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When you’re training up for a big race or ride it’s hard to imagine there’s such a thing as too much training. But make no mistake: over-training is a very real danger and can be worse for your performance than under-training.
So how do we define over-training? How can you tell if you’ve over-trained? And what can you do to make sure you avoid doing so? Cycling coach and former pro Helen Kelly wrote this piece for us.
Some cyclists are often tempted to exercise longer and harder so they can improve rapidly. They are motivated and keen to get faster and stronger but without adequate rest and recovery, these training regimens can backfire, and actually decrease performance.
Quite simply, Over-training occurs in cyclists who train well beyond their body’s ability to recover.
Most of us are juggling family commitments, a job, training and trying to fit in some social activities. It just isn’t possible to keep balancing all these things and something often cracks. Usually it is our health.
Let’s look at the symptoms cyclists can experience when they over-train. They can:
- get a washed-out feeling
- feel tired
- get grumpy and experience sudden mood swings
- become irrational
- feel a lack of energy for other activities
- suffer from depression
- have a decreased appetite
- get headaches
- get an increased incidence of injuries
- have trouble sleeping
- feel a loss of enthusiasm for the sport
- experience a sudden drop in performance
Cyclists who have over-trained can experience many of these symptoms but all too often, they misdiagnose their over-training as ‘a lack of fitness’. I have been very guilty of this.
I raced the women’s Giro d’Italia and didn’t allow enough recovery time post-race. This caused me to train even harder when in fact I should have been resting! This led to a dramatic downward spiral in my training ability, my motivation and I ended up needing several days completely off the bike to recuperate.
So how do we know if we are over-doing it?
All cyclists should ask themselves this question. Do you give yourself any rest days or rest weeks? Our bodies are not machines. No-one trains every day without a day off. The pros don’t do this, so we shouldn’t either.
Do you allow yourself to have an easier week every third week to allow your body to adapt to the training load? The pros do this, so we should too, especially since we don’t get the same amount of recovery as the pros. When we are juggling more things in our lives recovery is even more important.
My husband, Bob Kelly, uses this analysis of ‘time available to train’, with the U23 Essendon SKODA NRS team he coaches and directs. He finds this analysis shows the athletes the importance of how they spend their time and whether they can train at their optimum capacity, without over-training.
So how do we stop ourselves from over-training?
There are many thing you can do to to help avoid over-doing it on the bike:
- Have a recovery day
- Take a week off (literally hang your bike up and don’t even look at it)
- Get a massage, use compression garments, and/or elevate your legs
- Use water therapy, (hot/cold contrast), or go for a swim
- Eat well, get to bed early, stay hydrated and avoid alcohol
- Perhaps do something different if you need to exercise (walk the dog, go for a jog, go to the gym, etc.)
- Use a professional cycling coach to help you manage your training
Keep a training diary
You can easily upload your Garmin files to an online service like Strava or use a fancier software package such as Training Peaks to monitor your training. If you don’t like these online options, simply write in an exercise book to keep track of how many hours you ride each week.
We teach our athletes to record the number of hours they ride as well as the kilometres. As we all know a four-hour ride in the hills can be a lot more fatiguing than a four-hour ride on Beach Road in Melbourne.
For those lucky riders who have power meters, it is very easy to track your ride intensity and see how much time you’ve spent in each training zone.
Here’s a typical power zone profile of an athlete who is training hard:
Below is a power zone profile of an athlete who has recently completed a Tour de France bike tour as well as a solo journey through the Pyrenees afterwards. Notice the large volume of threshold workload. This athlete needs a rest.
Active recovery days
A recovery day allows your body to restore and repair, so when you ask it to go hard, you can give your efforts 100%, instead of 80%. Remember you need to be able to train above threshold, in order to improve your threshold level. If you are constantly in a state of fatigue and training below threshold, you will never see improvements.
From a personal perspective, having an active recovery day can sometimes help speed up recovery. This can be something like a 20 minute easy spin on the rollers and then 20-30 minutes of stretching, using a foam roller and putting pressure on the glutes (gluteal muscles) with a spikey ball (yes, literally sitting on a ball on the floor).
In my experience of coaching athletes and also from being an athlete at an international level, getting adequate recovery is the key to avoid over-training. In fact, a recovery day should be treated with the utmost respect and importance. A recovery day is as important as a training day.
Water therapy, compression, elevation
Water is also great for recovery. Standing up to your waist in water or swimming helps relax tired muscles. In summer this is a relaxing form of recovery. In winter, a bath may be a better option. Ice baths and hot/cold contrast also works well. Fill a bath with cold water and sit in this for a few minutes. Then jump into a warm shower. The opening and closing of the capillary vessels helps the muscles feel better and is said to aid recovery.
I loved using compression stockings after a hard session and felt that these made my legs feel better. Elevating your legs is another trick if they are feeling smashed. Simply lie on your bed or the floor with your feet above your head. This seems to aid in circulation and the legs feel great after 15-20 minutes.
Have a nothing day
Don’t be afraid to simply take the day off. Don’t train or do anything. I often hear athletes say that the last thing they want to do on a rest day is to pull on a chamois and spin their legs. The temptation of a coffee shop spin doesn’t entice them. They really want to completely rest.
They are happier to take the dog for a walk in the park, or literally do absolutely nothing. They want to do no exercise at all and literally just put their feet up and chill!
End of season break
It is a good idea to plan an end of season break. Everyone needs time to recover. Your body can only take so much adrenaline. It is important that you give your nervous system some downtime to recover. So hang the bike up and do something else for 3-4 weeks.
Europeans are often forced to do this due to the extreme winters they face, whereas in Australia, we can ride all year around and often ignore the importance of taking a break. It doesn’t mean you stop exercising. It just means it might be a good idea to hang the bike up and do something different.
If you’re the sort of rider who can’t bear the thought of not riding, try mountain biking and ride for pleasure at a low intensity, rather than doing specific efforts.
Listen to your body
We always encourage our athletes to listen to their body. Never ignore vital warning signs. Take note of the things that feel different. For example, it may take longer for your heart rate to rise, or it might not rise at all. This is your body trying to tell you something important — you are tired!
As you become accustomed to recognising the signs of over-training (and not simply fatigue), you will be able to adjust your training routine and hopefully avoid getting sick, burnt-out or injured.