Most endurance athletes hold on to the concept that in order to benefit from workouts, they need to feel “wasted” after their workouts – whether these people are single-sport or multi-sport athletes. Effectively, the premise is that “more is better.” Sometimes, this is the case. Hard workouts create fatigue and leave us feeling tired, both after individual efforts as well as at their completion. During key workouts, we do need to increase the overall training stimulus over time (the “more”). However, when we accumulate too much fatigue, we inhibit the body’s ability to restore and repair properly – it can’t keep up with the constant stimulus. Consequently, we are left feeling fatigued on a daily basis and our performance drops.
Here’s where it is important to differentiate between “tired” and “fatigue”. To me, being tired comes from things like too little sleep or the completion of a challenging workout. When we yawn a lot or think about napping or going to bed earlier the coming night, we are receiving cues from being tired. This is natural. There are a couple different types of “fatigue” as well. First, there is the fatigue we feel during any given workout. When we push our boundaries in order to find and surpass limits, we get fatigued. Sometimes we can bounce back quicky from the fatigue; sometimes we press a little too much and rebounding takes a bit longer. Typically, when fatigue associated with workouts turns into a daily malaise, we have pushed too hard for too long and the body is now in a hole. The common ingredient here is usually too much training intensity during the course of a weekly training schedule and then the accumulated fatigue over the course of multiple weeks of following that overzealous training schedule.
Training intensity is not just about “going hard”. Intensity is a combination of how hard you train, how often you train, how long you train each session and your overall training volume. Inserting enough recovery during your training becomes critical to balance out the intensity of your training schedule. Recovery can be either short, easy workouts or complete days off. Both are effective.
Acute overload – aiming for a training stimulus beyond your current capacity in order to promote adaptation and growth – is critical to improved performances. An example here is an individual Lactate Threshold workout followed by a day or two of recovery. Next up is over-reaching. Over-reaching comes about through a multi-day block of hard training or a stage race. When over-reaching, you may find your HR is lower at target speeds in swimming or running, or at given power levels on the bike. We can handle consistent acute overload if we balance it out with recovery. Periodic bouts of over-reaching can be powerful tools to accelerate our fitness and promote adaptation. But, too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing and lead to over-training.
Over-training is not a good thing. This is where the fatigue from workouts turns into daily fatigue that leaves the body feeling like lead, our motivation to train takes a nosedive, sleep becomes fitful and our appetites can suffer as well. Performance declines, sometimes sharply if we allow over-training to continue unchecked. How deep a hole the over-trained athlete digs depends on how long he/she continues to over-train. The first kneejerk reaction when we experience dips in performance is to train even harder because we feel we must be slacking off and be out of shape. What else could it be? This is the dangerous slippery slope that once you start sliding down is hard to arrest. You’ve lost your objective perspective and you’re too close to your sport. This is where a coach can be super valuable. A growing number of Masters athletes with whom I work come to me deep in a hole and on the verge of tears. They are hollow shells of their former selves and at their wits end as to how to just get back to feeling good – forget about actually competing.
Young and Masters athletes alike can become over-trained; it’s not just a symptom of advancing age. However, fatigue affects young and Masters athletes differently. Fatigue in younger athletes tends to affect the sympathetic nervous system and result in things like higher resting HR, higher blood pressure, an elevated metabolism and fitful sleep. In Masters athletes, fatigue impacts the parasympathetic nervous system more, resulting in things like lower resting HR, a drop in blood pressure, and the early-onset of fatigue in just about any workout. I know when I’ve pressed a bit too hard for a bit too long, my blood pressure does drop and I start to get light-headed when I stand up too fast. I give myself a little extra TLC in these instances and my body bounces back in a day or two – because I’ve identified my “fatigue triggers” and realize that ignoring them is about the worst thing I can do for my athletic performance and general well-being.
As endurance athletes, we love challenging ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d be playing chess or cards instead. Finding that right balance between training stress and recovery is critical as it ebbs-and-flows from one training cycle to the next. Self-coached athletes can get it right short-term, but tend to run into challenges over time. They either are not training hard enough and, thus, are leaving some improvement “on the table”, or they are burying themselves too often, are chronically fatigued and under-performing, resigning themselves to the “fact” that it’s just the way it is for endurance athletes.
If you have any specific questions about coaching or just want a sanity check on how you’re approaching your own self-created training plan, give me a jingle. Fill out a “contact me” form on the ORION Coaching Systems site and I’ll be happy to respond. I’m always happy to help!