Well this has now gotten entirely out of hand. I had thought I could finish up today but it’s going to take at least two more parts to cover it and I’m going to take another detour on Friday to make a special announcement (newsletter readers know what I’m talking about, another reason you should subscribe). So, maybe by August I’ll be done with this series and can talk about something else. Or next week.
Clearly, if you haven’t read through the series (e.g. you somehow only found the site last week when I was talking about endurance performance and prattling self-indulgently about my race), you should start with Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 1. Having covered a bunch of tedious physiology and background, I want to now move into some practical application type things.
Today I want to look at, in a global sense, how to limit the risk of overtraining in the first place with my primary focus being on the overall training structure. In the next part, which I’ll run next Tuesday, I’ll look at some of the various methods that have been used over the years to try and monitor if overtraining is occurring so that it can be stopped before it goes too far. Finally, and I’ll cover it Tuesday if I have space and Friday if I don’t, I want to look at what to actually do when/if overtraining occurs. Shockingly, that will probably be the shortest section of the entire series.
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 a random example, thinking that the same training program that is appropriate for a 22 year old male will ‘fit’ a 39 year old female is pretty asinine. Yet many coaches work from exactly that standpoint; they know one workout (usually what they did as athletes) and give it to everyone without consideration of any other factors. It’s dumb but happens all the time.
In a more specific sense, on top of trying to ensure that recovery is appropriate (e.g. diet, supplements, sleep, recovery), let’s look at some of the various rules of thumbs that have come about over the decades of sports training. Some of this probably came from research as much of it came from empirical practice as anything else.
I’d call these rules except that they all have exceptions under certain conditions. So consider them strong guidelines that the majority should follow because, no matter what you think, you’re most likely not an exception to them. Because that’s not what the word ‘exception’ means.
Take One Day Completely Off Per Week
I talked about this in detail in The Importance of Rest but, fairly universally (there are exceptions), most athletes take one day off completely per week. Traditionally this is Sunday (much of training scheduling has more to do with social patterns than physiology) but that needn’t be the case as I pointed out in my own training in Methods of Endurance Training: Results Part 1. Currently my own day off is Friday for reasons explained there.
As noted there are exceptions to this. Some endurance types will train more or less daily, some Ol’ers will do a very very short/light workout on Sunday (usually 30 minutes of light squatting or something) for various reasons. But these are always in the context of other properly set up training practice and, as I’ll discuss next, athletes don’t try to go all out at every workout anyhow. These are also usually elite athletes at the top of the performance curve who have built up to that level over a decade or more. Odds are you’re not one of them.
For the majority of people, taking one day off completely per week is a strong first step. At most you can do some brisk walking but keep it to that. If you lack the self-control to keep the intensity down either learn some self-control or just take the day off and rest hard (as my coach used to say).
Limit the Number of Truly High-Intensity Workouts Per Week
Despite much stupidity on the Internet (and the advocation of certain cult-like training systems out there that tell folks to train all out every day), successful athletes do not train in a high-intensity fashion at every workout. Or even attempt to (the ones that do go by various names, including injured).
As I mentioned in Methods of Endurance Training: Results Part 2, most do the majority of their volume at relatively low-moderate intensities. You see this in sprint athletes, strength athletes and endurance athletes where the frequency and volume of high-intensity work is usually quite limited.
Folks who forget this usually find themselves in the situation I talked about in Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy: they train at this medium intensity all the time. Too easy to really generate gains but too hard to allow recovery.
How much high-intensity work you ask? 2-3 days per week is usually about the maximum, certainly there are exceptions. But a short-sprinter might do two maximum speed days and one special endurance days (others do only two high-intensity days per week) with that representing perhaps 25-35% of their total weekly volume (with some variance depending on the specific sport, time of year, coaching philosophy, etc.).
Powerlifters typically have two maximum days per week, even Westside only has the two ME days (with work over 90% making up about 10% of the total volume). The other days are low intensity (DE or volume work). Endurance athletes will occasionally have 3 quality days per week (usually in non-impact sports like cycling or swimming), 2 days per week is more common (runners may only get away with one). Recent studies find that most endurance athletes do 75-80% of their total volume at aerobic intensities with only a small amount of high intensity work, usually done about twice per week.
See a pattern yet?
So why do you think you should (or even can) train hard every day? I mean other than because some Internet guy told you to alternate interval training one one day with high-intensity complexes on the other? Oh yeah, while dieting. Or because you think you should and/or are a unique and delicate flower who can handle training that would kill the best athletes in the world?
Now, without fail someone in the comments section is going to ask me about my own Generic Bulk routine (which can be found on the forum) which is set at 4 relatively heavy days/week for strictly bodybuilding/hypertrophy purposes. Doesn’t that break the 2 quality days/week rule?
While it is 4 days/week it’s important to remember that working in the 8 or higher rep range is still relatively moderate intensity work (~80% of max or less). It’s also not aimed at athletic performance per se and any other work (e.g. cardio) is always done at very low intensities. When I set up programs that use heavier work, the frequency and volume of true heavy work generally goes down.
Schedule the Week Accordingly
Assuming 2-3 truly hard workout per week, the most common pattern is to space them out to some degree. With two hard days/week, that might mean Monday/Thursday or Monday/Friday. Or Tuesday/Friday. Or a zillion other patterns, just keep them fairly evenly spaced through the week. With three days/week, typically a heavy day/light day (as in my own training) would be the most common. So Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday (assuming Sunday off).
Occasionally you have specific reasons to put hard days back-to-back; you might be getting an athlete ready for a two day competition, or you might want to deliberately generate fatigue to try to push better adaptations (or teach athletes to perform under fatigued conditions). But these are specific exceptions.
Clearly the other days should be easier days (which can mean truly light days or medium intensity day). There are endless variations and patterns and of course someone will ask what the purpose of the light days are in the comments section, thinking that you should either go hard or stay home. To which I’ll point them to the article Active vs. Passive Recovery for discussion.
Cycle Your Training
With few exceptions, all athletes cycle their training to one degree or another throughout the year (the ones that try to go 100% year round also usually go by another name…injured). The idea that you can or even should be at a peak level of performance year round is simply asinine (occasionally you find groups that try, they tend to be injured a lot…or keep failing drug tests). Rather, training is ramped to a peak, backed off, ramped back up, etc. This is generally referred to as periodization which exists in myriad forms. I don’t have nearly the space to detail any of them. Another time and another overwritten article series.
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.
You can use longer cycles as well. As I outlined in Methods of Endurance Training: Putting it Together, my base endurance training cycle was 18 weeks divided into 10 weeks of easy base training, 6 weeks of higher intensity work, a 1 week peak and 1 week recovery. This is more akin to Issurin’s Block Training concept which compresses the old annual cycle into a shorter period (general preparation, specific preparation, peak, transition) and repeats it more often. I think you get the idea.
Related to that is what to do between training blocks and this is another place that formal recovery blocks can help stave off overtraining. One strategy that I don’t think gets used enough by most people, but that I used myself to good success during my speedskating ‘career’ was the incorporation of 5-day training breaks. This is just a medium-term cycling strategy.
Basically, I blocked my training (depending on where we were in the season) into anywhere from 10-12 week blocks (currently I’m using an 18 week block for my endurance training but the average intensity is much lower than when I was on the ice). And at the end of the block, I’d just take 5 days completely off. I’d tell my coach ‘See you on Monday’ and go away. If I could, I’d get out of Salt Lake City; if not I’d just rest and play video games. No training (nothing more than brisk walking and usually not even that), plenty of rest, food, etc. Just to freshen up physically and mentally.
I first saw the idea formally used by Charlie Francis (and detailed in his excellent book Speed Trap) and it’s something I recommend to help limit over-training. It also provides a nice end-goal for a given block of training. You work through it in whatever fashion, hopefully hit a new peak at the end and then go not train for 5 days (or do something that is not your primary sport to give your body and mind a break; be careful not to pick something that wrecks you with soreness).
In the context of shorter blocks (such as my generic bulk which is an 8 week cycle), you might take a 5-day break every 2-3 full cycles. So assuming a 6-8 week cycle, that’s every 18-24 weeks and then take 5 days completely off to freshen up. Supposedly that’s what the Russkis found was the optimal time for a long training block before a break was needed. So there ya’ go.
This is about the time when the general public trainee (who often doesn’t need to worry about any of this in the first place for reasons discussed in earlier parts of the series) starts to get anxious. Five days out of the gym? But my muscles will fall off, my fitness will go away, I’ll get fat. Quite the contrary: the detraining studies clearly show that little to no loss of fitness occurs in that time period. And quite often a reduction in training triggers the LTDFLE.
Sure you may lose a bit of groove or technique on complex stuff but that comes back in a workout or two. But true losses of fitness or muscle mass are negligible approaching nil over that time span. Quite in fact, for some people, a 5 day break lets them come back better since the fatigue that they’ve generated with their training can finally dissipate. Trust me, you won’t get fat in 5 days and your muscles won’t fall off. You may come back much stronger and more motivated to train though.
Cycling also applies in the much longer-term. Almost all athletes incorporate what is usually called a transition period in the annual cycle, this is the break between the end of one year and the start of the next. This can take many forms and used to be called the off-season. That concept is pretty much dead, most athletes can’t afford to take 2 months off from training. Year-round training is required in the modern sporting world.
But 2-4 weeks of reduced or no training (or at least an alternative type of training) is common. In my own skating, we always got Mid-March to Mid-April as our transition; right after the end of year finale. I’d take 7 days completely off, zero training. Then I’d just do light bike workouts (3X/week) and weights (2X/week) to stay in some semblance of shape and get ready for the hell that started on April 15th with skate training. Sure my fitness dropped a little bit during that time but I freshened up physically and mentally and it allowed me to work up to a new peak (by getting some training inertia going from a lower intensity in the first place).
But the point of all of this is that athletes who don’t cycle their training in at least some form or fashion, whether short-, medium- or long-term, usually pay the price. Next time you wander around a commercial gym and see endless people with their Cho-Pats and elbow braces just going through the motions on a day-to-day basis, consider how long they’ve probably gone without taking a prolonged training break. Their last one was probably a week ago last never. There might be a lesson there.
Listen to Your Body
Ok, this could just as easily go into the topic of diagnosis and is the area where folks are likely to get themselves into the most trouble if they don’t pay careful attention to what I’m going to say. Here’s why: the entire idea of listening to your body is fraught with problems, the two main ones being that:
- Most people have no clue what’s going on in their own body.
- Humans have the ability to rationalize (it’s what separates us from the animals).
I want to make it very clear that here I really need to distinguish between the typical psycho over-motivated athlete and the general public. This was a point I made in the article How to Be Your Own Coach as well as earlier in this series but it bears repeating. The difference is this: most motivated folks want to train too hard, too much and too often; the average person doesn’t want to train at all.
A suggestion to ‘listen to your body’ and/or ‘take an easy day when you feel like it’ can go very wrong for the second group of people. They will find any excuse to skip training in the first place, telling them to ditch training when they feel bad means that they will never show up at all. They rarely train hard enough for any of this to matter and basically, very little of what I’ve written here applies to them in the first place. But I don’t want them to read this section and go ‘Lyle told me to not train because I was a bit tired’. That’s not what I’m saying at all.
In contrast, the typical motivated athlete won’t listen to their body at all. Even if they feel terrible, they will rationalize it away and train hard anyway. That little niggle in their knee, no big deal. The crushing lethargy, they’ll make an excuse and train through it. There is this logic of “Every day I take easy is a day that someone else is pulling ahead of me.” It’s the same with days off, athletes will vocalize “Every day I’m resting, my competition is training twice that day and getting ahead of me.” Which is nonsensical as hell but that’s how a lot of psycho athletes think.
But that’s the warning and here’s the suggestion: there are times in training when your body is telling you to knock it off. For whatever reason, bad night’s sleep, stress that you’re not even aware of, the beginning of true overtraining, there are just myriad reasons that you feel awful. But, sadly, your workout schedule, brilliantly planned with the most cutting edge science and spreadsheet known to god and man tells you it’s a heavy workout day. You can’t go off workout can you?
Well of course you can. And quite often should.
Now, you’ll note that I didn’t say always. I’ll come back to this in the next part of the series when I talk about athletes with coaches but there are times when you just have to man up and work through the fatigue. Athletes don’t always get to compete under ideal conditions. If you never teach yourself to perform under less than ideal conditions, you can end up in a real conundrum the first time things aren’t perfect and you find yourself a bit tired in a competition. Sometimes you do have to ignore what your body is telling you and make it happen. But sometimes is not the same as always.
The bottom line is that if you feel terrible going into the workout, that’s probably your body telling you something; more often than not you should listen (occasionally you should ignore it and push through). However, that is not always the case. Sometimes your body lies to you.
Many many times (I and my trainees and many I know have experienced this), athletes who walk into the gym tired or lethargic have absolutely stunning workouts. I suspect it’s just from being relaxed (relaxation quite often looks like lethargy or fatigue) but I told my coach constantly that if I looked a bit bored, or was yawning at the start of practice, it meant I was coming up on a stunner. And that if I came to practice raring to go, things would go awfully. As noted, this is not uncommon.
So this is what I always recommend when someone comes into training feeling a bit tired or lethargic (and this assumes you’re not using some of the strategies I’m going to mention in the next part of the series to monitor overtraining that are telling you you need to take an easy day or skip): at least do your warm-ups. If nothing else, you’ve gotten 20-30 minutes of light work and even if you call it after that, you’ve done your recovery work and can go home.
But just go through your normal warm-up routine and see what happens. As often as not, by the time you get through with them, you’re ready to go and everything is clicking. And then it’s on. When this happens, you should do the planned workout.
And if you still feel like dogmeat, go the hell home. Or make it a light technical or active recovery workout (keeping in mind that your warm-up basically accomplished that anyhow) and then go the hell home. And if you still lack the self-control to keep it easy, just pack it in and go the hell home. If you’re a cyclist, spin for 45 minutes and pack it in. If you’re in the weight room, do light technical work and go home. Etc.
I would note in closing that even the above is not universal. One trainee of mine once came to the gym and looked like crap during warm-ups. Nothing was going right going into her first work sets, no snap, no pop, her technique on the platform was awful. I told her to pack it up. She said she just needed to warm-up some more. I decided to let her and see what happened and about 30 minutes later she hit a big PR. Go figure. But that’s not the norm.
Usually, if you feel tired at the start of workout and go through warm-ups and still feel like crap, that’s a sign to call it. You’re too tired to do any real work but you can probably dig the hole deeper by trying. You’ll end up having a half-assed workout that not only won’t do you any good, it’ll do you harm.
It’ll be too low-quality to improve your fitness but hard enough to keep you from recovering. In that situation, you’re better off packing it in and moving the workout to the next day. With an extra day of rest, you might actually get something out of the workout. Or if you’re already on the road to ruin, might need yet another day of rest. But you decide that the next day after warm-ups.
And again, this is the section that is subject to the most problems, simply because it relies on humans being able to objectively look at their own performance, motivations, etc. It’s not an easy thing to do, I gave some strategies in How to Be Your Own Coach but when in doubt err on the side of conservatism. Missing a hard workout or cutting the volume is rarely a bad thing unless you’re doing it every workout; in contrast pushing when your body is telling you to rest is usually a bad thing. Less is more here and you can do far more harm than good slavishly adhering to the schedule than listening when your body tells you to call it a day.
And speaking of calling that, this is where I’m going to call it a day today. Next Tuesday (rememeber, special announcement on Friday), I’ll talk about some of the technologies and ways to monitor/diagnose overtraining before it happens. See you then.
- Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy: Part 2
- Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy: Part 1
- Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 4
- 2 on 2 Off Training Frequency for Mass Gains
- Bodypart Frequency and Soreness – Q&A