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Are you over-training or do you simply need to stop being lazy? (Part 2)

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Last week we discussed over-training syndrome and how to potentially reduce the amount of overall stress to enhance your training and racing performance. If you didn't see it, you can click here to read part 1. In this article we are going to look at some specific physiological responses to over-reaching and over-training, to help you gain a better understanding and allow you to make informed decisions regarding training and resting.

The early signs of over-reaching?

Q: I've heard that mood states are the first thing to indicate over-reaching, If I simply don't feel motivated, does that mean I'm over-reaching?

A: No, not necessarily. It may simply be that you're a bit tired and lethargic and basically 'can't be ar@ed'. Performance is always a good indicator of over-reaching so if you start your session and after a while, you're hitting your normal target times / speeds, then you can't be that tired. All athletes suffer lethargy and it's the good ones who recognise that's all it is and still go out of the door to train (how many times have you not wanted to start and then finished feeling awesome). If the lack of motivation is persistent from day to day (as opposed to single sessions), then that's a different matter altogether. A lack of motivation for several days/weeks continuously is something to take note of, but performance can still help you to gauge whether you are truly tired or simply lethargic. If you're over-reaching, you will be under-performing.

Q: If I feel tired, should I rest?

A: Training hard place stress on your body and when you rest, there is an 'adaptation phase' during which time your body 'bounces back' to a stronger position than previous. Based on that fact, rest and recovery is required. However, to train for a marathon or Ironman Triathlon and presume that you will be rested every day and not tired, is unrealistic if not impossible. Modern day magazine articles have become obsessed with the need to rest if you feel any fatigue but to presume that you should take a day off every time to you feel tired is unrealistic. All athletes train tired, some for a large part of their weekly schedule, that's just the reality of endurance sports. Stress and fatigue is good, so long as adaptation is allowed at some point. If you are train hard for 3 weeks and find yourself in a state of fatigue during the final week, that's ok, so long as you know that week 4 allows you to recover. In a nutshell, training tired is a necessity but at some point the accumulation of fatigue must be noted and a recovery period allowed. The key is judging the time when rest is taken, some people judge it too early - "I feel a bit tired today, so I'll rest' and some people judge it too late - "That's 6 weeks of hard mileage without a rest day, my times are dropping and I'm feeling wasted, but I'll push on regardless".

Q: Does using a heart rate monitor help?

A: The best gauge is YOU. How do you feel when you're training and racing? Aside from that, heart rate and other devices can be useful. There is a belief that heart rate is higher when you are tired, because you have to work harder to maintain the same speed, the truth is actually the opposite. 'Acute fatigue' (short term, with a single session) leads to an increase in heart rate. If you complete a hard training session, your heart rate is likely to increase throughout and be higher at the end compared to the start (that's acute fatigue). However, on a day to day basis, fatigue leads to suppression of heart rate, often preventing it from raising to the level required.

If when you start a training session you find it difficult to raise your heart rate to it's normal level, that is a sign of 'chronic' fatigue. The common issue relating to this is that athletes who use heart rate believe they are therefore not running or cycling fast enough and try even harder, which makes the problem even worse!

Ironman triathletes or ultra runners may experience difficulty in raising their heart rates within an event. Following 10 hours of continuous exercise, you may find it difficult to raise your heart rate to the pre-planned level, this is caused by chronic fatigue and should be anticipated in advance.

Q: Rather than heart rate, should I use pace? or perhaps a cycle power meter?

A: Let's clarify the difference between heart rate, pace and power, which is often misunderstood. HEART RATE provides you with an intensity gauge of how hard your body is working. POWER or PACE are 'output measurements', they are indicators of 'what you are generating'. In simple terms, my heart rate of 180 tells me my body is working hard and as a consequence I am able to GENERATE 300 watts of power or run a 5:30 mile. If you are tired, you may find that your pace or power are lower than normal for any given heart rate. If the heart rate is the same, you are working at the 'required intensity' even though your pace or power are less than normal. IMPORTANT: We stated above, that your heart rate may be lower when you're tired. If this is the case, don't push harder in an attempt to raise it.

This article is all good and well, but I still don't know whether I'm over-reaching

Here are the simple guidelines:

1. Are you performances suffering? This is the sure fire way to test whether you're over-reaching. Have your run and bike times been sub par for 5-7 days consistently. If this is the case, you probably need to back off. Everyone has good and bad days, but a 5-7 day run of 'bad days' is a signal to back off for a short period.

2. Do you think a couple of easy days will resolve the problem? If you think 2 light days or complete days off will make you feel a whole load better, then you're probably just slightly over-reaching but nothing serious. If you think that a day or two of rest might not change things, then you need to pay a bit more attention to what's going on.

3. Lack of motivation for a couple of weeks or more. As with performance, mood will fluctuate and if you feel down on Monday and better on Tuesday, that's ok. If it's persistent for 7-14 days or more, you need to have a fresh approach. A change in training focus, partners or environment is a simple start to stop the slippery slide.

4. Don't always blame training. Go back and read part 1, don't automatically think your training is to blame when so many other things in your life impact upon over-reaching and over-training. It's not training which makes you lethargic, it's the 8 hours of work and the drive home BEFORE TRAINING which is generally the issue!

If you found this article useful, please share as it helps us a great deal. If you didn't, it's probably best if you keep it to yourself.

We offer sports science testing and coaching packages from as little as £40 per month. If you're feeling a little lethargic and need a bit of guidance, we're probably what you need, so email

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