About once every month or so I receive an email from an athlete asking if overtraining may be the cause of his or her current condition that is nearly always marked by lingering fatigue. When after a few days of being more tired than usual most athletes assume a day or two of reduced training will correct the situation—after they complete the current block of scheduled workouts.
They think it’s normal to feel extremely tired when training hard. And they are right. The problem is that many continue to deny their bodies the needed rest and recovery and so press on despite not only fatigue but also greatly reduced performance. After continuing with yet more training sessions they finally decide to take a few days of reduced training stress to recover. Only now they can’t. The fatigue doesn't go away. The long slump is just beginning.
Yesterday I received one of those emails again. It was a rather long one in which the athlete described what led to his condition. Here’s a brief portion that summarizes the main points (the athlete will remain anaonymous):
I've trained all year very consistently, averaging around 15 hours a week. For the last 8 weeks or so, I've been really suffering, I hate to admit it, but I fear I've pushed hard, not had adequate recovery, and might be overtrained. I've self-coached, and built my own training plan, which I've not really followed too carefully, usually doing more than planned, because I feel okay.
Looking back through my training diary, words like 'exhausted', 'tired', 'fatigue' are far more common than 'felt great' or 'strong'. My friends and family have noticed a huge change too, I'm always grumpy, lethargic, and have little enthusiasm for anything.
His bottom-line question was, “Am I overtrained?” and he offered to let me look at his diary at TrainingPeaks to see what I thought. Unfortunately, you can’t really tell by looking at the numbers from workouts if an athlete is overtrained or not. He’d already studied his diary and come up with the best recorded evidence when he notes the words “exhausted”, “tired”, and “fatigue” appearing far more frequently than “felt great” and “strong.” Then he tops that off by noting that he is often grumpy, lethargic, and unenthusiastic. This is a textbook description of overtraining.
So is he overtrained? It certainly sounds like it, but I can’t really say for sure. There’s also the chance that he’s contracted a disease that shares many of the symptoms of overtraining such as chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, or mononucleosis. I doubt if his family doctor can draw the conclusion that he is overtrained, but he or she can confirm or eliminate other such diseases. So that’s the route I suggested he take.
The bottom line for you here is that overtraining is not something to be taken lightly. I know of a pro athlete whose extremely successful career was ended by overtraining. The condition impaired not only his physical performance but also his motivation to excel. He retired within two years of experiencing this.
What’s the best way to avoid overtraining? The athlete quoted above gives the answer. You should see weekly references in your diary to being strong and feeling great in workouts. If you see words describing fatigue more often then you are pushing too hard. Back off. You need more rest and recovery than you are currently getting.