How to maximise your training gains in winter

It’s a fine line between making performance advances and tipping over into injury. But you can find the balance with this advice from professor Greg Whyte…

Young man is resting after his intense workout outdoors in the park

As we move into the winter training phase, training volume (volume = intensity x duration x frequency) increases significantly. Why is down to the theory of supercompensation that states training leads to fatigue, which, following sufficient recovery, results in performance improvement.

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Accordingly, progressive overload – continually increasing training volume – is important to ensure performance improvement. The accumulation of fatigue across multiple sessions is termed ‘overreaching’ and is a common part of training programmes.

How to avoid excessive training overload 

While carefully planned and monitored overreaching results in performance enhancement – termed ‘functional overreaching’ – care is needed to avoid excessive overload over an extended period in the absence of sufficient recovery, which results in no improvement in performance until a prolonged period of recovery is required, often leading to a reduction in performance (termed ‘non-functional overreaching’).

Non-functional overreaching is a waste of time and effort, and it’s important to respond appropriately to avoid a prolonged reduction in performance often combined with repetitive illness and additional symptoms.

This is a condition that’s been termed ‘overtraining syndrome’, ‘under-recovery syndrome’ and, more recently (and more accurately), as ‘unexplained underperformance syndrome (UUPS), which takes into account stressors from other aspects of life (i.e. family, work…).

What is unexplained underperformance syndrome (UUPS)?

In addition to chronic underperformance commonly lasting two to three months, there are a host of symptoms that characterise UUPS including: fatigue, depression, loss of motivation, insomnia, restlessness, anorexia, heavy/sore muscles and anxiety.

UUPS is far less common than overreaching, however, and it’s important to minimise the potential for both to avoid losing an entire season and potentially jeopardising future performance.

A common mistake I see is athletes responding to an absence in performance improvement by increasing their training volumes and reducing recovery, which ultimately leads to a downward spiral of performance and health.

There are a number of ways to reduce the potential for non-functional overreaching and UUPS, starting with a carefully planned programme with regular monitoring of training load.

How to avoid UUPS

Importantly, be attentive to unexplained performance decline attributable to cumulative fatigue. Recording your performance (i.e. rep times, pace and so on) together with your rate of perceived exertion (RPE; how hard you think a session is) and your personal reflections on the session can provide valuable insight into your state of fatigue.

In addition, using simple psychological screening tools (i.e. Profile of Mood States, POMS) can deliver early warning signs of non-functional overreaching. Optimising nutrition, hydration, rest and sleep are crucial here.

Noting down your feedback from sessions for yourself and your coach, if you have one, will also act as an early warning sign, allowing timely modification of training to avoid problems.

More is not always better; quality is almost always better than quantity; and it’s not solely about training volume. Plan and monitor your winter phase training carefully (including recovery) and respond to stressors in general life by modifying training, to ensure you make the most of the time and effort you invest.

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Top image credit: Getty Images