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Overtraining and Overreaching: Part 5

Continuing from Part 5 where I looked at different “Types” of overtraining and presented one of the most current and comprehensive models of overtraining, I want to switch gears into more applied information.  In this part of the series I want to look, in a global sense, at how to limit the risk of overtraining.  My primary focus here will be on the training end of things more than the recovery side.

Preventing Overtraining

In a global sense, the first key to preventing overtraining is to make sure that the workload/training program is set up appropriately.  This is something I went on and on (and on) about in previous sections but basically, there needs to be some acknowledgement of the recovery processes that are in place and the workload set to that.  Alternately, if you must do a certain workload, recovery must be improved to match it.

As an example, thinking that the same training program that is appropriate for a 22 year old male will also be appropriate for a 39 year old female is fairly asinine.  Yet many coaches seem to work from exactly that standpoint.  They have one workout or training program and everybody gets it.  If an athlete succeeds on it, the coach takes credit.  If the athlete fails on it, the athlete gets blamed.

Now clearly I can’t provide an entire guide to setting up appropriate training programs here.  Rather, I want to look at some of the common “Rules of thumb” that have been developed over the decades and decades of sports training.  Some of this assuredly comes from or is supported by research while much of it comes from experience as much as anything else here.

Even calling these “rules of thumb” is a bit of an overstatement and you can probably find an exception to every single one of them under at least certain conditions.  So consider them at most to be strong guidelines that the majority should be follow.  I get it, you’re different, you’re the exception.  Except that you’re probably not different and that’s not what the word exception means.

Assumed here is that the individual is also paying attention to recovery issues. Again, I can’t give a full guide here but appropriate intakes of calories and macronutrients, supplements as needed are implicit here.   Getting sufficient sleep, proper warm-ups and cool-downs are too. Anything beyond that, massage, foam rolling, stretching, etc. can be helpful and/or may be necessary at the highest level.  Again, both sides of the equation are important.  But I’ll mostly focus on training.

Take One Day Completely Off Per Week

As important as hard training is, athletes should never overlook the importance of rest.   And I’d say that most athletes take one day off completely per week.    Traditionally this is a Sunday but that has more to do with social and work patterns than physiology.  But, quite honestly, a lot of how we train or set up training schedules (or diets for that matter) revolves around the reality of a 7 day work week.

Technically you can take any day off per week that you wish.  In some of my previous endurance training training, I took Fridays off.  The powerlifter I train now takes Sunday off during the early part of her training cycle but adds an extra Friday rest day when she’s starting to peak.  She does a max out workout every Saturday and it’s important that she’s completely rested.

There are of course exceptions to this.  Some endurance athletes will train more or less daily although many of those days are a fairly low intensity.  Some Olympic lifters also train daily but their Sunday workout is usually 30 minutes of light squatting or something. Some athletes got a little bit flat with a day completely off and even some activity helps here.  The key is that it’s a very easy workout.

But those exceptions are always within the context of other properly set up training practices.  The athletes who train 7 days per week aren’t generally going all-out at every workout.  On the rare occasion that you find one that does (i.e. Bulgarian Olympic lifters) you are seeing elite athletes who have trained for a decade or more to reach that level.  Who are also on anabolic steroids and who train for a living.  As I mentioned, what you also aren’t seeing in this case is the majority of athletes who failed training like that.

Ultimately it’s unlikely that the above paragraph describes you because elite athletes of that caliber probably aren’t reading my website.  For the majority of people, taking one day per week completely off is a strong first step to avoiding overtraining.  For those people who simply must do some activity, then something like a brisk walk would be appropriate.

Move some blood, get some movement but you shouldn’t be working even remotely hard.  Active rest is sometimes better than passive rest but only if you have the self control to keep the intensity down.  If you can’t do that, just take the advice of my coach and “Rest hard”.

Limit Truly High-Intensity Work

Despite a great deal of stupidity on the Internet (and certain cult-like training groups that tell folks to work at maximum every day), the reality is that most successful athletes do not train in a high-intensity fashion at every workout.    In fact, most don’t even try to.

Rather, most athletes tend to do the majority of their training at relatively low to moderate intensities and this is topped off with   small amount of high-intensity work.  Runners invented the hard-day/easy-day approach though I think that was mostly to avoid getting hurt.  Sprint athletes might have 2 or 3 speed days interspersed with low intensity work.  Track cyclists might do speed work 3-4 times per day with a lot of easy low intensity cycling.

Most endurance athletes these days have moved to what is called polarized training where they do 80% of their work at low aerobic intensities and perhaps 20% at a high intensity.   It’s even been suggested that our “Paleolithic” exercise pattern was probably similar with lots of low intensity activity most days and the occasional bit of high-intensity activity as needed.  It’s even been suggested that Olympic athletes are training as in the Paleolithic era.

Athletes who lose sight of this tend to end up in a situation where all of their training is in this weird middle intensity level.  It’s either too hard to recover from or too easy to really stimulate improvements.  Better is to keep the hard days hard and the easy days easy.  That is, when you go hard, go super hard.  And when you go easy, go really easy.

So how much high-intensity work is appropriate?  On average, I’d say that 2-3 truly high-intensity days is about the maximum for most people.   Distance runners typically limit their “Quality” work to twice weekly but it’s a high-impact sport and eventually stuff breaks.

Kenyan runners often do more quality work than this but they are also running on softer ground and have built up to it for years.  Cyclists might do 3 interval days per week during some parts of their training.  But it’s a non impact sport.  Swimming is weird since it’s essentially zero impact and humans suck at it. So you an do proportionally more all out speed work.

The lifting sports are a bit of an exception.  Yes, yes, the Bulgarians max out every day.  And most of them break doing it so forget about them.  But in powerlifting/strongman or bodybuilding you may see more total high intensity days per week due to the fact that exercises and/or muscles groups are being rotated.  In most sports, the stress is on the same muscle group day-in and day-out.  Eventually inflammation catches up.  In the lifting sports, this isn’t universally the case.

Traditional powerlifting routines might have had 3 high-intensity days per week but they were spread across one apiece for squat, bench and deadlift.  Even Westside only had two truly maximum days which were the ME days for squat/deadlift and bench. The other days were all dynamic or volume days.

Certainly some powerlifting systems train the lifts daily but the intensity is cycled so there are only one or perhaps two truly heavy days.  Others have one heavy squat and one light squat day, one heavy deadlift and one light deadlift day and perhaps two heavy bench days.  It adds up to more than 2-3 heavy days/week but no lift has more than 1-2.  Other systems where you train all three lifts three times per week invariably use a heavy/light/medium cycling system so there is only one truly heavy workout per lift or even per week.

Bodybuilding is even more unique since they typically train muscles instead of movements.  A bodybuilder technically can lift heavily 6 days/week and only train a given muscle group hard once or twice per week.     So it gets a little bit weird.  Which isn’t to say, ala Hatfield, that you can’t overtrain because you’re rotating exercises.  It’s just that the weekly frequency recommendations are a little different here.

In any case, do you see a pattern here yet?  On average, most athletes have at most 2 (and sometimes 3) high-intensity days per week.  Yet somehow online trainees got the idea that they could or even should train intensely every day.  And they often do this while dieting or restricting carbs and wonder whey they get hurt or burnt out.

Schedule the Weekly Training Structure Accordingly

The next step is to schedule the week accordingly.  Assuming someone has limited themselves to 2-3 high-intensity days per week it would be most common to spread them out throughout the week.  Again, strength sports are a weird exception to this.  I’m mainly focusing on activities there the same muscles are worked every day.

A schedule with two hard days per week might find them on a Monday and Thursday.  Or a Tuesday and Friday or any other similar combination that kept them fairly evenly spaced.  Someone doing three high-intensity days would typically alternate them in a heavy day/light day type of way.  So Monday/Wednesday/Saturday might be the high-intensity workouts with Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday being easier.  Or the reverse.

Occasionally there are specific reasons to put two high-intensity days back-to-back.  Many athletes have multi-day competitions and you have to prepare them to work all out two days in a row for example.    Alternately, there is occasionally a reason to deliberate generate some short-term fatigue with back-to-back high intensity days to try to stimulate more adaptations.  These tend to be specific exceptions though.

It should be obvious that the non-high intensity days should be easier day.  They could be a truly light day or a medium intensity.  They just cant’ be all-out.  There are endless variations and patterns that have been tested and some of it comes down to individual preferences and scheduling issues (i.e. work, school, facility/equipment availability).

Cycle/Periodize Your Training

Eventually I’ll write something comprehensive about periodization of training.  For now, just understand that effectively all athletes cycle their training to at least one degree or another throughout the year.  Even the training systems that purport to “Go to maximum” all the time still have lighter weeks and months.

No athlete even attempts to maintain peak performance levels year round and the idea is simply asinine.  Whenever you see a group that tries to go all out all year round, they are a walking litany of injuries.  Or they keep failing drugs tests.  Sometimes it’s both.

Rather, all athletes will train to ramp up to a peak, back off to some degree, ramp back up to a hopefully new peak, etc.  Sports with multiple capacities to be trained (i.e. endurance, speed, etc.) tend to focus on different components at different times of the year.  So endurance might be emphasized early in the season with speed later in the season or what have you.  This is the basis of periodization.

And to one degree or another, all athletes use it.  How its applied depends.  But they all do.  Some use very long cycles of training to reach a single peak although that’s become much less common in the modern era.  Most use somewhat shorter cycles of training but do them more frequently.

So in powerlifting, a typical training cycle might be 12-16 weeks.  The first part of the cycle is a base phase where the focus might be on technique, building some muscle and fixing weak points.  The second part as the meet approaches become more specific and are geared towards building maximum strength in the competition lifts.

Looking at bodybuilding, I’d say few bodybuilders really cycle or periodize their training even though they should.  The culture of the sport is more of a “go hard or go home” mentality and folks just work themselves to death all the time.  But it’s not ideal.

In my own Generic Bulking Program for example, I recommend a 2 week submaximal run-up to 6-8 weeks of trying to add weight to the bar to apply progressive muscular tension overload.  That’s how you grow.  Dante Trudell’s DC training recommend a nearly identical schedule with 2 weeks of cruising and 6 weeks of blasting.  In my relatively more intense specialization cycles, I recommend a 2 week run up and then 4 weeks of truly heavy training before a 2 week recovery phase.  The cycle is shorter because the loading is heavier.  Done for longer, people break.

This type of cycling can take many many forms.  In my own generic bulk for example, I advocate a 2 week sub-maximal run-up prior to 4-6 weeks of pushing the weights hard prior to backing off again.  Interestingly, Dante Trudell of Doggcrapp fame recommends a nearly identical schedule of 2 week cruises and 4-6 weeks bursts. In my specialization cycles (which I will write up for the site eventually), I advocate 4 weeks of heavy training before a 2 week deload where rebound growth usually occurs.  The cycle is shorter because the loading is much heavier.

Endurance athletes tend to use longer cycles since it can take proportionally longer to generate the adaptations.  Back in my endurance training days, I ran on an 18 week cycle divided into 10 weeks of easy base training, 6 weeks of higher intensity work, a 1 week peaking phase and 1 week of easy recovery.  I was using something more akin to Issurin’s Block Training which just compressed the old annual cycle of general preparation, specific preparation, peaking, transition into a shorter phase.  But I think you get the idea.

The 5-Day Training Break

Part of proper cycling of training is to insert formal recovery blocks between the blocks of training.   It’s just a way to allow for cumulative fatigue to dissipate and let the body recovery.  A strategy I ended up using later in my speed skating career was the incorporation of 5-day training breaks at the end of a longer block of training.

So I would block my training (depending on where we were in the season) into anywhere from 10-12 week blocks.  At the end of each block I’d just take 5 days completely off.  I’d tell my coach “See you on Monday” and disappear.  If I had the opportunity, I’d get the hell out of Salt Lake City for a few days for a mental break.  If not I’d play video games and rest.  I did zero training, not even brisk walking, got plenty of sleep, food and rest.  It was just a way to freshen up mentally and physically without losing any fitness in preparation for the next push.

I had first seen the idea formally used by Charlie Francis and it’s something I recommend to help limit the risk of overtraining.  But it only works if you plan it in and actually do it.  It just provides this nice end goal for a given block of training.  You suffer through the entire thing, hopefully hit a new peak and then go goof off for 5 days.  You could do no training or do something that is not your primary sport to give you body and mind a break.  Just be careful not to pick something that will wreck you with soreness.

In the context of shorter training blocks (i.e. an 8 week Generic Bulking Cycle), you might plan to take a 5-day break every 2-3 full cycles.   Assuming an 8 week cycle that would mean 5 days totally off every 16-24 weeks.   Supposedly the Russians found that the body’s “Current Adaptational Energy” or CAR, whatever the hell that was, was depleted by that point and that’s when you should take a break.  So there ya’ go.

The Fear of Losing Gains

It’s about this time in the article that the general public trainee (who often needn’t worry about any of this to begin with) starts to get anxious.  Five days out of the gym?  My muscles will fall off, I’ll lose all of my fitness and get fat they fear.  But quite to the contrary, five days of detraining does not meaningfully impact fitness.  Quite in fact, a reduction in training triggers the LTDFLE.

Yes, if you were doing complex activities you might lose a bit of groove or technique but that comes back in a workout or two at most.   True losses of muscle mass or fitness are simply negligible over that time span.  Many people even come back from 5 days off stronger and fitter since they finally let accumulated fatigue dissipate.  They also usually have a great deal more enthusiasm for training afterwards.

Note: I am aware that for many people the gym is about more than training or fitness.  For many its a stress release or just an addiction and 5 days out of the gym might do more harm than good.  I acknowledge that but it has to be weighed against the negatives of never taking time off.

Long-Term Cycling

Cycling of training also applies much longer time frames.  Almost all athletes incorporate what is usually called a transition period in their yearly cycle. This is just the break between the end of one year of training and competition and the start of the next.  Decades ago it would last for 1-2 months and was called the off-season.   In the modern era no athlete can afford to take that much time off and year-round training is required.

But 2-4 weeks of extremely reduced or alternative training is common.  A cyclist will do anything but ride their bike, a runner will do something that isn’t running.    In my own skating, our transition phase was from Mid-March to Mid-April, a full four weeks after our last set of races at the finale.  First I’d take 7 days completely off and do no training.

Then I’d do no more than maybe 3 light bike workout and 2 lightish weight workouts per week to stay in some semblance of shape and prepare for the hell of the next year.  Did I lose some fitness?  Maybe.  But it meant I came into every year of training mentally and physically fresh.

The point of this being that all athlete cycle their training to some degree.  Those that don’t usually pay the price.  Next time you wander into a commercial gym, just look at all of the people grinding through their workouts with knee straps and elbow braces.  And then consider how long it’s been since they gave their body any sort of a prolonged training break.  Their last one was probably a week ago last never and there’s a lesson to be learned from that.

Listen to Your Body

The final section in this part of the series is the suggest for people to listen to their bodies an it’s hugely problematic.  It could actually go in the final part of the series on monitoring but I consider it more a way of modulating training than anything.

The basic idea is that the athlete should listen to what their bodies are telling them before, during or after training.  Recall what I talked about before where muscular fatigue can generate behavioral or psychological changes in terms of a lack of motivation or what have you.

Listening to those cues can sometime indicate that maybe the athlete should take a day off.  Or take an easy day.  Chronic muscular fatigue or achiness would play a similar role.  Of course this could be coupled with other methods I’ll discuss in Part 6.  It sort of ties in with modern ideas of autoregulating training, where the workout sort of unfolds based on what’s happening and how the athlete feels.

And it has a lot of problems associated with it.  And gets people into trouble if they don’t pay careful attention to what I’m going to say.  Because the idea of listening to your body has huge problems associated with it.   The biggest two of which are this:

  1. Most people have no clue what’s going on in their own body.
  2. Humans have the ability to rationalize (it’s what separates us from the animals).

General Trainees vs. Athletes

Before going forwards I need to carefully distinguish two groups of people which are the psycho over-motivated athlete and the general public trainee.   Where the big difference, as I have discussed previously, is that the over-motivated athletes always wants to train too hard, too much and too often.  In contrast, the general fitness trainee often doesn’t want to train at all.  Yes, I’m speaking in generalities and I know there are exceptions.

Telling the latter group to “listen to your body” or “take an easy day when you feel you need it” can go very very wrong.  When you have a group of people that often will use any excuse to skip training, telling them to ditch when they feel bad means that they will never show up at all.   This group doesn’t really train hard enough for any of the information in this series to apply in the first place.  But I don’t want people to read this section and hear me saying “You shouldn’t train at all because you’re a little bit tired.”  Because that’s not what I’m saying.

In contrast is the typical over-motivated athlete who won’t listen to their body at all.  Or they will listen and then ignore it.  They will feel terrible, achy, lethargic and rationalize it away and go train hard anyhow.  That little pain in their knee?   No big deal. The crushing lethargy and lack of motivation?  Must not have eaten enough carbs yesterday but it’s fine.

Athletes often have this logic of “Every day I take it easy, some other athlete is pulling ahead of me”.  It’s the same with off days where athletes will say that “Every day I’m resting, my competition is training twice that day and leaving me behind.”  Which is nonsensical as hell but that’s how many athletes think.  And for that reason they won’t listen to their body at all.

How to Listen to Your Body

So that’s the warning which leads into the suggestion: there are times in training where you body is telling you to knock it off and rest. OR at least take an easy day.  There can be lots of reasons.  You got a bad night’s sleep, you have mental stress you’re not even aware of.  Or you’re just entering the first stages of true overtraining and that’s why you feel awful.

But you have this brilliant workout schedule drawn up, planned with the most cutting edge science and spreadsheet known to god and man.  And by gum, today is a heavy workout day.  You can’t go off workout, can you?

Well yes, you can.  And sometimes you probably should.

Now note that I didn’t say always should.  I’ll talk about this more in the final part of the series but there are times when you just have to butch up and work through the fatigue.  The reality of competitive sport is that you don’t alway get to compete under ideal conditions.  If you never teach yourself to perform under less than perfect conditions, you will have a problem when you’re faced with them.  Sometimes you simply have to ignore what your body is telling you and make it happen.  But sometimes is not the same as always.

The reality is that if you feel terrible going into the workout, that’s probably your body trying to tell you something.  But even that’s not always the case.  Sometimes your body lies to you.

Many many times (and both I and my trainees have experienced this), athletes will walk into the gym or training hall tired or lethargic and proceed to just pop off an incredible workout.    I think it’s a relaxation thing since that often looks like lethargy or fatigue. I told my coach that if I was at training yawning and looking bored at the start of practice, I was probably coming up on a stunner of a workout.  Because it always meant I was relaxed and wouldn’t try to hard on the ice.  I also told him that if I bounded into practice raring to go, things would probably go awfully.

If Your Body Lies, Now What?

Ok, so sometimes you should listen to your body but sometimes it lies to you.  Now what?  The advice I always gave to people was this (and here I am assuming you’re not using other monitoring tools I’ll discuss in Part 6): go do your warm-ups.  Whatever your sport is, go through your warm-up routine and see what happens.

As often as not, by the time you’re done, you’ll feel great and everything will be clicking.  Technique is on, you feel snappy and sharp.  Boom, it’s on.  Go do the planned workout.

And if you still feel like dogmeat (or your coach thinks you look like dogmeat), go the hell home because nothing good can come from the workout.   Because even if you go home, you got your 20-30 minutes of light warm-up activity.  There’s your active rest.  Now go home.

If you just must train longer than that, make it a light technical/active recovery workout (which your warm-up already accomplished) and then go the hell home.  If you’re a cyclist, spin on the bike for 30-45 minute and pack it in.  If you’re in the weight room do some light technical work and then go home.  Just move some blood, get some movement and then go the hell home.

And if you don’t have the self-control to keep the extra workout light, go the hell home before you do yourself more harm than good. Is this sinking in?

I’d note that not even that is universal.  One trainee of mine once came into the gym and just looked like crap during warm-ups.  Her bar speed was terrible, there was no snap and no pop and she looked terrible on the platform.    I told her to pack it up and go home.  She told me that she just needed to warm-up some more.  I let her to see what happened and I’ll be damned if 30 minutes later she didn’t hit a PR.  But that’s not the norm.

So let me reiterate: if you feel worn out when you wake up or at the start of training, at least go through your warm-ups.  If you still feel like crap or your technique looks like crap, that’s a sign to call it.  You’re too tired to do any real work but can probably dig the hole deeper by trying.  The workout will be half-assed and won’t do you any good but will actually do you harm.

As I’ve described elsewhere, the AIS track cycling team took the approach that if an athlete couldn’t hit their goal times on the bike, they’d send them home.  Their logic was that the athlete was too tired to improve but not too tired to generate more fatigue.

And what you see more often than not is that if you’re smart and do take that day of rest when your body is telling you to take it, you’ll come back the next day or the day after and have a great workout.  Because you gave yourself the rest your body was telling you to take.  Or you might come in the next day and still feel like dogmeat and need another easy day.   But you don’t decide that until after that day’s warm-ups.

Let me finish by saying that all of the above, a single day of fatigue or lethargy needn’t mean much in the big picture to begin with.  Stuff happens.  You didn’t sleep well, you got in a fight with your SO, you’re stressed at work.  One-off bad days don’t mean much.

But when day after day you find yourself fighting fatigue or lethargy or depression, that’s a sign that something is wrong.  In that case you’re probably better off proactively taking a few days easy rather than playing the “I’ll just do my warm-ups game.”  Your body is telling you to rest so listen for once.  Whatever you feel that you’re “losing” short-term is far more than compensated in the long-term.

Humans are Fallible

Let me finish by emphasizing the problems inherent to the idea of listening to our bodies.  It’s a problem because it requires humans to look objectively at their own performance and motivations.  It’s not an easy thing to do and most people are terrible at it.  The advice we’d give to someone else we won’t follow ourself.  We’re different.  We justify. We rationalize.  It’s why lawyers can’t represent themselves, doctors can’t treat their family and most of us can’t coach ourselves.

When in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of conservatism.  Well so long as it doesn’t mean you’er skipping 80% of your workouts.  Missing a single hard workout or cutting your volume because you’re worn ragged isn’t a bad thing unless you do it at every workout.  Two heavy sets may not be 5 heavy sets but if that’s all you’ve got, do it and go home.

In contrast, continuing to push when your body is screaming at you to stop always ends badly.  You end up injured, overtrained, etc.   So for not taking that one extra day easy, you may end up losing months of productive training.  Less is always more here and you can do far more harm than good slavishly adhering to the schedule on your workout card than listening to your body (carefully) when it’s telling you to call it a day.

Read A Guide to Overtraining and Overreaching: Part 6.

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