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Overtraining and Overreaching: Part 6

Having given some general rules of thumb in terms of training inPart 5 I want to wrap up and talk about some lower cost ways to try to monitor overtraining or determine if it’s happening or starting to happen.

Monitoring Training to Prevent Overtraining

Finding ways to determine if overtraining is occurring is a problem that has confronted sports scientists, coaches and athletes for decades.  Many methods and technologies have been developed and I’ve mentioned one or two already.  Most are invasive require regular blood work or some other measurements.  You might see them in a lab or research or perhaps with elite, highly supported athletes.

But the average athlete simply can’t be expected to measure things like blood urea, the free testosterone/cortisol ratio or CPK levels.  Even some of the techniques I mentioned previously such as comparing lactate levels to heart rate, RPE or performance may not be readily available.  Small hand-held lactate analyzers did become available but using them requires taking tiny drops of blood during training or graded exercise tests.  And when you introduce blood into the mix, that’s a whole separate kettle of monkeys (to mix a metaphor).

So while such things are interesting conceptually they don’t tend to be terribly useful to the average athlete and I won’t spend any time discussing them here.  If readers are really interested, I would suggest the book Viru and Viru’s Biochemical Monitoring of Sports Training.   It’s very thoroughly, utterly tedious and nearly 100% useless for the majority of athletes.  Literally every single measurement they suggest tracking can’t be done outside of high-tech labs.

So instead of wanking about methods that can’t possibly be applied, I’d rather look at a variety of more accessible technologies and methods that can be used. The goal here is to keep tabs on the athlete so that any problems can be caught before they start.  Or at least before they go too far.  It’s always easier to prevent a problem than fix it after the fact and that is the real goal here.

I’m not putting these in any real order and this is as good a time as any to mention a real problem with monitoring training/overtraining.  That problem is that there is no single universal measurement that will go south for all athletes under all conditions.  What might diagnose one athlete will be useless for another.   But just as with body composition measurement, the take-home message is that using multiple methods is probably superior.  The limitations of one will be counteracted by another and hopefully one of them will pick up a problem.

A Note About Measurements

As a general note, it’s important that any method that is used to monitor training be done under similar conditions.  Usually this means doing it at the same time of day but there may be other considerations.  The reason here is that consistency is often more important than absolute accuracy.  If you take one measurement first thing in the morning and another later in the day, the values may not be comparable due the presence of other variables.

Heart Rate Based Methods

Heart rate in various various forms has been used to try to monitor recovery and overtraining for decades now.  One huge advantage is that it’s probably one of the easiest and more accessible methods.  This became even more true with the development of heart rate monitors in the 80’s and there is even better technology now.

Resting Heart Rate

One of the earliest methods of tracking recovery and fatigue was resting heart rate (RHR).   In that heart rate is an indicator of sympathetic nervous system activity, tracking and comparing RHR measurements always gave a relatively quick and easy method of tracking issues.  With either a cheap heart rate monitor or a simple finger measurement, you can track heart rate.  And if you keep a record you can observe changes from baseline.  Taking heart rate in the morning also eliminates other variables such as eating or stress that might change it later in the day.

As noted above, it’s ideal to take RHR at the same time every morning.  Comparing a measurement taken at 6am to 10am (when you slept in) can change things.    Assuming you’re able to compare at similar times of day, here’s what I recommend as a method:

  1. Wake up (I was going to say duh but there’s a note below about sleeping HR)
  2. Go pee/poop
  3. Put on heart rate monitor (if using one)
  4. Lie quietly in bed for 5 minutes
  5. Take HR (start HR monitor or take finger measurement)

This is simply an attempt to a) minimize variables (a full bladder/bowels tends to raise HR) and b) get a more accurate resting value (hence the lie down for 5 minutes bit).  If you use a heart rate monitor, set it to record for a minimum of 1 minute and up to 5 minutes and take the average.

If your heart rate monitor can’t give you a 5 minute average just watch it until it settles at a fairly consistent value and consider that your heart rate for the day.

If you take heart rate manually (i.e. with a finger on a pulse) you should always use your ring/middle finger as the index finger has its own pulse.  The first beat you count is zero and it’s ideal to count for 30-60 seconds instead of using shorter periods and multiplying.  With a 10 second count, 1 beat becomes a 6 beat differential which is simply too inaccurate.  It’s also better to take heart rate at the wrist rather than the neck since taking it at the neck can cause a reflex that lowers heart rate.  Unfortunately, some people have trouble getting a good pulse at the wrist.  It takes practice.

The rule of thumb on resting HR is this.

  1. If resting HR is up by 5 beats over normal, take an easy day
  2. If resting HR is up by 10 beats over normal, take the day off
  3. If you have no heart rate, you’re a zombie or vampire and probably have bigger issues to contend with

The idea here is that an increase in resting heart rate indicates an increase in sympathetic tone and a need to rest and recover.  It’s fairly crude as a measurement and you need to have good baseline data under fully recovered conditions to compare to.  But it’s still cheap, easy and accurate enough.

The method above is still not perfect since the whole waking up, peeing/pooping, lying back down for 5 minutes can throw things off.  But the key here is consistency.  If you do that every time the numbers are at least comparable.

A solution if you have a HRM that will measure through the night is to wear it all night and look at true resting/sleeping values.    This require a watch that can record for at least 8 hours of course.  But this is arguably a more accurate measure of true “resting” heart rate.

Let me note that with B-type overtraining, you often see

Let me finally note that it is possible to cheat this test if you know how.  With some nice slow yoga breathing and focus you can get RHR to come down.  So if I got up and the number was higher than I wanted, I’d just do that until I got the number I wanted so I could go train myself into the ground some more.  Don’t do this.

Heart Rate Differential

Related to this is to use the difference in lying/seated and standing HR.  So you take HR for a minute from a lying or standing position and then again after you stand up.  And the difference supposedly tells you something.   Presumably the response to standing up is also indicative of sympathetic nervous system output.  I never used this and can’t seem to find what the rules of thumb for the differentials are so I won’t comment further.

RHR vs. Workload

Although really only useful for endurance athletes, one approach to using heart rate is to look at heart rate response at some fixed workload.  So say you’re a cyclists training at 200 watts or whatever.  If last week this power output generated a heart rate of 150 and this week it’s 160 that could indicate a problem.  The issue here being that environmental conditions play a role here.  Pushing 200 watts against a headwind will drive a harder heart rate than with a tailwind.  So unless you are in a very controlled situation, this may not be very indicative of much.

A Final Note on Heart Rate methods

Let me mention again that there is a global problem with heart rate based methods.   The issue goes back to the idea of A-type vs. B-type overtraining where B-type is marked by a decrease in resting and exercise heart rate.  This can look like the athlete is getting fitter when it’s really indicating a problem.  So those changes would have to be combined with something else.

So if resting or exercise heart rate is down but the athlete is unable to get heart rate up during high-intensity efforts, it’s not a training effect.  If everything is down but other markers (i.e. mood state, motivation) are down, it’s probably not a training effect either.


Blood Pressure

At least related to heart rate is the use of blood pressure measurements.  Presumably the same resting, differential and exercise ideas can be applied to BP.  So an increase in resting BP would indicate a problem. There are little automatic blood pressure cuffs (many which do heart rate) which could be used.   Let me note that blood pressure is far more sensitive to changes in, well, everything, than heart rate.  Small differences in blood pressure on a minute to minute basis probably mean very little.  In contrast, heart rate is a lot less impacted by such things and probably represents a better method overall.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

A relatively “newer” (in that it became popular in the 2000’s) is the use of HRV to monitor training.  Without getting too far into the weeds, HRV measures the variability between two R intervals in a normal heart rhythm.  Don’t worry too hard about this.    .

Simply, more variability is generally good and less variability is bad with a lower HRV correlating with all manners of health problems.    What HRV ends up measuring in the big picture is the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic drive.  So a lower HRV means that the body is experiencing higher sympathetic tone.  And except during exercise itself, this is bad.

A decrease in HRV, again indicating sympathetic dominance, is associated with overtraining.   Athletes who are becoming overreached or overtrained see a decrease in HRV which increases during recovery. Athlete who are not becoming overtrained maintain a lower HRV throughout training.  Even for the general public, HRV increases as aerobic fitness improves.

Thus HRV can be used to monitor the athlete in a variety of ways.

HRV can potentially be used to monitor overtraining for this reason and there has certainly been a trend towards using this in recent years.  In the early days you needed very specialized and expensive equipment and usually had to run the raw data through specific software.

One early toy was the Omegawave that, among other things, measured HRV.  And it only cost $10,000.  When I was ice speed skating, both Polar and Suunto made HRV watches that cost about $400 a piece.  In recent years, it’s become relatively trivial to measure HRV  with various relatively low cost equipment and apps available.

The question then becomes whether or not HRV is useful or not.   At least anecdotally it seems to be more useful for endurance athletes.  In fact, studies have used HRV driven training (i.e. adjusting training based on daily HRV) and gotten better results than with fixed training programs.  So rather than doing two interval sessions per week as is usually done, they would do high-intensity sessions when their HRV was in a place that indicated they were recovered.

For strength training, it’s a little more difficult to tell.  I’m unaware of any studies on strength training and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest it doesn’t say much, at least not until it’s too late.   Given the physiological differences in strength/power activities and endurance activities this isn’t completely surprising.

Reaction Time

One of the older methods that was used in practice was reaction time.   Some research actually supports this idea.  At least some researchers have drawn similarities between overtraining and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) with the idea that there is a decrease in psychomotor speed in both.

When I was skating, I mentioned this to my coach and we started using as stopwatch to gauge reaction time.  We’d do 6 rapid start/stop series and take the average.  So you try to start and stop the watch as rapidly as possible looking for trends in the average.  It wasn’t perfect but did seem to correlate reasonably well with overall recovery.

As a purely anecdotal example, one skater on our team had a particularly heavy week and saw his reaction time drop by 0.04 seconds (0.13 to 0.17).  With a few days of recovery he was right back to his normal average.  I rarely saw big changes in mine but I was a mediocre skater who had very little deviation in my performance.  Our sprint athlete would be up and down in training and his reaction time would correlate strongly with that.  I’d note that this has to be done at a consistent time around training (either before or after warmups)

It was possible to cheat the watch by changing how you hit the button.  I could get better values by pushing from both sides with both hands rather than just my thumb.  There is also a bit of a learning curve to hit the button consistently, I’d tend to throw out exceedingly different values on a day-to-day basis (e.g. if my norm was 0.12 and I got 0.22 it was usually because my finger slipped and I’d throw out the value).

There are other variants of this that have been over the years.  One is a tapping test where you count how many rapid finger taps an athlete can do in 15 seconds.  Another is a drop test where you mark a stick or rule and drop it from a standard height to see how quickly the athlete can catch it (i.e. how many marks pas through his fingers).  Presumably this is all a measure of nervous system activity somehow.   Like heart rate, it’s cheap and easy and probably relatively accurate.  Like heart rate you need some baseline data under full recovered conditions.

Various Power Tests

Various vertical and long jump tests have been suggested as an indicator of overall recovery.  This is probably testing both muscular and nervous system activity.  Usually you’d warm up and compare results of any given day to the average.   Talent identification programs used to use vertical and long-jumps to test for talent in power events so this probably has some validity for athletes in those sports.  I’m not sure how much it would tell an endurance athlete.

So after a standardized warm-up, test a maximum jump or three and take the average and compare it to values determined when the athlete is rested.  A big drop in performance would indicate a need for a rest day and some cutoff would need to be used to make that judgment.  It would be important that the athlete have experience with the movement for this to be valid.

I’d note that fundamentally I’m not sure about this one as the idea of doing anything to maximum daily goes against basic training tenets. Then again, it’s only 1-3 jumps total.


A variety of questionnaires have been used over the years to try and monitor for overtraining.  Probably the most common is the Profile of Mood States (POMS) which tends to show a characteristic shift (called an Iceberg profile) in overall shape in scores when overtraining starts.  But it’s not perfect and doesn’t seem to pick up all cases of overtraining.  Probably because it wasn’t originally developed to be used for such.

More recent tests have been developed and validated such as the Recovery-Stress Questionnaire these are discussed in some detail in the otherwise worthless book Enhancing Recovery: Preventing Underperformance in Athletes by Michael Kellman.

There is apparently a full book on the questionnaire now as well, I haven’t read it and haven’t used either of the tests with myself or my trainees so I can’t comment further.  Whether accurate or not, perhaps the biggest drawback to this approach is time, since the questionnaires take time to fill out and score.  And it has to be done every day.

It’s not time athletes or coaches always have, certainly not on a day-to-day basis.  And while infrequent use might be useful, this may not pick up problems when they are starting By the time the athlete takes the test, it may be too late.  In contrast, taking HR for 5 minutes in the morning (even HRV only takes about that long) or using a reaction time test can be done much more rapidly.

I’d note that the idea of monitoring things in a logbook isn’t new.  Prior to the use of PMS or the Recovery-Stress Questionnaire, athletes were entreated to take resting heart rate, and then rate things like sleep, motivation, fatigue and others on 5 point scale to track changes.


As I mentioned in a previous part of the series, a common occurrence with overtraining is a disruption in things like sleep patterns (usually sleep is impaired), appetite (generally the athlete loses their appetite) or mood (motivation suffers, the athlete doesn’t want to train, etc).  These are due to the inflammatory response from too much pounding on the body and the rest of what’s going on (e.g. excessive sympathetic drive).

Now, an observation is that the mood changes often start to occur before the performance deficits are seen. I have no idea why this is the case.  So even before performance tanks, athletes will report a los of motivation and sleep or appetite issues.  They might just report feeling generally beat up and inflamed.  There is this sort of sub-chronic soreness that occurs where the sports primary muscles just always feel a little big achy, heavy and sluggish. This is likely just the start of the chronic inflammatory issues that lead down the road to overtraining.

But unless the explicit goal of training is to push the athlete into overreaching before a recovery phase (i.e. they are supposed to feel like dogmeat), this is an indication that problems are about to start and training should be adjusted.

Of course, that assumes that the coach takes the time to ask the athlete about such things and the athlete is honest about it which brings us to….

How Are You Feeling/What Does the Coach See?

While I haven’t read much of the recent work, for years I probably read every review paper ever written on the topic of overtraining.  I may have never done any of it in my own training but I kept up with all of it.

Invariably the authors would drone on abut the same topic and how we didn’t know what caused overtraining and that all diagnostic methods available were either limited or useless.

And invariably every single one would finish by saying something to the effect of:

Despite decades of research into trying to diagnose and prevent overtraining, perhaps the most accurate method available is for a coach to ask the athlete ‘How are you feeling?’ prior to training.

That’s right, decades of research and god know how much money spent on the topic and the best we can come up with is for the coach to ask the athlete “How are you feeling?”  It’s no wonder so many athletes think sports science is useless.

This approach assumes that the athlete:

  1. Has a coach in the first place.
  2. Has a coach that isn’t totally incompetent (e.g. is more than a glorified rep counter, stopwatch holder).

But assuming these two things are true, just asking the athlete how they are feeling may be better than every other method I’ve talked about.  It’s certainly one of the easiest.  I always ask my trainees “How are you feeling” when they enter the gym.

I mean this is in both an overall sense (i.e. springy, tired, depressed, moody) in addition to anything more specific.  Are old injuries acting up, are they exhausted from a long day at work, did they sleep badly?

Everybody Lies

Then they lie to me just like I would lie to my coach.  And I’m only being slightly obnoxious here.  The problem here is the same one with listening to your body: people justify and rationalize.  Or they just outright lie.  Athletes don’t like easy days and they certainly don’t like being told they need an easy day instead of a super intense workout.  They don’t like being sent home if they look ragged or being told not to train.  Even if that’s what they actually need.

Do not get me wrong, part of what makes great athletes great is the willingness to put in the necessary work over weeks, months and years.  But this can also make them their worst enemy. Charlie Francis talked about how most of his coaching was holding his athlete back rather than pushing them to work harder.

Because when the coach asks “How are you feeling” they will tend to tell the coach what he wants to hear so that they can go train their brains out.  They’ll say they slept great when they didn’t, their mood is great, they are ready to hammer.  And the’ll say it even if they feel terrible.

Please note: this isn’t universally the case and I’m not saying it is.  As athletes get older and have spent enough time injured and overtrained, there is a tendency to be a little bit smarter about it.  Even here, athletes will just say “It’ll be ok” when there is clearly something that is not ok.  But younger athletes who are psychotically driven?  Well expect them to lie.  Trust me that I’d rather be a “Innocent until proven guilty” kind of guy but here I take the opposite approach.

How to Be a Coach

Since you can’t always trust the athlete to be honest with you, this is when you have to be more than the guy holding the stopwatch or just counting reps.  You have to pay attention and actually coach.  First, you might use some of the methods I used above to see if the words match the data.  If an athlete says they feel great and their reaction time is way off, they aren’t telling you the truth.  That’s one approach.

Another is, again, to actually coach.  Specifically, watch their warm-ups.  I daresay most athletes in most sports do more or less the same warmups for any given day or type of training.  So you watch.  Watch their technique and movement quality. Watch their movement speed.  If they are doing jumping, do they look springy or are they staying on the ground longer.  In the weight room you watch bar speed.  Some will use technology, old school coaches use their eyes.

Because when you do this, and let’s assume that what they said and what you saw were two different things, you’ve now learned two things about the athlete:

  1. They are going to lie to you about how they actually feel.
  2. That they probably still need an easy day.

And both are very useful data points.  Once you realize that a given athlete is mostly going to tell you what you want to hear you can just stop asking.  They won’t be straight so don’t waste your time unless you just like playing games or think you can browbeat them into being honest.  Maybe every time they lie about how they are feeling, you send them the hell home completely.   Maybe they’ll learn.

But assuming you don’t do that, you need another method to monitor them.  Heart rate, HRV, reaction time, whatever.  But their verbal repots are useless until you get them to stop playing games and tell you the truth.  Good luck with that.

But if they are actually being honest with you, this method can work. And it’s honestly probably better than most of what we have otherwise.  This is especially true when you consider the mood and behavioral changes that can occur and often precede performance drops.  Athlete reports being depressed or unenthusiastic and the problem may be starting.  Give them an easy day or three and see if they come back.  Boom, problem solved.

Of course, as I mentioned previously, sometimes as a coach you have to make the judgement call to get them to step up and push through it.  Sometimes this is to prepare them for the competition contingency where everything isn’t perfect.  Sometimes it’s because you’er trying to generate functional overreaching.  Many times it teaches them that they can still succeed in the face of fatigue.  And these are valuable lessons in an athletic context.

Just don’t do it all the time.  Because if you constantly ignore the athlete’s feedback (in the same way most athletes do), eventually you will break them and dig them into such a hole that it will take weeks, months or longer to dig them out of it.

In that situation, use other methods to monitor them.  HR, HRV, reaction time whatever.  But their verbal reports are useless until you get them to stop playing games and start telling you the truth.  Good luck with that.

What to Do If You Overtrain

Overtraining is real and even the best, most conscientious athlete can fall over the edge.  I managed to adapt to the training load my coach gave us in Salt Lake city for 5 solid years.  Then in my last year with the addition of a single extra short-track workout I fell off the edge.  It came on overnight.  One day I was fine and the next I was broken.  And that was the end of that.

So what do you do when that happens?

You rest.

Genuinely, that’s it.  You rest.  That’s the big punch line ending to this entire series.  I addressed every detail about overtraining from definitions to the different types to mechanisms to training to monitoring.  and I can sum up the cure for overtraining in one word:


Because if you’re screwed up somehow and trained too hard for too long with inadequate recovery and yourself into the whole, the solution is rest and recovery for as long as it takes to get out.  If you caught it quickly, it might only take a few weeks (yes, technically overreaching).   If you really did yourself in, it might take months or longer.  But you must rest, there’s no other solution.

And nobody can really say how long it will or won’t take.  And in a way it doesn’t matter.  You rest and recover until you’re rested and recovered.  You can’t force the process and all you can do is be patient and let it happen as it will happen.   Mind you, you can certainly hinder the process by not resting.  But you can’t really make it happen any faster.

How to Rest?

Now, rest doesn’t mean completely rest and doing nothing.   That can have its own consequences psychologically for athletes.  That said, I would recommend taking a solid 5 days off completely from training.  You can do some brisk walking to move some blood but that’s it.   Move some blood, eat, sleep and recover hard.

If you can afford it get a massage (which has been shown to improve HRV).  At least foam roll.  Take Epsom salt baths, work on relaxation, do the stretching you might have been skipping for months.  Be really attentive to your nutrition with sufficient calories, carbs and protein.  But, you say, you’ll get fat.  Maybe a little bit.  But if it helps you recover a little bit faster, that just means you’re back to training that much sooner.

After that 5-7 day complete rest you can move back into light training.  I’m talking active recovery zone training, limited in both duration and frequency.   In the weight room, do no more than warm-up sets to get a little technique work. Endurance athletes should be in the low aerobic range (130-140 heart rate tops).   Perhaps three to four light workouts per week.  One hour tops (runners would do maybe 30 minutes).

Athletes hate this.  To them time spent resting is time lost and worry about their fitness decreasing.  And both are true.  But it doesn’t matter.  Once an athlete is overtrained, there’s nothing else to be done but to rest and damn the consequences.  When I fell off the edge in Salt Lake I had to take 2 weeks of hard rest and then it took me 2 weeks to get back to where I’d left off. It was a month lost.  But I had no other choice.

Because the overtrained athlete has to rest eventually.  The sooner they take the needed rest, the sooner they can get back to serious training and vice versa.  The longer they take to rest, the more time they have actually lost.

So the athlete who rests hard after they fall off the edge might lose, let’s say a month of real training.   They recover, get back into it and start moving forwards again.

But the athlete who refuses to rest for 2 months will be spending 2 months training half-assedly.  They will still be too tired to train effectively but hard enough to keep from recovering.   So they’ve already lost 2 months of effective training. And they still need that month to recover.  So now they’ve lost 3 months.  And that’s the best case scenario.  If they have dug the hole even deeper, they might take 2 months to get out of the hole.  So that’s 5 months lost by refusing to rest versus 1 month by resting hard as soon as you need to.  The latter is better.

Nutrition During the Rest Period

I mentioned above that athletes are afraid of getting fat when they have to rest like this.  Some try to actively diet.  Do not do this.  It’s like in an injury situation where you need sufficient calories to heal optimally.  Cutting calories, carbs or protein just hinders the recovery process.  Calorie should be at maintenance or even slightly above.  Get plenty of carbs to keep glycogen refilled and hormones good.  Get plenty of high-quality protein and fats.   Given the link between inflammation and overtraining, you might consider some anti-inflammatory modulating compounds.

Even with light training, around or during workout nutrition can help.   Exercise increases blood flow and nutrient uptake to the working muscles.  Have some carbs and protein before you exercise or sip a dilute carb/protein drink during.    Every little bit helps.

Because, as I also mentioned above, even if you gain a little bit of fat, that’s fine.  It will come right back off when you can go back to normal training after recovery has taken place.   Recovering from overtraining is not the time to be neurotic about body fat levels.

Patience, How Long Will That Take

Finally, be patient.     This isn’t a process that will be rushed and it takes however long it takes . You can’t make it happen faster although you can make it happen slower.  At most do everything to ensure optimal recovery in terms of light training, good nutrition, recovery modalities.   That will maximize the rate of recovery.

But be patient.  Because in the same way that athletes are always in a hurry to get back into intense training after an injury, they try to rush back to training before they have truly recovered from overtraining.  Monitor some of the things I talked about above: HR, overall mood state, HRV if you have access.  These can give you a more objective indicator of when you’re getting back to normal.

Even when it’s normal, give it another week, maybe two.   During that time you can start gradually bringing up the intensity or volume of training.  But make it gradual, no big jumps.  Because if you’re not 100% reocovered and rush right back into hard training, you’ll just fall into the hole again and lose more time.  The extra week or two you wait now saves you 4 weeks when you fall back off the edge.

After You’re Recovered

And finally, once you’re fully recovered, there are two things you must do as you return to training.

First, ease back into training.  If you took 6 weeks off or whatever, your fitness will be down, your work capacity will be down.  But muscle memory is real, fitness always comes back faster than it was developed in the first place.  How long?   My rule of thumb is that it will take twice as long to get back to your previous levels as you had to rest.

If you had to rest for 6 straight weeks, you can expect it to take 12 weeks to even approach your previous training levels.  Plan your training along those lines and work backwards.  So figure out where you want to be in terms of training frequency, volume and intensity at Week 12 and work back to determine where you can reasonably start.

So let’s say you had been training 12 hours/week before becoming overtrained and now you’re only doing 3.  You would plan a progression from 3 hours to a little less than 12 hours over that 12 weeks.  So you might first add 2 hours and stay there for a week or two.  Bump the intensity of one of the workouts in the next week.  Add some more volume. bump intensity.  But keep it gradual just like you’d do during a normal training block.

But do not think you can jump right back to where you were training before without breaking yourself and losing even more time.   Spend a month or two building training back up towards the old levels (actually a level below what overtrained you before).  There’s no hurry and there’s everything to lose and nothing to gain by going too fast.  If you just spent 3 months recovering and overtrain yourself immediately again, you lose that much more time recovering again.  Don’t do this.

Second and far more importantly: LEARN from the experience.  Look at what you did that got overtrained in the first place.  What was wrong about your training, too much intensity, too many hard days, too much volume, was your recovery lacking for some reason?   Was your sleep poor, were you skirting on recovery modalities, what about your nutrition.  What was lacking that caused the problem before?  Diagnose it and fix it going forwards.

Use more tracking methods.  Resting HR, HRV, whatever.  But try to keep track of it and stop the problem before it occurs.  Because otherwise you’ll just do it again.  Athletes repeat these cycles of training too much, getting overtrained or injured, recovering for a month and then doing the same thing over and over again.  I did.

Simply, if a given workload wasn’t tolerable 6 months ago and nothing has changed in your lifestyle or recovery, it won’t be tolerable now.  You didn’t handle it then and you can’t handle it now.  Don’t be an idiot and learn from your experiences.  If you know that you can’t keep yourself in control, take that into account.  In my own training, I learned that I tended to overwork myself and would eventually blow up about week 12.

I had two approaches which were

  1. Not overwork myself.  Which wasn’t going to happen.
  2. Plan a 5 day recovery block at the end of week 11 to save me from myself.  And it worked.

Otherwise you’ll find yourself years down the road having wasted the prime years of your athletic career going through the classic cycle of overtrain/get injured, recover and then do it again without ever having seen your true performance capacity because you were never rested, always a bit over the edge, slightly injured.  It’s one thing to make the mistake once but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing more than once and expecting a different result.

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12 thoughts on “Overtraining and Overreaching: Part 6

  1. Awesome article series Lyle; quick question.

    Can someone with an auto-immune disease be more prone to overreaching or over-training? It seems to me it would make sense in that context.

    The hypothesis regarding IL-6 is really interesting.

  2. Not my area of expertise. I can’t imagine it would help though. And note that there is a lot more than just IL-6 going on. Dozens of interleukins, TNF-alpha and lord knows what else. I was just simplifying a bit and making the singular example.

  3. True, the immune system is very complex. Thanks for the response.

  4. Very informative articles and very interesting to me at the moment.

    I have recently been advised by a sports doctor to take 6 full weeks off the bike.

    Road cyclist – I didn’t take a proper break at the end of last last season. Started this season with a lot of volume base training over several months, with quite a few back to back days.Then worked in higher intensity tempo, then threshold workouts, then a week training camp 7 long days at high intensity straight. I didn’t do a proper recovery week when I came back, a few more long hard rides then….boom! my elastic ‘snapped’ when out on a ride – couldn’t get heart rate up at all, legs like lead etc. felt like sh*t at the end. worst day on a bike probably ever.
    started to get classic symptoms after that ride – very light, disturbed sleep; irritable/depressed mood; achey legs which stayed achey. occasional heart palpitations; lethargy; spaced out feeling. sports doc doing blood test tomorrow, but she reckons that even if relatively normal, 6 weeks rest is still advised.

    am now in my 2nd week off bike and improving slowly, but majority of symptoms are still there. hoping i turn the corner and see real improvement soon, because the time away from bike is driving me crazy. i thought my body could take all the training and there were no real noticeable warning signs. season’s wrecked now. still trying to take it all in.

  5. Can we basically say that Over-training is very similar to acute fatigue (Noakes’ Central Governor) and over-reaching (inflammatory cyokines) if we look at it at greater scale? In more lay terms, isn’t the Over-training just another protective mechanism that forces us to lay down and rest? Ultimate failure to perform is better than death from organism standpoint. One of mine professors at Faculty even said that Over-training can result in injury, but this injury may be actually a ‘protective injury’, making the athlete to cool down a bit and stop doing even more damage. Sounds like X-Files (self-protective injury), but it gives a neat teleological (purpose) definition of Over-training…. WHY it happens in the first place…. what is purpose of Over-training…. to serve and protect! 🙂

    I do agree with your central vs. peripheral discussion, and I would really love to see how you explain the CNS fatigue as defined by Charlie Francis. IMHO, everything in the periphery is integrated in the center (CNS). Although some forms of training stress -> fatigue -> strain -> over-reaching -> over-training can have different peripheral sources, all of them are eventually integrated into center (CNS). Taking into training, this may yield a concept that athletes have finite (adaptable over time) (global) work capacity to adapt/perform various training tasks, and more specific work capacities (a capacity for a given training component). Fred Hatfield example is a proof of this IMO. You can rotate training (and should) stress (components, muscles, whatever) to avoid specific-local strain, but you cannot forget the ‘global’ strain you are causing with all of the components, no matter how similar-connected-opposite they may be, cause everything is integrated in the center (CNS). Everything affects everything, and it is usually a not a simple sum.

    Sorry for, possibly, confusing post…. it is 3am at my place….

    Keep up the good work Lyle!

  6. First paragraph: No. It’s not the same as Noakes is basically pretending that this fatigue purely central in the same way that many are pretending that fatigue is purely peripheral. And both are involved, to varying degrees, and you can’t separate the two so simplistically. Both extremist models are wrong.

    Second paragraph: CNS fatigue as Charlie is referring to it is not the same as what I’m talking about. Because a single max workout or PR can cause CNS fatigue in the sense he’s describing it and that’s not overtraining for reasons dicsussed in previous parts of the series.

  7. What’s interesting to me is though we’ve come so far in our understanding of how the human body functions, far too often individuals look for ways to “work around” limiting factors with supplments, drugs, etc instead of simply listening to their body.

    The longer I’m in the fitness industry the more I really see that the “old timers” had the right idea of training hard when they did train but then allowing plenty of “stress free” recovery time with going to the beach and just plain chilling. At the end of the day your body will tell, and show you, what works best. My advice is to simply listen to it instead of what the latest edition of Flex magazine, etc says.

  8. Shane: Well said and I will be addressing this to some degree in the final 2 parts of the series.

  9. Damn, nice stuff Lyle. Having been huge at one time, I find the tired feeling/fatigue extremely frustrating and end up doing what you just explained, training harder. Maybe I should rest more instead of digging myself into a deeper hole. Hopefully it’d help me lose weight again this cutting cycle.

  10. Quick question about the paradox: Why is it, that the body reacts with sleep disruptions to overtraining, when sleep could actually help?

  11. Never seen the mechanism addressed but I would expect just general sympathetic overdrive as being the issue. There might be more going on.

  12. Really interesting reading. I overtrained for a couple of years in my late 20’s. i had all the classic signs but not the knowledge. I would force myself to run 20km a day plus weight training, even when I went on holiday I would be up at the crack of dawn swimming laps in the pool before anything else. I then developed anorexia which compounded the fact i couldn’t slow down for the fear of putting on weight! I was a right mess. Then 2 years of bulima and I did slow down a bit (because I physically couldnt keep up the performance) followed by a traumatic pregnancy, several major ops, which of course i had to stop and then I developed CFS which meant I had flu-like aches for days after everytime I tried to excercise. That made me stop and realise the extreme physical and physiological stress I had been putting my poor body through. 10 years on I am a completely different person, but sadly I still have CFS, I cant tolerate excercise now. And interestingly I have now developed an autoimmune disease that has caused me to have an underactive thyroid. What more can my body try and to make me not go back there?! I am still trying to find a way to rebalance it all. If only I knew then what I know now. Hope that is a lesson to some! Take heed! Brilliant articles. I always belived the CFS was because of my extreme attitude and having read them, I am convinced that was my cause. CFS is not a virus as some beleive it is an imbalanced response…

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