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Overtraining and overreaching

Overtraining and overreaching

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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

If you’re following the British Cycling Training Plans, you’ll notice that rest days and easier recovery weeks are regularly scheduled in. These cycles of training and recovery are what stimulate gains in fitness but many riders who don’t follow structured training plans, simply believe more is more and end up plateauing, losing form or even becoming ill.

Terms such as overtraining and overreaching are often used to describe this situation but what do they mean, how do they differ and what are their implications? Dr Andy Kirkland, a BASES accredited sports scientist, provides the answers.

Ultimately, the objective of training is to improve performance. To do so we must place a training load on the body and mind to promote training adaptations. This training load is dependent on how hard, how long and how often we train (intensity/duration/frequency). We must also consider other factors such as work, travelling and day-to-day living as this also stresses the body. 

To improve performance, it is essential to train regularly with sufficient intensity.  This will often result in fatigue, where we may feel tired or may notice a decline in performance in the short term. With adequate recovery training adaptations will occur and performance will improve. If a rider persists with training without regular or adequate recovery, performance can stagnate or get worse. This situation has previously been termed overtraining.

However, more recently, the term overreaching has become more common and the differences between this and overtraining has caused a great deal of debate and confusion in the sports science communities. This is because the differences between each are very subtle with top athletes walking a very fine line between overreaching and overtraining. 

To resolve matters, experts from the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recently provided a consensus statement on the subject. They came up with the following new terms and definitions to resolve the matter:

  • Functional overreaching is the when the training load eventually leads to improvements in performance after recovery.
  • Non-functional overreaching occurs when the balance between training load and recovery is insufficient and performance gets worse.
  • Overtraining is simply a verb to describe continued training load which is too high and/or when recovery is insufficient.

Overtraining syndrome is a medical term, which requires a medical diagnosis, to describe prolonged maladaptation which is a result of a continued too-high training load. If you're concerned that you may be pushing into Non-functional overreaching or even overtraining syndrome, consider consulting with a coach or sports doctor.