Being an athlete is a balancing act. Balancing all kinds of responsibilities in addition to our athletic pursuits. One of the balancing acts that we face is knowing how to push ourselves to be the best we can be without pushing ourselves over the edge. We must learn how to drag ourselves out of the door on the tough days but also when we actually need to put our feet up and rest. It can be one of the greatest challenges of all for an athlete and everyone’s personality is different.
While some people are ‘pushers’ and they always want to do more, others are a bit timid, pulling back at the first sign of fatigue. As a coach, it’s my job to coax both athletes to a place in the middle.
On one hand it is necessary to instigate fatigue and even to push beyond preconceived limitations (in some cases) in order to inspire gains. On the other hand, there is most definitely a point of diminishing returns in which more is actually harmful. We have some words for these scenarios: Overreaching and overtraining.
What is Over-Reaching?
For the purposes of this article we are going to discuss functional over-reaching or in other words over-reaching that is done correctly. Functional Over-Reaching is a short-term state in which an athlete challenges him or herself to the point that performance actually declines temporarily due to fatigue. This means that you complete a hard workout and before you have a chance to fully recover from that workout, you complete another one. Sound familiar? You’ve probably done it before.
While not everyone agrees with over-reaching, most people agree that, when done in a controlled manner, it is a necessary part of a fitness program. Over-reaching is a way that we can teach our body to respond to greater loads. In order to challenge our bodies to get stronger we must challenge them beyond what they are used to doing.
As you carry this increased load from one workout to the next you are continuing to break down your body. What one athlete can handle will differ from another. Some athletes may only be able to over-reach for a day or two, while others may do a little over-reaching phase. The important thing to note is when you over-reach, you MUST recover and your recovery needs to reflect that of the effort you put out. If you don’t recover properly then you run the risk of over-training. When you over-reach you should be able to feel recovered, re-motivated, and see your recovery metrics such as resting heart rate return to normal after about 1 week (max 2 weeks). After that recovery period, you should also see physical adaptation, meaning that you should actually feel and be stronger than you were before over-reaching. If you are fatigued for longer than 2 weeks, or you go back to training and still see a decline in performance then it’s likely you have over-trained.
What is Over-Training?
Over-training is a long-term syndrome and it can be fairly serious. Over-training occurs when an athlete pushes his or her body beyond what he or she can effectively recover from for an extended period of time. This type of training will decrease your performance overall and when finally recognized it may take weeks, months, or even a year to allow your body to fully bounce back. Over-training is not just a few hard workouts back to back. Overtraining is attempting to sustain a training plan that is too much for that specific individual.
Overtraining may be brought on by not taking enough recovery between training sessions, too much intensity when training, huge increases in your training, extremely high volumes or long durations of training, never taking time off, inadequate self-care usually in the form of nutrition and sleep, and even unhealthy amounts of stress.
When you begin to over-reach in your training plan, that is your yellow light. You know that you are hitting a point in which you are really challenging yourself and that’s ok and often even a good thing. The important thing is to stop before it turns red.
A few symptoms of over-training include fatigue, loss of motivation, increased stress, moodiness, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, high resting heart rate, and declining athletic performance. Keep in mind that many of these symptoms will pop up when over-reaching so it’s important to make a note when you first experience one of these symptoms so that you don’t push it too far for too long.
One consideration to make when considering over-reaching and over-training is your life off of the bike. While over-reaching and over-training are very specific to your athletic endeavors, it may actually be your off-the-bike activity that sets some of your limitations. For example: A professional athlete may be able to sustain a much higher work load not only because of fitness, but because of their dedicated recovery routine. An amateur athlete may be extremely fit, but struggle to take on too many hours in training because they don’t have the time to sleep and rest the way their body would need to in order to recover from those harder training sessions.
The reason we ride our bikes is to have fun. Don’t get caught up in a comparison game or thinking about what you ‘should’ be doing. Often times our bodies give us all the clues we need in order to measure what we are capable of taking on.