Regular readers of 220 will know Scott Tinley. In 1980, the American raced his first Ironman at the age of 26. Two years later he broke Dave Scott’s course record to win his first of two Ironman Hawaii titles.
Tinley drove on the fledgling sport of tri alongside Scott and Mark Allen, and he continued to race professionally well into the 1990s. He’d trained hard and, he thought, smart. But in 1994, after a tough race where he finished second at Ironman Canada, something changed.
“He was physically fatigued and no longer able to train or race at his previous level of competition,” wrote physician Dr PZ Pearce. “It was hard for him to sleep, and he started to experience upper respiratory infections. Ultimately it impacted every facet of his life and family. He began searching for a solution, undergoing numerous physiological
and blood tests, stool analysis and multivitamin therapy without success.” Tinley retired soon after and, says
Pearce, “I believe he suffered the classic symptoms of overtraining.”
In our eyes, triathlon’s the best medicine in the world, resulting in a healthy and happier you. Sadly, triathlon’s appeal can also be its curse. Three sports to train for, plus the idiosyncrasies of transition, requires a certain devotion
and minimum training hours to elicit the improvements you’re after.
And that commitment’s needed because, without delving deeply into the cellular mechanisms, the human body adapts to changes in workload slowly and steadily, whether it’s skeletal or cardiac muscle, or measurements of fitness like stroke volume and lung capacity. Growth for each requires a certain stimulation and overload. Hit the sweetspot and you’ve entered the realms of overreaching. This is an acute (short-term) period in which metabolic stress is placed upon the body. This is good. The problem is when overreaching tips over into overtraining, as exhibited by Tinley.
What are overtraining symptoms?
So when does overreaching become overtraining? The answer will remain slightly open-ended because; a) we’re all individual so fatigue assessment and pain tolerance is very much subjective and; b) overtraining is often difficult to pin down. “The symptoms of overtraining are difficult to define since there can be many and they are seldom the same in any two overtrained athletes,”explains legendary tri coach Joe Friel. “Physiologically, the only ones that are common are poor performance and fatigue. But since these can occur even when an athlete isn’t overtrained, overtraining remains a bit of mystery in sports science.”
That’s not Friel sidestepping the question; in fact, he’s seen several pro triathletes’ careers ended by overtraining. “They couldn’t even get out of bed,” he says. Friel states that the key symptoms of overtraining are much like chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease or mono-nucleosis, and stresses that any athlete experiencing deep/lingering fatigue should see a medical professional. Sore legs for a day or two post-interval session is normal; feeling the effects a week later isn’t.
Friel has also drawn up an overtraining checklist. One of these should act as a warning; all four and stop training immediately…
Fatigue that doesn’t go away with 48 hours of active recovery.
A loss of control over emotions – evidence of anger, moodiness, depression or grumpiness. In short, you’re hard to live with.
Performance declines. I.e. you’re slower at the same heart rate, or for any given speed HR is higher than normal.
Self-confidence declines. This may be the best marker but it’s hard to assess.
Where any of these markers show up and linger for more than two or three days, there’s a good chance that the overtraining threshold has been exceeded. At this point, the workload must be reduced immediately.
What’s left sports scientists scratching their heads is not only the fine line between overreaching and overtraining, but also the metabolic root of the symptoms above. Tim Noakes writes in his book Lore of Running that “overtrained runners exhibit an impaired ability to release stress hormones in response to physical exertion as a result of exhaustion of the hypothalamus [in the brain]. As the hypothalamus is solely responsible for regulating the entire hormonal response of the body, such results are consistent with – and help to explain – additional symptoms of overtraining, such as insomnia, depression, and loss of libido
The nervous system’s also implicated with studies showing that an athlete’s brain exhibits an impaired capacity to ‘recruit’ muscles required to swim, bike and run, as well as reduced sympathetic nervous activity (part of the autonomic nervous system whose multi-faceted roles include accelerating heart rate and widening the bronchial passages, which are both conducive with peak performance).
Ultimately, you can leave physiologists to wrestle with the physiological theories. What’s more relevant to you is its key causes, which ultimately boil down to unpicking the triathlon performance equation that performance is nothing more than stress, recovery and repetition. Triathletes by their very nature simply fail to accept the ‘recovery’ portion.
“Frequent recovery for a few days is necessary to prevent overtraining,” says Friel. “How often and how long the recovery period should last is an individual matter that can only be determined through trial and error. If unsure of how often and much you should rest, I’d recommend erring on the side of too much rather than too little. I’d rather see an triathlete that’s undertrained but motivated than highly trained but unenthusiastic about life in general and competition in particular.”
Who is susceptible to overtraining?
Age-groupers and elites and are equally susceptible to overtraining. Age-groupers because of the life, family, work juggling act; elites because of the high volume of training and many travel miles. Take Will Clarke. Clarke’s now 33 but was one of the new breed of triathletes who trained as a triathlete from an early age rather than converting from swimming, running or, less common, cycling. He excelled as a junior, winning the world U23 and European U23 championships in 2003. He finished 14th at the Beijing Olympics, recorded numerous top-10s in the ITU World Champs Series and now races 70.3 and full Ironman for the BMC Vitfit Pro Triathlon team. Clarke is experienced, he knows his body better than most and has been surrounded by coaches all his life. But that hasn’t stopped him from suffering from overtraining.
“There was one time I really pushed myself over the edge,” Clarke says from the team’s Lanzarote training base. “I was really pushing my running at the time and did a couple of back-to-back 100-mile run weeks. We were also looking to maintain my bike and swim. It was a lot but what pushed me over the edge was that we then went to Belgium for 10 days to take part in four local ‘Kermesse’ bike races [like a cycling criterium race].
“Towards the end of that camp there were a few days where my motivation was very low,” he continues. “I wasn’t sleeping well, I felt miserable and I can remember one day in particular where I couldn’t stop eating. I think that was a day in my life where I ate the most I’ve ever eaten. It was purely a case of too much training, not enough recovery. Now I know the symptoms and I can avoid it. I ended up taking around three weeks pretty much off after this episode.” Clarke’s relatively lucky. Some athletes have remained on the sidelines for a year or, as mentioned earlier, simply retired.
Clarke crossed the line on a training camp, which is common for elites and age-groupers as it’s an amphitheatre for your ego to go into overdrive. Altitude camps also increase physiological stress, often beyond the limits, while Friel sees the summer and its greater appeal to swim, bike and run as a potential problem. Then again, winter’s also demonised, again due to the sun or, in this case, lack of it. Vitamin-D is much reduced in the winter and has been associated with a drop in immunity, which again results in the overtraining syndrome.
“For me and many others, it’s getting too greedy leading up to an A-race,” adds Scotland’s two-time Xterra world champion Lesley Paterson. “You start to string together some great training days and want to do more. For me this means increasing intensity on back-to-back sessions and back-to-back days. If I do this too frequently, without proper recovery, then I start to back myself in to a hole. It’s when I combine increased intensity, increased volume and have other life stressors that it becomes too much.”
How can you recover from, and prevent, overtraining?
So how did the likes of Clarke and Paterson recover and then, importantly, reduce the chances of overtraining? For the Xterra champ, key was more sleep and greater recovery time between intense sessions.
“We also used training tools that measured heart rate variability (HRV), as well as Training Peaks for measuring stress scores. These are objective measures that can help predict or explain fatigue.” Many of you who use power meters will know Training Peaks, the online software that builds up a detailed picture of your power output capabilities over time and includes a stress score that gauges how close you are to your ‘overtraining threshold’. It’s a useful feature and many athletes swear by it.
HRV uses your nervous system to delve into your state of well-being. The idea is that small variations in the beat-to-beat timing of the heart reflect the body’s level of stress. Greater variations between beats – represented by an increase in HRV – is associated with parasympathetic activity (rest and recovery); reductions in the variations between beats (decreases in HRV) are associated with sympathetic activity (fight or flight). Hence, if you wake up one morning and HRV is very low, that may mean you’re neurologically fatigued.
Both tools are useful; both satisfy a triathlete’s need for tech. But, as Paterson warns, “They don’t provide the full picture. Sometimes the data will tell you that everything is fine yet mentally you’re exhausted.”
That’s where a good coach comes in. Or if that’s beyond your budget or need, assess your training plan as you won’t go far wrong if you follow the 80:20 rule. It’s based on the work of American scientist Stephen Seiler who embarked on a mission to see how elites train and concluded that each week they’ll train around 80% at low intensity (zones one and two) and 20% moderate to hard (namely zones three and above). This is the same whether you’re an age-group triathlete or an Olympian. Why? At the end of the day, triathlon is an endurance sport so maximising aspects like fat-burning, as you do with long sessions at low intensity, is key. But it also demands power and speed – like when climbing a hill or sprinting to the finish line – hence the 20% hard.
It’s also true that by training aerobically, you enjoy a great number of benefits that simply can’t be wrung out from anaerobic work. The cardiovascular system becomes well-conditioned, while the relatively slow pace keeps injuries to a minimum. When interval training is judiciously added to the aerobic foundation, significant performance benefits are realised almost immediately. But as Noakes warns in his Lore of Running, “When sharpening, the athlete is on the knife’s edge that divides a peak performance from a disastrous race. For this reason, sharpening can
only be maintained for relatively short periods of time, with a probable maximum of eight to 12 weeks.”
How important is nutrition and fuelling for preventing overtraining?
Nutrition is also important, as Clarke’s binge episode exposed. “It’s common,” explains coach and 500+ triathlon finisher Mark Kleanthous, a man who once had overtraining symptoms so bad his hair started to fall out. “You’re permanently hungry and are eating the wrong food – too many carbs – when your body’s craving muscle-repairing protein. Hence, you’re still hungry. Thirst can be a sign, too. If you’re drinking a lot but still getting headaches, you might need more electrolytes to retain the water. You’re trying to get the kidneys working faster because deep inside you’re fatigued.”
Though overtraining’s symptoms seem subtle and, on paper, hard to distinguish from overreaching, they’re very real and, from those who know, in reality are significantly different than the occasional sore limb after training. We’re not here to scaremonger but always take time to assess how you feel, which could be as simple as briefly writing down in a training diary how a session went.
If you look back after two weeks and words like ‘torturous’, ‘lacking energy’ and ‘flat’ are common descriptors, it’s time to take a few days off and see how you react. Throw in training tools and a balanced programme and you’ll remain on course for peak triathlon performance.