Don’t let burnout ruin your next training cycle.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Training is a game of stress and adaptation. Workouts stress your body by challenging the limits of its speed and endurance. If you apply the right amounts of stress with the right frequency, your body will change in response to this stress—adapting in ways that make it better able to handle the same stress when repeated. For example, when you perform a long workout that depletes your muscle glycogen fuel stores, genes that control your muscles’ glycogen storing capacity are stimulated, resulting in the hoarding of greater glycogen stores for the next workout. As a result, your endurance increases.
Subjecting your body to too much exercise stress, however, will cause negative adaptations in your body. For example, every workout breaks down a certain amount of muscle tissue, triggering an inflammation response that subsequently repairs the damage. Given enough time, this process will not only heal the damage but change your muscles in ways that make them more resistant to damage in future workouts. But if you do another hard workout that causes more muscle damage before the damage caused by the previous workout has been fixed, it will begin to accumulate and the resulting inflammation might get out of control. If you persist in this manner, your muscles will become sorer and weaker and your performance will nosedive.
This process of negative adaptation to training stress is called overtraining. The primary sign of overtraining is an unexpected decline in workout performance. Other signs and symptoms include persistent fatigue, muscle soreness and loss of motivation for training. The cure for overtraining is relative rest—that is, reducing your training load until you begin to feel and perform better.
Note that the above-mentioned signs and symptoms do not always indicate overtraining. There’s a grey area on the edge of overtraining known as “overreaching” that can be beneficial when properly controlled. Overreaching is a brief period (one to two weeks) at the height of the training process when your training workload applies more stress than your body can fully adapt to, so that your fatigue level steadily increases and your workout performance stagnates. But before the process gets out of hand, you reduce your training load, enabling your body to fully recover from and adapt to the training stress of the preceding week to two weeks. A big boost in fitness usually follows.
When persistent fatigue and declining performance occur unexpectedly and reach a severe level, that’s another matter. That’s overtraining—something you want to avoid at all costs, because it can take a while to recover from. Here are four tactics that you can use to avoid the downward spiral of overtraining.
Train progressively. The surest way to avoid overtraining is not to train very hard. But that’s also the surest way to not get very fit. To build peak fitness without overtraining, you need to train progressively, or increase your training load at a gradual rate that stays within your body’s adaptive limits. As a general rule, you should increase your weekly training volume by no more than 10 percent each week. So if you train 10 hours this week, train no more than 11 hours next week.
It is also important that you avoid increasing the amount of high-intensity training (lactate threshold intensity and above) that you do each week. When you introduce a new type of high-intensity workout into your training, make it manageable, and then gradually increase the challenge level each time you do the same type of workout. For example, the greatest amount of lactate threshold-intensity work you’ll want to do in a single session is 40 minutes. But if you have not done threshold-intensity training recently, your first such workout should feature only 15 minutes or so at that intensity level. Advance to 18 minutes in your next threshold workout, and then 20, and so forth.
Use the hard-easy rule. The next workout you do after any challenging workout should be relatively easy, so it doesn’t interfere with your recovery from the stress imposed. Designate three workouts per week (two high-intensity sessions and one long endurance session) as hard workouts. The rest should be easy to moderate. Here’s an example:
Plan recovery weeks. Although your training should be progressive, it should not be progressive in the sense of continuously increasing in the amount of stress it imposes. Instead, interrupt your training progression periodically with brief periods of reduced training to give your body a chance to fully absorb and recover from your recent hard training and prepare for even harder training in the following weeks.
I recommend that you plan every third or fourth week as a recovery week. Reduce your training volume by roughly 20 percent in these weeks.
Listen to your body. Even when your training is well planned, if it’s also challenging enough to push you toward a true fitness peak there will come some times when you feel unexpectedly run-down. When this happens, heed the warning your body is giving you and take a day off, or at least replace your next hard workout with an easier one. Many runners find it difficult to pull back and recover in response to unexpected moments of accumulating fatigue, but it is usually the best choice. If you exercise restraint and pull back today, you will probably feel strong again tomorrow or the next day. But if you stubbornly persist in training hard despite your body’s warnings, you may enter the downward spiral of overtraining and find that it takes weeks to climb back.
Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.