Overtraining or under-recovery?
Overtraining or under-recovery?
…or both? …or something else?
Last season was one of the most frustrating I’ve ever had. I was getting faster and faster, but just as the summer race season got underway, everything went somewhat downhill. I was unable to train properly, with legs that felt sore even after plenty of rest, and unable to concentrate properly at the office, so tired that all motivation seemed to have disappeared.
The question is; what was causing this tiredness?
Most weeks I was training 12-14 times, with some weeks reaching about 20 hours of rowing and strength training. Unfortunately, in the elite rowing world, that’s nothing special. I was competing against full-time athletes currently in the squad, university rowers doing as little work as possible¹ and a few full-time athletes funding their training with some coaching, tutoring or bar work. The thing is, alongside my training, I was also working more than 30 hours per week at an engineering consultancy, and then there’s around 10 hours of commuting on top of that.
Now obviously nobody said it was going to be easy, but I sometimes wonder if I was making it unnecessarily hard!
Training, Periodisation and Recovery
Anyway, back to the original question: why was I so tired?
Training for any endurance sport doesn’t just entail doing the same thing every day, the best way to improve fitness is to repeatedly push yourself, hard, and then back off to let your body recover. This happens both day-to-day (ie. you space out your high-intensity days), but also over longer cycles of a few weeks – the training load and intensity will gradually ramp up until just before breaking point, and then drop back down to allow you to recover.
If you don’t get this quite right, then your body will never recover between intense periods, and instead of a gradual increase in performance, you’ll stop improving or even get slower. Leaving this unchecked for too long leads to what is referred to as overtraining syndrome: you’ll be tired, sore, restless during sleep, constantly getting ill and a whole host of other symptoms. In short, you’ve pushed it too hard and your body’s telling you to stop.
The problem is that many athletes, myself included, won’t back off before it’s too late. There’s a compulsive desire to go out and train – after all, easing off will give your competitors the edge… right?
Illness and Resting Heart Rate
Up until this year, I’d been aware of the dangers of overtraining – even my masters engineering project aimed to assess training load – but I’d managed to avoid any serious issues. I would have said that I was good at listening to my body and backing off when needed. I was wrong – the urge to train got the upper hand.
I keep fairly detailed training logs and monitor my resting heart rate and weight religiously, so in retrospect it’s relatively easy to go back and pinpoint what happened…
It seems that everything started back in late January. Looking at the green curve on the chart below (resting heart rate), you can see a spike when I was ill with a virus. In fact you can see that it seemed as though my heart rate had dropped back to normal (~40bpm) by early February. The thing is, I was trying to get back into training too early – at the end of January I had several times when I rushed back into training and then was ill again the following day.
Regardless, I did resume full-on training, and what happens next on the graph is rather interesting. Up until the end of February, my heart rate was back in a normal range, but from then on, it seems my resting heart rate actually dropped to a lower level (~37bpm). Rather than being suspicious of this, I just took it to mean that I was fitter. In retrospect, I don’t think that this was the case – I think a combination of factors were leading to my body ‘shutting down’.
Diet & Weight Loss
The blue (and red) lines on the graph detail another contributing factor – as a lightweight rower, I have to weigh-in for races at 70kg. If you look carefully, you’ll see that I started the year at about 75.5kg, and dropped down to just over 70kg for the rowing trials in April. During that period, I was training on a calorie deficit of about 400kcal per day. That might not sound like much but believe me, it’s not that much fun.
While dieting, it’s a tricky game to get your nutrition right. You need the right balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein, but you also have to think about timing meals carefully around training and how to survive at work when you feel hungry all the time!
Ultimately, I don’t know whether my nutrition was right. I’m not an expert, and have had almost no guidance from experts², partly as I haven’t needed to drop as much weight in the past. Additionally, as others will no doubt attest, I wasn’t exactly fat at 75.5kg, so it’s anyone’s guess how little body fat I had left at 70kg (and you do need some body fat!).
There’s also an interesting observation from the graph that resting heart rate is very strongly correlated with body mass. I do not know the exact reasons for this (perhaps more muscle mass = more blood needs to be pumped = higher RHR?), but it is interesting nonetheless. Perhaps someone with more knowledge in the subject can enlighten me..?
Illness and diet are obviously elements that might contribute to overtraining (or more to its counterpart – under-recovery), but extra stress isn’t going to help either. I’m not the most relaxed person at the best of times, but leading up to the trials in April, I was stressed at work and in my personal life too. Not ideal.
Symptoms in Training
So with all of these factors going against me, naturally I just carried on with the training regardless. However, I was becoming a bit concerned. I wasn’t recovering properly between sessions, and then I started to notice my heart rate during training – I couldn’t ‘get it up’. I was finding that I could go out in the boat and be unable to push my heart rate up to its normal levels. It was almost as if my heart was a bit lethargic; a little voice saying, “must you… I’m tired!”.
After ignoring these signs for a couple of months, I raced at GB trials in April. I hadn’t been feeling quite right in the run-up to the trials, where despite a big “taper” (reducing training load in the run-up to an event), I was still fatigued. However, I was managing some good times in training, and when it comes to an event that you train for all year; it’s hard to say no.
Due to the weather forecast, the format of the trials changed and involved racing three times in one day. To add to this, there was a massive headwind to make everything just that little bit harder. I wasn’t too worried initially, but after the first race I was struggling to recover for the semi-finals. I then under-performed in my semi-final, feeling that I had no energy left at all. In fact, between the semi-final and final, I fell asleep in my car… not a good sign!
Needless to say, the final didn’t go well (I was last). More worrying was how I felt the following week. I had planned to return to work on the Tuesday (after 2 days to recover), but ended up having to wait two more days before I felt up to it. Even then, I found myself completely wiped out and unable to concentrate properly. Over the couple of weeks, I found that my energy wasn’t really returning, and attempts to do anything more than very light exercise resulted in feeling awful the following day.
The Recovery Path
After a nearly three weeks, I decided it was probably time to do something and booked myself in to see a doctor. The doctor was able to refer me to a specialist sports doctor, and after several blood tests, ECGs and echocardiogram, the conclusion was that there was nothing obviously wrong (beyond a benign partial right bundle branch block that subsequently disappeared!).
The conclusion really came when analysing my training diary – the viral ‘episode’ back in January seemed to be the starting point. As such, the diagnosis ended up being that I was suffering from post-viral fatigue… from a virus that I had three months beforehand! The cure, unfortunately, was rest. I could start bringing back in some training, but short sessions < 1hr, and capped at a very modest heart rate of 130bpm.
I followed this advice and thankfully started to see improvements in my energy levels over the subsequent weeks. By mid-June (nearly two months after trials) I was able to bring the training back up to normal (albeit conservative) levels. I managed to pull together a last-minute entry for Henley Regatta, and also prove to the selectors that I was still on track to race at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships. However, there was a great deal that I missed out on during the season, and it took months to regain my fitness.
What is overtraining?
In this article, I’ve written at length about overtraining syndrome, but then said that my own diagnosis was that of post-viral fatigue. Surely that isn’t very coherent? Actually, I think I would include post-viral fatigue as a result of overtraining in athletes. Ultimately, I ended up with post-viral fatigue because I failed to reduce my training in light of illness; I was over-training given the circumstances.
How can I avoid overtraining?
Easily said, but much harder to implement in practice: listen to your body. Largely because I ignored many of these signs last year, I can now highlight a few:
- If you don’t feel well enough to train, don’t. It is easy to worry that you’re missing out, but the rest will do you much more good than the extra training.
- If you see that your heart rate is unusually low during training, ask yourself why. It’s possible that your body is trying to tell you something.
- Keep a careful eye on your diet (more below).
- Look for any changes in your mood, weight and resting heart rate that might indicate something’s not right. If you catch yourself before becoming increasingly fatigued then it’ll be easy to recover.
In a weight-category sport, it’s always going to be difficult to manage nutrition, and the more time you can spend on this the better. After talking to my doctor and a nutritionist, I came away with a couple of points that are quite interesting and worth investigating.
- Check that you’re eating enough protein. Particularly while dieting; it’s important to keep protein levels up to help the body recover from training. Enough protein for me, given a daily intake of about 4000kcal, is the best part of 200g. It’s not trivial to consume this much – 200g is what you’d find in five chicken breasts. Dairy can form a good part of this, but meats, beans, nuts and seeds are also invaluable.
- Get your vitamin D levels checked. A surprising number of people (even athletes who spend a good amount of time outdoors) have lower-than-ideal vitamin D levels. If you do find you need more, then oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals are a good source. If you find you’re really deficient, then supplements might be the way forward.
¹ This isn’t really fair, but I certainly did the least work possible!
² I have since had some nutritional guidance.