How to tell whether you are overtraining, and how to avoid it

It's easy to think that racking up endless miles will be beneficial to your cycling, but it's all too easy to overdo it and miss out on recovery. The symptoms of overtraining are different for everyone, but there are some common signs to look out for. We give you some simple tips to help you spot when you've overtrained

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Overtraining isn’t just something full-time riders suffer from. Even if you’re only doing eight hours of training a week, it’s possible that your body isn’t recovering. Ultimately, you’ll become depleted rather than stronger.

‘Overtraining’ could just as easily be called ‘under recovering’. If you’ve got stress at work or are constantly rushing around between one thing and another with no real down time to relax, or if the food you eat isn’t adequate in terms of calories or nutrients, you won’t recover properly.

But what signs should you look out for?


Be honest with yourself when fatigue sets in

Emma Grant, formerly of Epic-Scott Contessa, has experienced overtraining at first hand and recognises the symptoms. “There are mental and physical signs of overtraining,” she says, “If everything feels like an effort — even just the thought of putting your kit on, you struggle making decisions and have a foggy brain and feel unable to focus or have no get up and go or desire to be sociable, they’re all signs you’re overdoing it.”

It’s important to check in with yourself and ask if your body can cope with the demands you’re placing on it. Grant says “I have to be very honest with myself and ask myself how I am feeling every day and adapt training to that.”

There are also plenty of physical signs you can watch out for in training that could mean you’re not recovering adequately.

What really happens to your cycling fitness if you're forced to take an extended break from the saddle? Physiologist Andrew Grant looks for “a consistently elevated resting heart rate, frequent colds, poor digestion, feeling dizzy when standing up, heart rate failing to rise to normal levels on the bike, a higher perceived rate of exertion on the bike relative to power output, feeling ‘flat’ and lethargic and constant hunger.”

Last but not least Grant reveals the gravest symptom of her overtraining, “not getting a buzz from caffeine anymore!”

Incorporating mid-season training breaks even if you’re not a full-time racer might be a good idea. Grant recommends taking a longer break if, “you don’t come round after taking a week off the bike mid-season.”

Although you might feel as though you can’t take the time off, in the long run you’ll save more time when you don’t have to take a year off with long-term fatigue. Grant concludes with some final advice, “Put your health first and say no when you need to without guilt!”

The essentials

  • Be honest with yourself
  • Don’t ignore symptoms
  • Rest if demotivated
  • Psychological stress adds to training stress

Simple factors to that could determine if you're overtraining

It's surprisingly easy to over-do it, and it's important that you spend the right amount of time recovering and resting, just as much as it is in the saddle. But how exactly do you know when you're pushing yourself too hard?

Here are five indicators that may show you need to back off from your riding and recover.

1. Trouble sleeping

Restlessness in bed is often a sign that levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, are too high, which is a result of overintensive training.

2. Constant muscle soreness

If your muscles seem to be aching beyond delayed onset muscle soreness levels, then it may be a sign that the muscles are constantly inflamed and unable to repair — a sign of overtraining.

3. Constant tiredness

The most obvious sign of failure to recover is a prolonged muscular and mental fatigue caused by the repeated breakdown of energy from training.

4. Weight loss/lack of appetite

Changing hormones and levels of amino acids are thought to be responsible for the often-observed loss of weight and hunger that is seen with bad cases of overtraining.

5. Decreasing form

Most of us will have heard stories of athletes taking a week off the bike and returning to the form of their lives. So even if you’re not feeling it, decreasing form could be a sign that you’re working too hard.

Key points

Try a restorative yoga class. These are designed to teach you how to fully relax, something we tend to be pretty bad at in Western culture. You’ll leave with techniques you can use to chill in daily life.

Measure heart rate variability. The gap between heart beats shouldn’t be completely regular (e.g. one second between each beat) but should vary as your body quickly adapts to make marginal changes to your heart. Too little variability means you need rest.

Although you need to do some sessions when you’re not 100 per cent rested to give your body the training load required to induce adaptation, there’s a big difference between that and full-body fatigue.

Although a good blast on the bike can blow out the cobwebs of a stressful day at work, done too often you’re actually adding to the stress your body is dealing with rather than ‘stress busting’.

If you lack motivation to train on your bike, try some cross-training for mental recovery.

Integrate rest periods into your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly training and general life. Although it’s a good idea to take an easy week on the bike during a particularly stressful period at work, work stress isn’t rest.

Trying a different sport may make it easier to do an easy session as you can’t compare yourself to previous performances on the bike.

Notice how you feel when you wake up in the morning. Aching legs are normal if you’re midway through a training block, but feeling as though you’ve got lead weights pressing you into bed isn’t — it is a signal to rest.

A version of this article originally appeared in Cycling Weekly in November 2014, additional reporting in October 2015 by Vicky Ware.

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