“You might as well book a beach vacation in February.”
Well, I like beaches. Sort of. I like running on them.
Except I wouldn’t want to take a beach vacation in February! That’s the height of race season. And yet, last August I was on the phone with one of my coaches, who was telling me I’d do better to book my plane ticket to Hawaii, instead of Anchorage.
I’d been in the middle of telling him how good I was feeling: super strong in every workout, time trial results were great, recovering fully in between workouts, able to add additional volume without breaking down… I thought I was delivering great news.
He disagreed. He thought I was overtrained.
“Overtraining syndrome” is exactly what it sounds like: I had trained too much, too hard, and/or without enough rest. Though I was feeling great at the time, my coach thought it likely I would soon start to feel broken down, unable to recover, and exhausted. When an athlete is overtrained in the fall, there’s very little chance of recovery in time for race season. Hence the beach vacation in February.
My first mistake had been increasing my summer training volume intentionally while accidentally increasing my training pace. When I came to Bend, OR last June to train, I was working with a group for the first time in a couple years. After training alone for so long, I found it hard to pace my workouts with a group. I did almost every “easy” workout just a tiny bit too hard.
That’s a classic mistake. I would go so far as to say most endurance athletes are training too hard. Easy pace is really, really easy. One or two workouts a month done a bit too hard won’t kill us, but what I was doing was bad news. Worse, I was training too hard while also maintaining the highest training volume I’d ever attempted for the summer period. By the end of August, I felt almost superhuman. (Great. But next year I want to feel superhuman in February.)
My next mistake was to stay optimistic after talking with my coach. I wanted to believe that my training had been perfect, and that I was simply on track for a totally stellar season. I continued with my scheduled training plan through the middle of September, when training volume started to decrease and intensity sessions began to pick up.
For the last couple weeks of September, I thought my body was simply tired from the sudden increase in the number and difficulty of my interval workouts. I thought the reason I wasn’t sleeping well was simply excitement about all the great things happening in my waking hours. I chalked up a disappointing time trial result to the fact that I had used a friend’s rollerskis instead of my own.
But the most disturbing symptom was a lack of “gears.” I had only two: easy and hard. A well-trained competitive endurance athlete has a variety of gears. That is to say, not all hard efforts feel the same. And we can change gears mid-race or mid-workout in order to push through difficult terrain or recover a bit even in the middle of a race. A lack of gears, or feeling “flat”, is one of the most obvious indications of overtraining.
By mid-October, I came to my senses, finally seeing what my coach had seen two months previously.
“I think I’m overtrained.”
Yep, neither of my coaches were surprised.
“Take time off. Take it now, and don’t do anything at all.”
It was a ski coach’s way of pressing the Panic Button.
So I did. I took 8 days completely off in the middle of October. Bend’s first snowstorm of the year arrived at the end of my rest block, just as I was starting to go a little stir-crazy. My first “workout” was playing in the snow with friends and a dog.
The first test came in the form of an easy set of intervals. 3×8 minutes at L3, or “sub-threshold.” Easy intervals. Half the length I would normally have done. We were testing to see if I had any gears, without causing any real breakdown that would require recovery.
And… I did have gears. I felt pretty good, actually. I reported to my coaches, and cautiously we began planning the next 6 weeks of training, leading up to the first races on my schedule, the Super Tour Opener at West Yellowstone.
We cut my volume to about 2/3 of what had been on the original schedule, which included reducing the length and number of repetitions for all my intensity workouts. I was devastated, knowing I wasn’t going to be in anywhere near the kind of shape I’d anticipated back in August.
Nevertheless, I stuck to the new plan, knowing that at this point I would only dig myself a deeper hole by adding volume. I had no chance of being on the form I had hoped for. All we could do was damage control.
The first week of December approached, and the Yellowstone Races loomed. I felt vastly unprepared. Two days before I was supposed to travel to Idaho, I called it off, feeling that it would do nothing good for my body or mind to race when I felt so sub-par. It was an upsetting decision. No one likes to miss the first race of the season.
I did three local races instead, reducing travel time and easing into the season more gently. At the end of December I headed to Alaska for Nationals as scheduled, and the rest of the season so far has gone according to plan.
But it hasn’t been the stellar breakout season I dreamed of last summer. I fell victim to a very common fallacy among athletes: The more determined I am to get better/faster/stronger, the harder I will work and the more I will train, and surely all my dreams will come true. It’s not that we’re that far off base, but as I was trying to completely optimize my training and maximize what I could get out of my body, just being a little bit off base had magnified effects.
1) I got really lucky. This season hasn’t totally stunk.
We really thought it was over before it had begun. But the first couple races were solid, then the next, until I had a dozen “solid” races under my belt. Even so, we thought there was a good chance I would have a physical collapse at some point throughout the season (and there’s still time for that to happen, so cross your fingers…). My own understanding of myself as an athlete, coupled with my coaches’ knowledge and quick action, saved me from the worst of my overtaining. Considering where I was in October, I’m very happy with how the season has gone.
2) That said, results have been disappointing compared to what I believed they could have been, had I not messed up last summer and fall.
Hindsight is always 20/20, right? And wouldn’t we all like to believe we could have performed better had X, Y, and Z circumstances been different? There’s not much point in speculating about what could have been, but still, it’s motivating to think that I could race better (perhaps significantly so) next year if I don’t make the same mistakes as this year.
3) Next year I need to train easier. And possibly less.
It’s still too early to start writing next summer’s training plan, but here are three things I know for sure I’m going to do differently:
- Not get Lyme Disease in the spring
- Do every distance workout easy enough
- Not partially tear my achilles tendon in June
Sound like a plan? Yeah, I thought so 🙂
So what do you think? Have you experienced overtraining syndrome? Chances are if you set your own training plan, train alone, train in a group, or train under just about any circumstance, you do some of your workouts too hard. One of the keys to successful endurance training is knowing when to go easy, when to go hard, and just how hard to go. It’s a finely tuned dance.
In my experience as both a competitive athlete and a coach, I have found that it’s often much easier to spot patterns in someone else’s training than in my own. A good coach is an invaluable resource- mine have saved me from myself on more than one occasion!
If you have questions about your own training paces, workouts, interval sessions, recovery, how to build volume, or anything else, leave me a comment or send me a message below. I’d love to hear from you.