Training: Avoid overtraining

How to know when you're doing too much

If your main goal for later in the year is the Étape du Tour, a big domestic sportive or even a weekend charity ride, now is when you need to start ramping up your training.

The dedicated, serious and sensible will have already built an enviable winter base from which to leap into form. The rest of us will just be wondering how hard and long we’re going to have to ride to regain what we’ve lost since last year.

But what if you haven’t done any base training and that first spring sportive is looming? Many jump straight in at the deep end to try to catch up, but what are the dangers of overdoing it? Apart from risking an injury, overtraining is a major pitfall – but what is it and what’s the simplest way to spot it?

Body clocking

Overtraining isn’t just doing too much, too hard – it’s overdoing it without giving your body a chance to recover. Rest is as much a part of training as hard work, and skimping on recovery time means you could start suffering from overtraining syndrome.

Dr Garry Palmer, author of Cycling: Successful Sportives, runs scientific athlete testing firm Sportstest.co.uk. He says the symptoms fall into five areas: physiological, performance-related, psychological, immunological and biomechanical.

But it’s not always easy to differentiate between normal fatigue and overtraining symptoms. As Dr Palmer says: “You’ve got to learn to listen to your body.”

Keeping and reviewing a training diary – where you record rides and workouts, diet, weather and how you feel physically and mentally – will pick up many of the warning signs.

These include headaches, insomnia, muscle or joint pain, moodiness, depression, sudden drops in performance or training capacity, loss of appetite, decreased immunity, more injuries, fluctuations in body weight, increased resting heartrate, elevated post-exercise heartrate and suppressed training heartrate.

Keep an eye on your heartrate

Indeed, resting heartrate is among the easiest measurements to take and, once you’ve established a baseline, it can tell you how well you recover after each training session.

It’s best taken first thing in the morning, ideally as an average over a period of several minutes, with an electronic heartrate monitor. Dr Palmer suggests setting your alarm 15 minutes early, so when you wake up you can press snooze, fit your monitor and let it measure your average heartrate until the alarm wakes you up again.

He also suggests measuring this resting rate at least once a week and, if possible, around 36 to 48 hours after your last session. Record your heartrate in your training diary and you’ll soon have your resting baseline figure.

As you get fitter, your resting heartrate will gradually drop, but if there’s a fluctuation of more than 5bpm above the baseline and you don’t ‘feel’ 100 per cent then you should think about giving your body more time to recover. Rest is the primary treatment, but how much you’ll need depends on how far the problem has developed.

And it’s not just overtraining that raises your resting heartrate – a bout of illness or stress might have the same effect. It’s also worth mentioning that if an illness does cause a heartrate blip, which you then manage to bring back down to with rest, beware of launching straight back into your training full tilt. Your immune system can stay suppressed for a few days after an illness and you’ll remain vulnerable to other bugs. 

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