Spotting the signs of overtraining

Spotting the signs of overtraining

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Knowledge Level: Intermediate

It can be easy to overdo it without realising, with other demands on your life such as work and family sometimes adding to the strain, training can become counterproductive and weaken your body. 

The British Cycling Training Plan is designed to be progressive and, as long as close attention is paid to session duration, intensity and rest days are adhered to, overtraining shouldn’t be a problem. However everyone is different and, with varying physiological make-ups and different levels of non-exercise stresses, keeping an eye out for the classic signs of overtraining is essential.

If you find yourself exhibiting more than two or three of the signs described for more than a couple of consecutive days, take an extra rest day and reduce training volume by 50% for the rest of that week. Try to reduce other stresses that may be impacting on your training and, if necessary, repeat that training week rather than moving ahead. As well as logging your training, keep a daily note of these factors and be aware of any sudden changes or lasting trends.

Persistent illness

Training, up to a certain level, has a beneficial effect on your immune system but, push too hard, and it can lower your body’s defences. Factor in breathing in large volumes of air, especially if you’re training in a public gym, and you can significantly increase your risk of upper respiratory tract infections. A few colds and sniffles are almost inevitable if you’re training over the winter but, if you find you’re not shifting them or are picking up more than usual, it might be time to back off. Knowing whether to train or not if you’re feeling a bit under the weather can be difficult but, if in doubt, don’t.

A rule of thumb is that, if your symptoms are above neck level then trying light training is okay but, if you’ve symptoms below the neck, such as a chesty cough, muscular aches or a temperature, training is an absolute no-no.

Resting heart rate

Getting into the habit of checking your pulse first thing in the morning is an excellent way of getting a heads up for the early warning signs of overtraining or a looming illness. Once you’ve got over the shock of your alarm going off, lay back and relax for a minute and find your radial (wrist) pulse.

Count the beats in a minute and note it down in your training log. You can just count for thirty or even fifteen seconds and multiply by two and four respectively but a full minute gives a far more accurate reading. After a week or so, you should get a good idea of what your typical resting heart rate is. As your training progresses, expect to see your resting pulse steadily dropping. However, if you notice an increase or decrease in rate from one day to another of more than five beats per minute, take a rest day or only train very lightly.

Rapid weight loss

For many riders, losing a bit of excess fat can be one of the biggest bonuses of following a structured training plan but too rapid weight loss is a sign of overtraining and indicates that you’re losing muscle tissue as well as fat. Daily weigh-ins and plotting your weight on a graph is the best way to monitor your weight. Make sure you weigh at the same time each day.

Expect to see daily fluctuations of up to or even over a kilogram but, if the overall trend shows weight loss of much more than one kilogram from one week to the next, it’s possible you’re overtraining. Obviously some people have more fat to initially lose than others and can expect to see more rapid weight loss but any sudden significant increases in weight loss should be viewed with suspicion.

Poor sleep

With the saddle time you’ll be logging, you will probably sleep better than you’ve ever slept but having problems sleeping is one of the classic signs of overtraining. As sleep is when your body repairs itself and recovers, not sleeping throws you into a vicious circle.

Typically an athlete who’s suffering from overtraining has problems getting to sleep complaining of restless legs or just feeling wide awake. As well as maybe backing off your training for a couple of days, look at your bedtime routine and sleeping environment. If possible avoid training within two hours of going to bed or, if you have to train late, factor in a relaxing stretching session when you get in followed by a hot bath. Drink some hot milk but avoid tea or coffee any later than midday.

Avoid watching television or going on the computer in the bedroom or immediately before going to bed. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, genuinely dark and not too warm. If you are struggling to sleep, don’t lay there stressing and clock watching. Get up, make yourself some warm milk, read for half an hour and then try going back to bed.

Excessive muscle soreness

DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is characterised by soreness in your muscles 48-72 hours after exercise. It’s caused by the micro-traumas that occur in your muscle tissue following a new training load.

It’s perfectly normal and, the process of repairing the muscle damage, is how muscles become stronger. Over 24 hours the soreness normally fades and exercise and recovery techniques can speed up this process. If you’re consistently overdoing it though, the soreness will not ease and your legs will feel continuously sore, heavy and tired. Back off hard riding for a couple of days and do some low intensity sessions, some non-weight bearing exercise such as swimming or just take a complete rest.

Irritability and poor mood

Exercise should improve your mood and give you a genuine mental lift. As well as the very real “Exercise High”, elicited by chemicals in your brain released during exercise, sticking to a regular training plan will improve feelings of self-worth and give a genuine sense of achievement. Too much training, combined with not enough recovery and insufficient sleep, can really bring you down though.

As well as feeling irritable, snappy or a bit low, one of the classic signs of overtraining is genuinely starting to dread training sessions. We all have days when getting out to train is a real effort but, in the main, you should look forward to it. There is scope in the plan for a variety of other activities to supplement your road miles and, if you find you’re consistently struggling with motivation, a blast on a mountain bike or even a run can really help to break things up and give you a lift.

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