When you first start cycling seriously, it can be difficult to overcome the inertia of inactivity and actually get yourself to exercise.
However, once your body and brain start enjoying the many benefits of consistent exercise, your cycling workouts might actually become one of your favorite parts of the day.
Many cyclists find that the more they ride, the more they want to. However, for all the health benefits of cycling, there are also limits.
Overtraining syndrome is a real consequence of doing too much exercise with too little recovery for your body. Not knowing how to recover from overtraining syndrome (or prevent it in the first place) could do real damage to your long-term health and performance.
In this article, we’ll discuss the signs of overtraining syndrome to help you recognize and recover from it. We’ll be covering:
- What Is Overtraining Syndrome?
- Am I Overtraining?
- How Does Overtraining Syndrome Occur?
- How to Recover From Overtraining Syndrome
Ready for the lowdown of signs of overtraining?
Let’s jump in!
What Is Overtraining Syndrome?
In order to make positive adaptations in your fitness to your training, you have to apply the principle of progressive overload.
Progressive overload involves gradually increasing the volume and intensity of your cycling workout in a way that exceeds the current capacity of your muscles, cardiovascular system, and metabolic system.
Your workouts serve as stresses to your body, and these stresses signal your various physiological systems to adapt, resulting in improvements to fitness over time.
However, while some amount of “overreaching” or “overloading” with progressive overload is necessary to induce increases in your aerobic fitness and muscular strength, being too aggressive with the overload can result in overtraining syndrome.
What does this really mean in practice, and what are the signs of overtraining?
Being overly aggressive with your overload can involve increasing your training volume or intensity too quickly, training too frequently, and/or not putting enough emphasis on rest and recovery during and after your workouts.
Temporary overtraining – also described as “functional overreaching” – can occur after high-volume training weeks or difficult, high-intensity races. If you give your body adequate rest and recovery and a break from training for a few days, you should return to a stable, recovered state.
However, when overtraining persists, you can progress to “non-functional overreaching”, which is marked by declines in performance and health.
If you continue to train without adequate rest and recovery, you will deepen the deficit between your workload and your recovery, allowing overtraining to persist.
When non-functional overreaching extends beyond two months, it becomes “overtraining syndrome” – a state of chronic overtraining.
Am I Overtraining?
So, how can you tell if you are overtraining?
Overtraining syndrome is a condition marked by the presence of various physical and mental symptoms, some or all of which may affect you at different points.
According to the Hospital of Special Surgery, there are three different categories assigned to signs of overtraining syndrome: training-related signs, lifestyle-related signs, and health-related signs of overtraining.
Examples of common signs and symptoms of overtraining include:
- Training-related signs: Unusual muscle soreness, heavy legs, poor recovery, performance declines, lack of motivation to train.
- Lifestyle-related signs: Prolonged general fatigue, sluggishness, low energy, appetite changes, hormonal imbalances, difficulty sleeping, irritability, or other mood changes.
- Health-related signs: Poor immunity, missed menstrual periods, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, constipation, or diarrhea.
Before full-blown overtraining syndrome occurs, there are usually earlier signs that you’re overreaching, namely difficulty recovering between workouts, excessive fatigue, and unusually sore muscles.
How Does Overtraining Syndrome Occur?
Many people assume that overtraining is always due to workouts that are either too frequent or too intense.
While this is true to some degree, overtraining is really more of a product of your training stress exceeding your body’s ability to adapt and recover from that stress.
This can result in central fatigue and changes in glutathione, glycogen, and hormones required for optimal athletic performance and recovery.
It’s important to note that your training volume and intensity have to be considered in the overall context of your life when assessing whether you’re overtraining.
Overtraining syndrome occurs when the volume and intensity of your training exceed what your body can handle in the context of all the other stressors and factors going on in your life.
There’s no hard and fast rule here. Everybody’s overtraining threshold is different, and can vary with time depending on other events in your life and your changing fitness level.
If you have other stressors, such as work, moving house, a new baby, or caring for a frail parent, your body might not be able to tolerate as much training while still recovering as quickly or effectively.
How to Recover From Overtraining Syndrome
The sooner you can identify the fact that you are overtraining and take immediate steps towards cutting back or stopping your training and increasing your recovery, the better off you’ll be in terms of how long it will take to recover from overtraining syndrome.
Much like trying to scale an avalanche that is careening down the side of a mountain at top speeds, you can’t counter overtraining by continuing to train just as intensely in the hope that your body will catch up and adapt to your workouts.
Unfortunately, the only way to truly recover from overtraining syndrome is to rest.
This typically involves a near cessation of all exercise training, with the potential ability to continue low-intensity aerobic workouts like zone 2 cycling.
However, these workouts should be short (a good rule of thumb is less than 60% of your usual training volume), and you should take additional complete rest days per week.
It typically takes 4-12 weeks to recover from overtraining syndrome.
Here are some tips for recovering from overtraining syndrome:
- Stop all vigorous exercise training with the exception of active recovery workouts such as short, easy rides, gentle walks, easy swimming, yoga, and mobility work like foam rolling.
- Focus on recovery modalities such as massage and stretching.
- Get extra sleep, aiming for at least 8 to 10 hours per night.
- Increase your caloric intake by at least 10% over your daily caloric expenditure.
- Get enough protein, aiming for at least 1.2-2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
- Eat antioxidant-rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables, dark berries, cruciferous vegetables, green tea, pomegranates, and ginger.
- Eat food high in omega-3 fatty acids, which act as natural anti-inflammatories. Examples include flax seeds and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna.
- Reduce sources of stress as much as possible, and implement stress-relief techniques such as mindfulness meditation, breathwork, journaling, and napping.
- Consider working with the coach or following a training plan when you are able to resume training to prevent overtraining from occurring again.
If you have been in the stages of non-functional overreaching and feel like you are at risk of overtraining syndrome, it’s vital to scale back your training as soon as possible, or even take a complete rest.
Although can be frustrating to have to take steps backward during a build phase of training, it’s always worth it to respond to signs of overtraining by resting rather than pushing through.
Continuing to stress your body with more exercise will just dig you further into a hole that you will eventually need to climb out of, should you want to return to your previous levels of performance.
If you’re trying to recover from overtraining syndrome, remember that patience is key, and listening to your body throughout the recovery process will be the most effective way to guide you back to health.
The more you can do to reduce any source of stress in your body, the better able your body will be to have the resources and environment it needs to get back to optimal performance.