How pros cope with overtraining

Jens Voigt, Zak Dempster and Rob Partridge talk overtraining and performing tired

Overtraining is something we're all probably guilty of self-diagnosing, but how seriously do the pros take it? How do they recognise the symptoms of overtraining and how do they deal with it? BikeRadar decided to investigate.

Ever since we heard about a device that claimed to help amateurs and pros combat overtraining, we've been wondering how much and how frequently the professionals are affected by this debilitating condition. Yes, they have coaching staff screening their power data, monitoring their health, and drawing up individualised training programmes. But surely the demands of the racing calendar and the sheer effort demanded mean that at some point they tip from peak condition into something that's commonly known as being overtrained?

Zak Demptser, rider at NetApp Endura, told us: "As a cyclist I'm training to perform fatigued, which is necessary most of the time. 

"Perhaps one of the greatest skills a pro road cyclist can have is dealing with fatigue. It's not only about trying to master the perfect level for the best performance."

So how do pro cyclists walk that ultra fine line between being able to keep pushing the boundaries of performance without toppling into a downward spiral? And perhaps more importantly, when they overstep the mark – which Dempster says he does probably twice a season – how do they quickly put it right?

Overtraining syndrome? Probably non-functional over-reaching

Let's get one thing straight first. True overtraining is not common. Even if a rider is physically wasted, emotionally drained and is looking at a decrease in performance, as shown by the numbers on their SRM, it doesn't necessarily mean they're overtrained, explained Xavier Disley, exercise physiologist and elite coach at RST Professional Training Systems.

If they're pros, it's actually probably the opposite. Training stresses a rider's body just enough to trigger super-compensation, which after some scheduled and enforced recovery, mean they'll come back fitter and faster. That's good, targeted training.

And even if the rider doesn't see a boost in performance after the hard work and rest, they're still not likely to be overtrained. That, in modern sports science language, is a classic case of non-functional over-reaching (NFOR) and means the training regime is wrong, says Disley. It can be put right with a week or two off the bike. 

Overtraining syndrome (OTS) on the other hand, is NFOR's more insidious cousin: it's a profound and deep-rooted physical and mental lassitude that lasts months, or even an entire season. There are some triggers that bring OTS about – for example, increased training load with inadequate recovery, a monotonous training regime, too much racing, illness even heat injury or a severe bonk – and though the training goes in, the results keep dipping, week after week, month after month.

A bevy of ugly symptoms arrive too: sleeplessness, stress, susceptibility to injury, mood swings and so on. At its worst, full-blown overtraining makes athletes question their very continuance in the sport.

"Overtraining syndrome is a big deal," said Disley. "It's the sort of thing that causes people to quite the sport [and there is] an awful lot of difference between that and non-functional over-reaching." He added that it was rare.

'Non-functional over-reaching' is hardly catchy and is probably the reason pros and amateurs reach for the handy 'overtrained' label when they say they're having a week off to rejuvenate in the middle of the season. 

Nevertheless, NFOR also needs resolving. As Disley points out, athletes are still putting in the training but the performance is static, or decreasing. That must be righted to avoid slipping into the jaws of OTS.  

Pros, however, hardly have a choice – they're paid to perform. Radioshack-Leopard's Jens Voigt, whose reputation for turning himself inside out race after race since his career began in 1997, suggested most of the pro peloton could be in a semi-permanent state of being – and we're going to slip into shorthand here – overtrained. His evidence was his team-mate Chris Horner, who had a long period off the bike this year and returned to win the Vuelta a Espana aged 41 – the oldest grand tour winner in history.

"Look at Horner. He was so many months off the bike he was as fresh as a daisy at the Vuelta!" said the 42-year-old German. "I asked our coach: 'are we all constantly overtrained? Look at Chris: three months off the bike and he has the best result of his career!'"

Jens Voigt was feeling the heat by stage 20 of the 2013 Tour

"You stress your body in training and racing and mentally you're stressed because you want a better contract or to have any contract," Voigt said of the sheer pressure to perform. "Once you're forced to take a break you're body finally has time to basically renew every cell of your body. Before it just fought the biggest fire at that moment and never had time to really deeply recover and reproduce fresh cells."

Vicious circle

Rob Partridge, riding for Velosure-Giordiana in 2014, attests to that same link between training, performance and mental stress that Voigt touched on.

"You're nothing without your mind. If you're thinking I'm not feeling that great, not that ready, you won't be 100 per cent physically ready," he said.

"If you go to race and you have a crap result you come back and you think right I need to train harder." And that, he says, risks putting the rider in a vicious circle.

His solution – one that he has only adopted in the last couple of years – has been to take a week off after the national championships at the end of June. It seems an odd time to take it and he admits it didn't come naturally: "As I've got a bit older I've had faith and taken some time off."

Faith is a strong word. But then Voigt used the equally charged 'brave' to describe the decision to easing off. Clearly, the psychological connection between not training and losing condition is a strong one.

Partridge said a week away was the release valve he needed to recharge his batteries both mentally and physically. "You might feel a little bit stiffer when you get back on, but you come back so much stronger," he said.  

Avoiding non-functional over-reaching

So how do the athletes keep their training in the realm of functional over-reaching, where, yes, they’re knackered but the stress stimulates the body to adapt and get fitter, stronger and faster?

There is no easy answer, no golden rule. Physiology, constitution and recovery rate and dictatorial race schedules vary from rider to rider, making the declaration of hard and fast instructions a fool's game.

Training camps can help pros achieve the right training balance

However our selection of pros swore by some pretty fundamental suggestions. "Listen to your body and take breather when you need one," said Partridge, who prefers to work on feeling rather than SRM data. "Build in enough time into your schedule for rest," said Dempster. "Have the courage to chill out," advises Voigt. Disley's suggestion was don't race as much, although he was fully aware that that's a tough ask for pros – even elite amateurs – under the constant pressure to perform.

So if you're champing at the bit to get out on the bike to put the winter miles in this Christmas, consider this anecdote from the expansive Voigt archive and wonder if it's really that necessary.

In mid-December 2005, Voigt was taking part in a fun cyclocross race and crashed. He ripped through the ligaments connecting shoulder to collarbone and had to put up with an enforced period off the bike. He put on an extra 2kg. It was hardly auspicious but it turned out that that crash – and the subsequent time off the bike – was a precursor to one of his best seasons, in which he won the Tour of Germany for the first time, a stage at the Tour and the Sparkassen Giro. Now that's not bad going!

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