We've all had grim days when we've felt lethargic and fatigued as we slogged through training - days when our body has simply failed to respond as it should. And we all experience aches and pains that we think are to be expected in triathlon training: sore muscles and joints, the occasional injury. Now add some of these symptoms to that list: disturbed sleep, a sudden drop in weight, a loss of appetite, decreased coordination, uncharacteristic clumsiness. If you've been experiencing any of these symptoms frequently, and your strength and performance have been declining steadily for several weeks or months, you may be overtraining. And it can do serious damage.
Put simply, overtraining is when you do more training than your body can recover from with two or three days of light exercise or even complete rest, and it's a major problem for triathletes. Scott Molina, winner of over 100 professional triathlons and the Ironman World Champion in 1988, has long believed that some triathletes overtrain. "I am afraid a few of us may have found the limits of long-term endurance training," he says. The facts seem to bear this out. A 2003 study in France found that 40 per cent of 93 well-trained male triathletes reported a decrease in performance within the previous month.
Given the multi-sport nature of triathlon and the rigorous training needed just to finish one, it's no surprise that many triathletes overtrain. Throw in the high motivation levels of triathletes and the extreme training levels set by elites and you have a sport in which training that can become an obsession. Scott Tinley, twice winner of the Ironman World Championships, knows about overtraining first hand. "After a while it catches up. The warning signs are subtle, varied and easily masked by an athlete's determination," he says. Molina, renowned for his extreme training, says, "We do seem to attract a higher percentage of compulsive/addictive types."
Triathletes should be especially alert for symptoms that indicate a compromised immune system. Several studies show heavily trained athletes catch colds easily - one found that half-Ironman triathletes are five times more likely to catch a cold than someone who trains without competing. Another, admittedly small, study of eight overtrained triathletes revealed depressed levels of glutamine, an amino acid that bolsters the immune system. So, watch for frequent head colds, swollen lymph glands, allergic reactions and slow-healing cuts.
Overtraining does not only affect the body. It can cause irritability, moodiness and even depression. And if those don't grab your attention, this will - overtraining can lead to a diminished sex drive and sexual performance.
Hallie Truswell, who has been competing in triathlons for nine years, is recovering from the effects of overtraining. "I always watch out for loss of appetite, mood changes - especially crankiness - and sleep disruptions," she says. "Once I started down the slippery slope of overtraining, I couldn't objectively see or understand what was happening. I was over-the-top tired, slept through early-morning alarms, and kept thinking I was getting sick."
She was also suffering periodic asthma attacks, which hadn't happened before, and picking up overuse injuries. "Last year I noticed that it was taking me longer to recover from some of the shorter races, which was unusual, and my half-Ironman was disastrous - I was 20 minutes slower than the previous year and, worst of all, I didn't really want to be there." She intends to be more careful and much more vigilant from now on.
Intensity over volume
Everyone should be because all that's needed to push a triathlete over the edge is a rapid increase in the number or length of workouts, without leaving time for adequate recovery. In the French study, the training schedules of the healthy and overtrained triathlete groups were compared, and the culprit was found to be excessive training intensity, not training volume. Thus, triathletes need to be especially wary when starting high-intensity workouts such as tempo running and time trials, and increasing the number of their (swim, run or cycle) interval workouts. For the same reason triathletes should also avoid racing too often. Hallie Truswell says, "I've taken all of my races off the schedule and I'm on a really light training schedule - I don't have to race in every event that comes along."
Take it only so far
You might now be asking how you can possibly recognise the symptoms of overtraining, since they may resemble the effects of hard regular sessions. And yes, some physical stress is necessary for triathletes to continue to improve. The training principle underlying this, known as progressive overload, states that you need a constant and progressive increase in training stimulus, to which your body responds by adapting (often called super-compensation) in the day or two following the session. Your fitness improves and the process repeats itself.
So, the key to triathlon training is finding a balance between overload and recovery - a fine line indeed, as your ability to adapt to a new training load can vary even from day to day. The essence of good triathlon training is to occasionally go to the edge of your capacity and then back off for a few days to allow adaptation. But triathletes have a tendency to ignore the symptoms of overtraining and are often afraid to rest for fear of losing their edge. And it's difficult to diagnose overtraining because there's no blood test or clinical diagnosis. To further confound exercise scientists and sports-medicine experts, different people exhibit different symptoms of overtraining.
Since it's not easy to work out if you are suffering the effects of overtraining it's best to avoid taking things too far. Prevention is better than cure. At the core of avoiding overtraining is the use of periodised training programmes. The basic concept is simple, the execution somewhat more difficult. With periodisation, you programme one week of lower intensity and lower duration training every two or three weeks to encourage your muscle tissue to recover and to replenish its fuel. Hallie Truswell, for example, has "a full day or two off
every week, and typically has a recovery week every fourth week". Plan your rest days immediately after your longest or highest intensity workouts. For example, if you do a long run on Sunday mornings, plan a short, easy day on Monday, or even complete rest. And if you're still exhausted on Tuesday, another easy day might be advisable. You could even schedule a massage on your rest days to further enhance your recovery.
If the damage is already done, you won't undo it immediately; it will take you 10-14 days to recover from several weeks of overtraining, and several weeks or months to recuperate from chronic overtraining. First, cut out all racing. Then reduce the frequency of your high-intensity workouts and the length of your workouts by 50 per cent until full recovery. The chronically overtrained triathlete may benefit from cutting back to a single workout each day, alternating between swimming, cycling and running sessions, instead of packing two (or three) workouts into each day.
These lengthy layoffs work. Chris Tremonte, who has completed more than 100 triathlons, was forced to stop training in 2009 to allow his body to recover. "After taking two months off before Christmas last year, I jumped back into training on the first of January and quickly got into a great rhythm. My swim, bike and run fitness this year is probably better than it's ever been in the past," he says.
If you've been overtraining enough to warrant a lengthy break, you need to re-evaluate your training programme, too, since that's what exhausted you in the first place. Compete in fewer races and consider making every second week an easy week, using a periodised programme. This is also a good time to evaluate your health and nutrition habits. Other pressures of daily life such as work-related stress and pollution exacerbate overtraining. If you're in heavy training you should try to control these factors as much as you can to prevent them from adding to the physical stress of training. Ensure you're getting enough sleep - the average adult needs 7.7 hours each night, with at least two of these hours before midnight; athletes who are training hard need more. Ice your legs after running and cycling to reduce muscle inflammation and swelling.
And don't neglect nutritional recovery. Many studies of overtrained endurance athletes show their glycogen levels are chronically depleted because they fail to eat enough carbohydrates and total calories to match their energy demands. "I think that nutrition is a major component in recovery. It is critical that endurance athletes take in enough calories to replace what they burn in training," says Tremonte. Thus you need to ensure an adequate carbohydrate intake of 60-70 per cent of your total daily calories, and you should be drinking plenty of carbohydrate-replacement drinks - continual thirst is an indicator of chronic dehydration and overtraining.
Easy does it
Finally, show some flexibility with your training schedules. Tremonte has "a few optional workouts in a week's schedule, like my Monday-morning easy swim. If I am really tired from the weekend, I might decide that sleeping in is more valuable than cramming in another 5,000 metres." Truswell says, "If I could do anything different, it would be to lighten up on myself and take more rest when I need it. All of my workouts are optional and at least once a week I've opted out of one."
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of overtraining, follow Truswell's advice: "It's time to step back, take a look at your schedule and incorporate some recovery." Tremonte agrees: "Listen to your body. Staying healthy is more important to your long-term success than killing yourself in any particular workout or training block." If you're feeling exhausted, cut back immediately until you bounce back.