Avoiding Overtraining

The importance of rest and recovery in the pursuit of athletic goals

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

With the hustle culture of ‘rise and grind’ all around us, you’d be forgiven for thinking that training hard all the time is the only way to make progress. Indeed, rest can be seen as a form of weakness. This is quite simply untrue and is more often than not a first-class ticket to burnout, injury and demotivation.

Hard work and consistent training are of course vital, but prioritising rest and recovery will keep your body healthy, your mind revitalised and your passion energised. On a basic level, recovery allows you to maximise the amount of training you can do by allowing the adaptations needed to get stronger. What is more, most of us age-group athletes are balancing full-time jobs, family and social commitments, and so the danger of overtraining can be compounded by general ‘life stress’.

How to know if you are overtraining

It can be a tricky to identify what is ‘regular’ fatigue and when you have fallen into the danger territory of overtraining. Dr. Lotte Koopmans, a pro mountain biker on the Orbea LTD Team and bona fide medical doctor, gave us some guiding questions to ask yourself to avoid overtraining, illness and ultimately to perform better – in your sport and life!

“Ask yourself: Am I sleeping well? How do my legs feel? How do I feel about my training? How do I feel about my next event? How is my appetite? If your answers are ‘badly, ‘heavy’, ‘demotivated’, ‘dreading it’ and ‘poor’, you would probably benefit from re-evaluating your training schedule.”

To avoid overtraining, we recommend you self-monitor in line with the questions above. You can also keep an eye on your resting heart rate – a sudden jump can mean you are fatigued or fighting illness. For anyone wanting to dig deeper, we have more tips on when to rest and when to train here.

How to avoid overtraining

Rest and recovery must be given their slots in your training program. But what does this look like? With so many supplements and recovery items on the market, it can be hard to know where to start. So, let’s begin with the basics.

Take it easy

Going easy on your easy days is part of recovery. It’s the classic mistake amateur athletes make; we go too easy on our hard days and too hard on our easy days – settling into this moderate effort that fatigues us but doesn’t necessarily help us progress. At a bigger picture level, heavy training weeks must be balanced out with recovery weeks. Don’t let your Strava ego ruin your potential!

Food

You can train all you like but if you are only eating junk food, you won’t help your body recover. Sure, there are some athletes that can survive on chicken nuggets alone (hello Usain Bolt!) but for most of us – particularly the older we get – we need to make sure we are eating a wide range of foods to ensure we are getting everything we need to replenish and recuperate. This looks different for different people but the key is to ensure you are fuelled for workouts, you refuel after workouts and your general diet is healthy on balance.

A quick word on nutrition as it can be a minefield! There are so many opinions on diet and nutrition out there – both in general life and for athletes. A PickyBars blog post puts it really well; “the right approach is finding what works for YOU, not your neighbour, training partner, or what the media is telling you to do. That the best plan is the one you can stick to.”

Sleep

The secret weapon in your recovery toolbox is sleep. So often overlooked in the bid to fit more into a day, sleep is absolutely crucial. Many people are keen to buy a gadget or a shortcut to recovery – but there is no getting around it – you must prioritise sleep. As Joe Friel, world renowned endurance sports coach and expert, explains in one of his (many) informative blog posts, “giving up time in bed means a reduction in your adaptive response to training”.

There is increasing evidence that keeping a similar bedtime and wake up time is really important to the quality of our sleep. In his Headspace article, ‘Consistent wake-up time: sleep’s surprising MVP’, sleep scientist Dr. Jason C. Ong, explains that: “An irregular wake-up time, whether that’s on the weekend, or after a bad night’s sleep, confuses your biological clock in just the same way — in fact, sleep doctors sometimes call this ‘social jet lag.’”

As someone trying to implement this, it is really quite hard in practice but the science is there, so on go the efforts to improve sleep patterns!

Good health in sport and life

Going easy, eat well and sleep? Our advice sounds boringly obvious but too often we make the mistake of discounting the importance of these core steps and searching instead for the elusive magic silver bullet that will cure all and have us reach our true potential.

As Coach Matt Dixon says in episode 57 of his Purple Patch podcast – Develop a Recovery Mindset – Do You Have the Courage?: “You cannot buy recovery. Your habits and your mindset create the power of recovery.” This might seem unfortunate – especially if you are time-poor – but it is also empowering that the tools we need are mostly everyday basics that, with some practice, are within our reach.

Ultimately, we all want to do what we can to get to our individual potential but the bottom line is that you can do too much and undercut your hard work. Rejig your training schedule to fit quality sessions into the time you have, balance it with the stress from other areas of your life and make rest and recovery a training imperative. We’ll see you on the start line!