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For many amateur triathletes, fall means it’s time to wind down the training, start (finally) practicing yoga or get back to focusing on work or family. But for top age groupers or anyone targeting a late-season “A” race, now is the time to peak and perform at your best without burning out after a long year of training and racing.
Qualifying for any of triathlon’s world championships means you have the talent and drive to race to the top of the age-group rankings. It also means—especially after a season of qualifying long-course races—that you have to find a delicate balance in order to peak, race well enough to qualify and then recover multiple times throughout the year, all while keeping up the motivation to train hard day in and day out. Nailing that perfect train-enough-but-not-too-much ratio can be tricky. If you don’t battle through some fatigue to gain fitness, you’ll never improve. But if you work too hard for too long without allowing the body to recover and adapt, you could wind up racing your worst right when you need to be racing your best.
The extreme result of neglecting proper recovery is overtraining syndrome, a medical term that is often tossed around but not always understood or properly diagnosed. Put simply, the syndrome is a result of overdoing your capacity for exercise and winding up with a decline in performance. The consequential physiological and psychological effects can go beyond just one bad race result—they could lead to career-ending consequences.
Overtraining syndrome doesn’t happen overnight or even over the course of a tough training week. “To get there, you have to have ignored the signs for weeks,” says elite coach Gordo Byrn. “When I’ve bumped into situations with overtrained athletes, they just couldn’t get out of bed—they are completely exhausted, their hormones completely out of whack.” Although some of the warning signs are desirable (fatigue is a natural result of training hard), it’s important to be able to identify when you’re pushing your body past its limit.
Because it takes a lot of willpower to train through extreme fatigue, the personality types most susceptible to overtraining are the classic Type-A triathletes. “It’s the perfectionist, the obsessive ‘enough is never enough’ athlete who is always striving for more—the very same personality qualities that make for an elite athlete,” says Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a psychiatrist, coach and multiple Ironman Hawaii finisher.
Although the syndrome is more prominent in elite athletes who are singularly focused on triathlon, coach and exercise physiologist Krista Austin, Ph.D., says that doesn’t necessarily make age-group athletes less vulnerable to overtraining. “Many amateur athletes define themselves by how well they do in races,” she says. “I think a lot of them get too caught up in trying to take out the next age grouper.” In addition to chasing PRs and podium spots, age groupers have the mental stress of putting food on the table, keeping bosses happy and making time for family and friends. This mental stress, combined with a heavy training load, can be a recipe for disaster.
The Diagnosis Problem
As a medical condition, overtraining syndrome is not an easy one to identify. Incredible fatigue and the inability to bounce back to a regular level of performance within two weeks of adequate rest is the telltale sign. “The problem with overtraining syndrome is that there may be multiple types or variances, making it difficult to categorize and treat every patient the same because the symptoms can be quite varied,” says Dr. Kenneth Taylor, director of sports medicine at the University of California, San Diego. The list of symptoms associated with the syndrome are all across the board: chronic fatigue, elevated resting heart rate, recurring infections, weight loss, erratic sleep, night sweats, decreased motivation and moodiness.
Taylor calls the syndrome a “diagnosis of exclusion.” For the most part, overtrained athletes experience extreme fatigue, but that alone is a common symptom in practically every ailment—from infections to vitamin deficiencies—which makes it difficult to pinpoint one solid, obvious indicator. He says there’s a lot of overlap with thyroid disease and anemia; Winsberg points out that the symptoms look very similar to depression.
“There’s no one blood marker or finding that is the hallmark of this disease,” Taylor says. “There are some indicators that we lump together to come up with a diagnosis, but it’s not like Hepatitis B where you do a blood test and it’s positive. Overtraining syndrome is not clear-cut.”
When an athlete becomes overtrained, there’s a host of disruptions in the body, mainly stemming from an overactive pituitary gland. There’s an interruption to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the hormone regulator, which can act as negative feedback. “You’ll see too much cortisol relative to the other hormones, decreased testosterone and changes in things like metabolism and serotonin. You get this whole biological cascade that happens when you don’t let the body rest,” Winsberg says.
Even triathletes who feel like they’re dialed in to their training could be doing things that are ultimately a detriment to their performance. Take note of these risk factors to avoid burnout.
You’re stressed at work or home.
When you’re under an extreme amount of stress, you have an increased risk of catching a cold (among other illnesses) because your immune system gets taxed. If you’re dealing with life stressors and add multiple hours of training on top of that, it’s no longer a question of being mentally tough—there are biological changes that occur in your ability to handle that stress, which can play a big role in recovery. “Even things we think are objective, like heart attacks, many people think it’s your cholesterol, but we know that stress and anxiety have an impact on inflammation and can play a key role in blood pressure and heart disease,” Taylor says. “How we think and how we feel mentally has a huge physical impact as well.”
You’re combining the wrong workouts.
Combining prolonged efforts like a long run with high-intensity efforts at the same time can prove to be too risky. Doing too much high-intensity work in one week can also be too much on the body.
You’re not fueling properly.
If you don’t eat smart to fuel your body before, during and after training, you could be missing out on all the nutrients that are needed to rebuild your muscles for the next workout.
You’re glossing over recovery.
Self-coached athletes are particularly susceptible to just training on autopilot without believing they need a day off after a big training session. “They can get into a groove and skip easy days and weeks, and that pattern can get them caught in overtraining,” Byrn says. When your schedule says “recovery day,” take a proper recovery day. “I will have athletes tell me, ‘I had a recovery day on Monday, so I just did 30–60 minutes of each discipline.’ They’re trying to do all three disciplines and they’re going too hard,” Austin says.
You’re combining a big training load with race weight goals.
“Amateur athletes would like to be at race weight 365 days a year, but it’s important to remember that you only have to hit it for a short amount of time,” Byrn says. “You should get to a healthy training weight, where you’re strong and able to perform, and after that it’s very much fine-tuning. That drive to get to an artificially low weight will make you prone to injury.”
Have You Overdone It?
After a full season of training, these warning signs could indicate that you’re overworked—or at least on your way there.
The musculoskeletal system responds to overtraining in the form of overuse injuries such as shin splints, stress fractures, IT Band syndrome or tendonitis. They can serve as a protective measure, as overuse injuries indicate that you’ve added excessive loads or your body isn’t recovering properly.
Unexplained performance drop-off
If you’re not able to perform at the level you’re used to or you generally feel “stale,” beware. The rule of thumb is that if that feeling lasts longer than two weeks and can’t be explained by anything readily identifiable (getting the flu or battling heat fatigue), it could be overtraining syndrome.
Heart rate variation
Take note if your heart rate is elevated in the morning, or it takes longer to bounce back and recover after high-intensity efforts. Alternatively, pay attention if you’re unable to increase your heart rate. “You’ll see it in races, where all of a sudden, no matter what, they’re so blown out that they can’t get HR up,” Byrn says. “It could be that the legs are beat up and damaged and can’t put any load on the cardio system, or it could be energy depletion.” New tools such as Omegawave (see sidebar on page 67) can help optimize training based on heart rate information.
You’re always hot at night and wake up with soaked sheets.
Excessive sugar cravings
The desire for a second helping of dessert is fine, but it’s a bad sign if you constantly crave sugar and never feel full regardless of how much you eat.
It can go both ways—you’re unable to fall asleep or you’re completely exhausted at strange times.
Avoid the Burnout
Follow the rules
You’ve probably heard the 10 percent rule (don’t increase volume by more than 10 percent per week), but we don’t all obey it. “Most athletes don’t get to elite status by not breaking that rule most of their lives because it takes too long to get to your goal,” Taylor says. “But let’s face it, people who are training well can cut corners and train harder and recover faster than other people who have to follow that rule.” Unless you’re truly an elite or have had zero history of injury, stick as closely to the 10 percent rule as possible.
Schedule multiple-day recovery
Just like a swim block or bike-specific weekend boosts performance, an intentional rejuvenation period can do the same. Winter is a natural time for most people to do it, but a mid-season rest period of one to two weeks is also a good idea for longevity.
Train to your strengths
“Athletes are all engineered very differently,” Austin says. Do you get injured with high running mileage? Thrive with lots of intensity? Cater your training program to your specific needs as an athlete.
Assess your peer group
If you hang with a crowd that never takes a true off-season and piles on the miles all year long (“In Boulder, everyone thinks 100 hours a month is baseline,” Byrn says), you may need to find friends with more aligned goals.
Race more strategically
It depends on the athlete, but if you’re into sprint or Olympic, racing once a month is reasonable, Byrn says. “The more experienced athletes have the ability, physically and mentally, to really cap themselves in their A race,” Byrn says. If you race long course, alternate your years between an Ironman year and the “other” year where you focus on bucket list or shorter events, or on family.
Invest in a coach
Get a second pair of eyes, whether it’s a coach or even an experienced friend, to look at your training program. “We always lose some measure of objectivity when we’re assigning our own training,” Winsberg says. An outsider whom you trust can help bring in the reins when you’re training to excess.
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