Overtraining is a very popular topic in triathlon for some reason. In the course of my career, I’ve seen two people train enough to hit full blown ‘overtraining syndrome’. Two.
In 2007 my Norwegian buddy Jorgen and I were in Arkansas for the University of Minnesota Cycling Team’s spring break training trip. Jorgen and I didn’t know each other yet. All I knew is that the guys who were riding with him kept saying he was always at the front and was always pushing a little. Apparently he’d trained pretty hard the week leading into the trip and also the week after. The week of the trip he probably rode 350 to 400 miles and 350 to 400 of those miles were pretty hard. Not full blast but in that nice ‘pretty hard’ grey zone. A couple weeks later he had to start dropping out of road races. He just couldn’t get any intensity going, he was totally flat. It took him several weeks to recover.
A hilarious side effect of him becoming overtrained was that many of our teammates immediately diagnosed themselves as overtrained. As soon as the word ‘overtrained’ started to circulate people began feeling overtrained. The reality is that we did some good indoor training over the winter, one huge week of riding over spring break, and then raced almost every weekend the rest of the spring. As soon as we got into racing almost everyone stopped training. After a few weeks of weekend races and minimal riding during the week everyone was getting out of shape. So these new cases of ‘overtraining syndrome’ were in fact ‘undertraining syndrome’. You can use the intensity of races to hold form for a while but without any supportive work you’re going to suffer from undertraining.
I have had great success from frequent short course racing but I have always kept some regular training going. Many of our local stallions like Matt Payne or Pat Parish go on long racing streaks through the summer and keep it light during the week. I can get away with that for a while but not forever. Towards the tail end of the summer of 2008 it suddenly dawned on me I hadn’t done any proper aerobic training in quite some time. I needed to get back to basics and build some regular old fitness. I felt better again after a couple weeks of aerobic work. Right now I’m trying to figure out the best balance for myself between a few short races to sharpen up and also integrating longer training for Ironman. Last spring I went a little overboard and jammed a couple duathlons and a couple really long rides into a couple weeks. I didn’t hit full on overtraining status but I wasn’t fresh.
In my work with athletes the biggest challenge has been integrating training into a busy lifestyle. Frankly most people don’t have time to train enough to get overtrained. If you aren’t swimming, biking and running each several times per week, are you really “overtrained” or are you just undertrained and out of shape? Coping with life stress and training can leave people feeling beat up. I don’t know how that feels compared to what Jorgen felt when he buried himself with hundreds of hard miles on the bike. All I know for sure is that overuse of the word overtraining is a pet peeve. In my experience with triathletes undertraining is much more prevalent than overtraining.
Steve Magness, my favorite running genius, just did a great podcast about taking care of yourself outside of training. Steve is a fantastic coach and high level nerd. I love the guy although I do tweet aggressive nonsense at him in all caps. I guess that’s just the way I show that I care. Someday I hope to actually meet him in person so he can tell me to shut up. Anyways, you can listen to Steve talk about the importance of sleep and such: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/magness-marcus-on-coaching/id961516002