by Team ICG® Master Trainer Jim Karanas
“Today was the hardest recovery ride ever! I complained the entire way and had three different plans to abort and shortcut the ride throughout the route.”
Thatâ€™s an actual comment sent to me by a former student of mine. The rider is dedicated, committed and strong. And the statement raised so much conflict in me, I felt obliged to write another post about the all-too-real dangers of overtraining. (Please see my earlier post, “Endurance Exercise and Heart Damage”.)
Being able to ride long distances makes you feel like a cyclist, regardless of how fast you are. Riding long gives a feeling of accomplishment. Itâ€™s the kind of training that can easily become overtraining because the conditioning increases your ability to endure whatever happens on the bike. Aches, pains, bad weather, lousy traffic are all part of it. You get tough. The tougher you get, the more you ignore the signs that itâ€™s time to let the miles go.
Many of my students have graduated from my classes to the road. Some have gone on to become accomplished cyclists. Several have gone in the direction of riding long distances.
If youâ€™ve never racked up a lot of miles, itâ€™s important to understand that thereâ€™s a “buzz” to it. Each week, you end up riding many more miles than are good for you, but itâ€™s gratifying to have finally reached the point where you can ride that many miles. All the training has culminated in considerable ability; you donâ€™t want to let go of the conditioning. Couple that with the resilience you had to develop and, before you know it, youâ€™re no longer getting stronger. Youâ€™re doing whatever you can to keep yourself from breaking down.
This kind of overtraining syndrome can be hard to discern. The intensity isnâ€™t high, a day or two of rest helps you feel better, and thereâ€™s a mindset that this is what it takes to get strong on the bike. Itâ€™s difficult to know when youâ€™ve crossed the line.
Dr. Philip Maffetone talks about three stages of overtraining. He calls Stage 1 Functional Overtraining. It may include a seemingly minor plateau or a slight regression in training performance. While that may be noticeable in a professional athlete receiving close observation, itâ€™s likely to be overlooked in the situation Iâ€™m describing.
Maffetone refers to Stage 2 as Sympathetic Overtraining. The sympathetic part of the nervous system becomes overactive, which results in a classic overtraining sign — increased resting heart rate. This is discussed by cyclists and indoor-cycling instructors all the time. I can say from experience is that itâ€™s easy to keep training through this.
Stage 3 is Parasympathetic Overtraining. Chronic overtraining has led to more serious hormonal, neurological and mechanical imbalances that parallel adrenal dysfunction. Eventually the sympathetic nervous system becomes exhausted, and most, if not all, hormone levels are significantly reduced, including cortisol. Believe it or not, this is not an uncommon state for many of our students who like to ride long distances. At this point, negative feelings increase, such as depression, anger, fatigue and irritability. Ratings of perceived exertion increase, as well. (Consider the statement at the beginning of this post.) Serious injury is possible, as is an increased likelihood of crashing. Yet getting on the bike for another ride is still within reach, still feels accessible.
My question for discussion is: What can be done with students in this state? I know from experience they donâ€™t want to hear anyone tell them to stop riding so many miles. They know from experience that their conditioning will lose its edge and theyâ€™ll detune. Thatâ€™s hard to accept. The ego is engaged here because theyâ€™ve reached a level of conditioning that makes them proud of their training.
Iâ€™ve often tried to intervene — to little avail — with students going through this. A coach of mine once told me that life is the only real coach when it comes to ego, and that everyone needs to go through significant downturns and trauma to learn life lessons.
Iâ€™m interested in what the rest of you have experienced.