Monday, March 7, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Overtraining

"Better to stop short than fill to the brim. Over sharpen the edge and the blade will soon blunt... Retire when work is done. This is the way of Heaven." from the Tao Te Ching

Giving your best. It is the easiest thing in the world to do sometimes. Especially when you are exited and committed. And you have a goal with a firm deadline. You go all out. You give it everything you have. No one expects anything less from you. "You"expect nothing less from you. It is with this mindset that you have come to accomplish many things in life. So it is no surprise you enter the training for triathlon with this mindset as well.

As much as I applaud this mindset, I am also keenly aware of how it can also negatively affect your performance and ultimately undermine your experience of the sport of triathlon. I know this because of my own personal journey down the backside of the "More training is better and harder training is better still" mountain and into a crevice that left me unable to train or race for 5 years.

The key thing to consider is while the workouts you plan and complete are important, what is of equal importance if not more so, is the quality of the recovery you allow between the workouts. Perhaps you've seen the equation Stress + Rest = Performance? Simply put, the quality of the stress (or workout) and the quality of your rest (or recovery) is what adds up to your performance on race day. It is the combination of these two things that determine your improved fitness and adaptation to future workloads.

It was during my time away from triathlon that I came to fully appreciate the wisdom of the words that precede this post. What follows next are five principles I've used to embody the sentiment they convey in my actual daily training.

1. Strive to be honest about your current fitness level and accept where you are. At the beginning of any training block take time to assess as honestly as possible where you are in terms of your fitness. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. All you need is a known distance and a way to track time. A local track and a sports watch will do. A heart rate monitor, if available can add finer detail to the assessment. Test during weeks where you have lowered both volume and intensity to allow for a true assessment. By returning to do the same test regularly, you remove the guesswork from your training. How you perform on your tests can tell you lot and help guide your future choices with regard to the duration, frequency and intensity, and even the sequence of workouts.

2. Learn to be patient with your training. Many athletes will move on to the next phase in their training because of what it says on a calendar, or because it is what someone they know, or someone they've read about is doing in an attempt to rush improvement. What you should ask yourself based on your tests is, "Did you make the gain?" The answer to this question is what should determine whether or not you are ready to move on to more exotic and demanding types of training. Remember, improved fitness isn't always linear. It is important to keep in mind your training, your diet, the quality and quantity of your rest, and your body all work synergistically to create a gradual adaptation to increasing volume and intensity. It is this systematic consistency of workout stimuli, recovery and diet, which leads to improved fitness and race results.

3. As a general rule, workouts should leave you feeling satisfied and even refreshed. You may not want to repeat what you did, but try to leave your workouts knowing you could repeat the effort if necessary. One way to achieve this is to find other ways to gain speed or endurance without continually pushing your body to its limits. Work on refining your technique in the three disciplines and improving endurance, functional strength and range of motion, prior to working solely on generating speed. Consider speed training as you would sugary dessert -- something to be indulged in sparingly if at all. The truth of the matter is if you become adept at refining your technique, and developing your endurance while gaining functional strength and maintaining range of motion, you will get faster without killing yourself to do it.

4. Listen to your body. There will be times when your body will subtly ask you to rest. Learn to listen to it. By learning to recognize your body's unique signals and honoring them immediately, you won't find yourself in the situation where gentle hints have become firm, painful ultimatums. The hints can be as simple as difficulty sleeping or feeling the need to stay in bed a bit longer than normal after the alarm has gone off. Dreading or postponing workouts is another common but subtle indication that your body may not be ready for more training. Other more common symptoms include moodiness, loss of appetite, lethargy, slow healing wounds, onset of colds or coughs, increased allergic reactions, elevated or prolonged muscle soreness and stiffness, elevated resting heart rate. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, take a day off.

5. Learn to trust yourself and your plan. Map out a plan and stick to it. Map out a plan and be flexible. I know this sounds contradictory but it isn't. Try to develop a routine and stick with it. Have a reason for each workout. The more focused and purposeful you can be in developing your training plan, the easier it is to stick with it and see the rewards from what you have set in motion. But you need to be flexible because there is always the larger aspect of your life outside of triathlon that also needs to be attended to. When your life outside of triathlon interferes with your training, and it will, you will need to be able to adapt. The simplest advise I can give, is if something comes up that needs attending to that will keep you from doing your workout on the day it is scheduled, then skip that workout. Forget about it. It is gone. Move on to the next workout, or repeat the one before it. Whatever you do, do not attempt to "make up" or "double up" workouts or training blocks to stay on or get back on track. Take it from me, it doesn't work.

Your overall goal should be to enjoy your training. Your training should enhance your life through improved, health, fitness, greater self-esteem and self-awareness. At the center of each and every workout, every decision, and any training program, is you. Always remember this because ultimately triathlon is one of life's the demonstrable activities where you can truly experience and reap the benefits of a "less is more" approach.

Train well!


jennifer said...

I really liked this post; thanks. I am still figuring out the right balance of training + recovery... as a relatively new (and 40+) athlete I'm finding that I am needing more recovery during the week than I'd like, or that the plans suggest. But we do have to listen to those hints.

Shannon Clark said...

Thanks. This is exactly what I needed to read right now. One month til the first marathon, and after a week of rest and injury recovery, I really believe that I'll still be able to do it! Thanks for all the advice and encouragement.

Keith said...

They should tattoo those points on every triathlete. Some of them, holding them down long enough for the tattoo is the only rest they give themselves. Great post!