Top of the morning to you,
Every year damnit! Overtraining.
I wrote a super useful post on the topic a few years ago and every spring I still need to reread my own advice.
This time I pushed myself through a hard six-week long training cycle transitioning from ultra running and backcountry skiing to rock climbing while seven to eight months pregnant. And yet again I perceived the decrease in performance this last week as a sign of decreased fitness. I goaded myself, pushing harder through the boiling emotions, bad sleep (hello, activated nervous system), and decreased appetite until this morning I sat with my coffee and reviewed my training journals.
Please do as I say and not as I do. Read on and thoroughly enjoy your next rest week. I know I'll savor dialing it back for a few days while I prepare for my next cycle. Stay tuned for a full post on transition season - you won't want to miss it.
Signs and symptoms: In my daily training journal I track resting heart rate (RHR). RHR is measured upon waking before moving out of bed. One of the best predictors of impending overtraining, and a great way to redline workouts while avoiding deep overtraining, is by observing sustained spikes in RHR. Another easy-to-note sign is inability to fall or stay asleep. Despite the increased need for calories, the overtrained athlete may be hungry vastly less than needed nourishment. Progressively deeper into over training an athlete might experience decreased ability to attain or maintain normal output aerobically (i.e. sensation of slowness while running uphill). A normally-motivated athlete might lose motivation to train and spiral into a self-loathing goading to train--often with negative results. When deeply overtrained emotional rawness can decrease the athlete's ability to think rationally, cope with normal life stressors, or may cause explosive emotional outbursts. Often overtrained athletes notea sensation that strong emotions are 'boiling just below the surface'. Whoa, powerful this overtraining thing.
Risks: Ketosis and adrenal fatigue are extreme consequences most closely related to extended periods of overtraining. Ketosis manifests as a very acute bonk and negatively impacts one's ability to metabolize correctly for months following an episode (often accompanied by being underweight or undernourished). Adrenal fatigue is a less well understood and subtler phenomenon, sneaking up slowly on the athlete after months (even years) of chronic overtraining and stressful alpine events. Since renal failure is a real risk, especially on efforts longer than twenty-four hours, paying attention to the state of the adrenals is key. Hyper or hypothyroid conditions can also manifest from prolonged overtraining. When overtrained an athlete is also more likely to become injured. Additionally, an overtrained athlete's bones and muscles are in a constant state of breakdown without repair--making the athlete weaker over time. Many overtrained female athletes become amenorrheic (convenient sometimes and not healthy). Ignoring the signs of overtraining can be costly.
Why: The body needs rest. The way it signals that need is by stopping you from continuing to train productively. As you train the body breaks down then needs time, rest, and nourishment to repair. By not allowing this necessary repair, you are overtraining and even detraining. Fortunately, it is possible to track and test one's energetic battery by learning the body's subtle clues and heeding them.
Acute solutions: Stop training immediately and start eating. Cancel upcoming planned climbs; clear your schedule and rest. Use any means necessary to go from an activated ANS to the parasympathetic state. Get a massage, sit in meditation, take yourself out for a deliciously slow meal, smoke a joint, use contrast therapy, have sex. Sleep deeply for ten or more hours at a time--keep sleeping this much until you no longer need an alarm to wake up nor coffee to stimulate your brain into action. Keep resting in the way that your body responds to until you've felt rested for a few days. Only then is it appropriate to resume training.
Long-term solutions: Upon resuming training, commit to a phased re-entry to activity and promise yourself I'll never ignore the signs of overtraining again. Seriously, promise. Begin to conceive of rest as an important part of training. When resting the athlete is far from lazy or inert, the body is actually gaining strength and expanding its ability to perform its mountain work. Next comes the task of learning your body's unique clues of overtraining and implementing an intentional cycled training program.
Transition season: That time between skiing and running or ice and rock, that wonderful time when you feel neither as good as when you sent last season's project nor as proficient as last year on the next season's sport. In this in-between time many of my clients (myself included) land in that cranky, undermotivated, weak state. Transitions are an especially easy way to become overtrained as the level of perceived training effort is lower even as your body works overtime trying to integrate an activity and set of muscles to which it is unaccustomed to using. Don't let your ego flagellate you in continuing your downward spiral, just rest.
Cycled training: The concept of cycled training involves a period of training (breakdown) and a period of rest (integration). For an aspiring endurance athlete, cycles of three weeks of training and one week of rest are best. Cycles of this length will allow the athlete to build a solid, well-distributed base of fitness. The main enemy of cyclic training in beginning enduroanimals is self-control. Resist the urge to continue training if you feel peppy after three short weeks of training, instead allow that work to integrate and give your body time to recover. In a more advanced endurance machine, cycles of training may last up to six weeks and cycles of rest up to four weeks. Often, elite endurance athletes need not only rest weeks but rest months--some even need up to a year off of a particular sport before resuming effective activity. Only once an athlete has mastered her particular signs of overtraining (vs. overreaching), may she begin to harness the power of feathering the line of overtraining and alternating with deep rest in order to experience hypercompensation. This is an advanced format of cyclic training cultivated over years of elite performance.
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