and waking up at 4 am is ever going to feel good,  but you have to know the difference between just waking up early and feeling overly fatigued/over trained.
 
As you progress into your over training cycle, more signs will start to show up.  If you train with a heart rate monitor you should notice that your precieved effort just doesn’t align with your HR while training.  When someone is training properly, an RPE of 7 or 8 out of 10 should be right around the person’s lactic threshold.  However, when someone is over training, their RPE might be a 7 or 8 and the HR will barely be above Zone 3.  This indicates that the heart is tired.  The heart is a muscle and needs to rest just like our skeletal muscle does every now and then.  If you train with a power meter on the bike, you’ll notice similar things with the RPE being constant, but the HR and wattage output is lower than normal.  If you notice these things and just get can’t the numbers to align like you know they should, consider bagging the workout.
 
Also, if you check your resting HR in the morning consistently, this will also help in detecting over training before it goes too far.  If someone’s HR in the morning is about 55 BPM on average, but one morning they wake up and its 62 BPM (greater than a 5% change), it could point to overtraining (or maybe the person has some other outside stressor that is raising the HR).  The reason behind this is that the skeletal muscles are demanding more oxygen and nutrients while sleeping, forcing the HR to elevate to meet those needs.
 
A real life example from my training that incorporates a few of these examples:  Last week I made a trip to Michigan to visit family after working a couple days in a row.  I was up before 6 am every day to get training in before work or by early afternoon so I could have the afternoons free to spend with the family or friends.  I was also up later than normal.  I returned home on Sunday evening.  After getting about 5 hours of sleep, I woke up at 4:30 to go to masters swim practice, and from there went to boot camp.  I spent the rest of the day getting my life organized after getting back from Michigan… running errands, cooking food, laundry, etc.  I squeezed in a run that afternoon trying to run the main set at half marathon for an hour.  I noticed my RPE and HR were not matching up.  I had a hard time getting my HR above the low 160’s and after about 30 minutes I noticed my pace was significantly less than what it should be.  I finished the workout and made sure to eat well afterwards to help with recovery.  The next day I had an easy 7 mile run along with a 3 hour bike scheduled.  My HR was still low for the recovery run, and I was exhuasted afterwards.  I nearly fell asleep stretching after the workout.  I decided to bag the afternoon workout and take a nap… a nice long 4 hour nap.  I was still tired after sleeping that long and got a good nights sleep that evening as well.  Yeah, i missed a workout, but the bike workout wouldn’t have been quality, and only would have deteriorated my body even more.  Today, I feel a 100% better and got back on the training plan.
 
If someone doesn’t heed the warning signs of over training, it could lead to a much longer recovery, or even injury.  As an athlete and coach, I’m always looking for signs of over training in myself and the clients that I coach.  Every now and then, a coach will push an athlete beyond his/her limit… but a good coach will pick up on the signs of over training from the data that is uploaded to the athlete’s on-line training journal, such as training peaks.