It's a question commonly asked by endurance athletes up and down the country and yet there's never a simple answer! I have to state upfront that the following article is partly subjective and my personal views are not those of everyone, but having coached for many years, here's my experiences:
Stress and Adaptation
We get stronger through the process of stress and adaptation, this in simple terms is 'running the body down' then 'allowing sufficient recovery time for adaptation'. If you run your body down during any training session, it will then, given the correct conditions, recover to a point slightly above it's previous base level. If you repeat this frequently, you continue to make tiny steps each day/week and over a long period of time, your performances will improve significantly.
Training is pretty simple. You need enough stress (you need to train hard enough) coupled with enough recovery to allow the adaptation. If you don't train hard enough you won't get the stress, if you don't have enough recovery you won't get the adaptation. For this reason, training plans are often laid out as one hard day, followed by an easy day or a hard week followed by an easy week. It's important to point out, if you feel tired from the previous day, it doesn't necessarily mean you need to rest. You may well have 3 hard days back to back which will create an accumulated level of fatigue, but as long as you know that day 4 will be resting/easy that's fine. Only by practice can you learn how many hard days you can get away with, before needing a rest and only by practice will you learn how much rest you need.
What is Stress?
When I use the terms stress in the above paragraph, you'd presume that I'm talking about training stress, for example, the physical stress of running 6 miles. The truth is that any form of stress will 'run the body down' so if you're training hard, whilst dealing with a significant workload, going through a divorce and moving home, the amount of stress upon the body is HUGE.
If you've ever been on a training camp in a warm country, it's amazing how much training you can do in a week. When all you have to do is sit by the pool and relax between sessions, your recovery is astonishing! It's not just the training which makes you tired, it's all the other stuff you have to deal with on a daily basis.
Remember the FILOFAX?
I think that's how it was spelt? Back in the 80's all those yuppies had them in London, working the stock exchange with huge mobile phones. Do you remember 'yuppie flu'? That was the mysterious illness which struck down those people working 18 hour days, under immense pressure... commonly referred to as 'burnout' and medically termed 'ME'
Stress is known to 'run down' your immune system. If your immune system doesn't function properly you struggle to fight even the smallest illnesses. Hence 'ME' is also known by other names such as 'Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome' or 'Chronic Fatigue Syndrome'. It can last for months and for some people, years.
Overtraining syndrome is basically the same as 'ME', it's caused by a constant high load of stress, leading to extreme fatigue for a long period of time.
Am I Over-training?
Probably not, unless the above sounds like you. If you had a couple of hard weeks and struggle to hit your target training times you are tired, doing too much training or 'over-reaching' (posh name), but you are not suffering from over-training syndrome. There is an easy way to clarify this, if your fatigue can be resolved with a few days of easy days, then you are most definitely not suffering from over-training syndrome.
So I'm Training Too Hard Then?
Maybe... but we always jump to that conclusion, "I'm training too much or training too hard". Before you do, step back and look at the bigger picture and what we've said about stress. If you were able to work less and get more sleep, you may well be able to recover sufficiently and adapt to your current training sessions. Therefore, is it right to say 'I'm training too much or going too hard'? It's equally viable to say, 'I'm working too much or sleeping too little', the problem isn't necessarily your 'training stress' but that's where we always point the finger... 'I'm knackered, so i should reduce my training volume'.
Of course, you may well be shouting at me "I can't cut my hours at work or have a lie in!!" But there are always things which can be done with your lifestyle to reduce your 'overall stress'. That's how we should approach 'over-training', we should that recognise it is caused by 'overall stress' and not just your training sessions and look to address it in this manner.
Give Me Examples of Overall Stress
1. Sleep hours and quality - can you increase? Probably yes.
2. Work hours - can you reduce? Probably no, unless you're lucky!
3. The stress you feel as a consequence of work - can you reduce? Possibly...
4. Relaxing time - can you increase? Probably yes, switch off mobiles and tablets and 'old style relax'
5. Nutrition - can you improve? Probably yes, reduce alcohol and reduce 'chemical stress' caused by poor diet
6. Can you stop things 'getting to you'? Probably yes, if you're a type A personality who is constantly driven or you let things get to you and dwell on everything possible, just let it go... give it a try.
7. Training load, can you reduce? Yes, but put the others above first on the agenda and put training last, because unfortunately if you want your smash your PB, you have to train frequently and hard! So here's your task for this week, identify the areas above which you can improve and put them into action.
If you'd like more structure to your training, then email firstname.lastname@example.org We have coaching packages for Ironman and ultra running starting at £40 per month, ranging up to £95 and all include sports science testing to assess your personal strengths and weaknesses.
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