Last month I blogged about my experience with overtraining and some other closely related issues. I identified several contributing factors associated with training stress, recovery, nutrition and fueling, and psychology. I would like to share more about my experience, in part as self-therapy, and in part that others may learn from my mistakes. In this series of posts, I’m going to discuss the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned, starting with training stress and recovery.
Let’s begin with what I did wrong. In short: random, unstructured training, full of gratuitous mileage and relentless intensity, lacking adequate recovery or any semblance of periodization. Day after day I pushed myself in training, thinking that I was achieving that all-important “consistency”. This approach worked for a while, and even delivered some decent results, but it eventually caught up with me.
Compared to some cases of overtraining, I got off with a slap on the wrist. I’m feeling much better after a month of training at reduced volume (-40%) and very low intensity, coupled with changes to my sleep and nutrition (more on that in a later post). But the experience was enough to scare some sense into me. I realized that if I desired any kind of longevity in endurance sports—never mind high performance—I needed to make some changes.
Microcycles, Macro Mistakes
In my research, I stumbled upon a very informative series of posts by Craig Taylor, head coach for the Regional Triathlon Centre in Guelph, Ontario. He draws on some interesting research to illustrate some general principles for structuring a week of training (or a microcycle). He discusses one approach to tracking training stress based on load, monotony and strain. Please bear with me while I introduce these terms.
The load generated by a training session is the product of the duration in minutes and the RPE, a subjective rating of exercise intensity on a 10 point scale. I like this metric because it’s a relatively simple way to account for intensity, a critical factor that I failed to capture by tracking training volume alone.
Load = (Duration in minutes) × RPE
Monotony is a measure of the degree of difference in day-to-day training load. Mathematically, it’s given by the average daily load over some period (e.g. a week) divided by the standard deviation of the load. For example, training with the same load every day leads to very high monotony.
Finally, strain is the product of the monotony and the total load over some period.
Strain = Monotony × Total Load
Enough math! Let’s use this approach to analyze a fairly typical training week in November that exemplifies many of my mistakes. Training sessions, along with duration, RPE and load are shown in the table below.
First of all, notice that the monotony is very high. In other words, I was training at more or less the same load every day. You can easily see this in the graph below showing daily training load (red). For argument’s sake, let’s assume that this was an appropriate load (it wasn’t). Now consider a hypothetical “better training” week with the same total load, but much lower monotony (blue).
You can tell just by looking at the graph that the “better training” week has lower monotony, but crunching the numbers shows just how big the differences are. Compared to my training, the “better training” week has a third the monotony and, therefore, a third the strain.
So why is high monotony training undesirable? Let’s assume that athletic performance is a function of training load: higher load leads to more training adaptation resulting in increased performance (to a point). For a given training load, higher monotony results in higher strain. And it’s well-established that high monotony and strain are associated with increased incidence of injury and illness, and susceptibility to overtraining syndrome (read more here, here and here).
Overtraining never has a single cause. But I am convinced that super high monotony training played a major part in my case. Notice that there’s isn’t a single morning or afternoon off in the sample training week. In fact, I only took three days completely off swimming, biking and running in 2012. I was trying to cram too many high load sessions into a week: a couple hard runs, a long run, a couple hard rides, a long ride and a few hard swims. The result was that I ended up training fairly hard every day and never fully recovering between sessions, leading to underperformance and eventually to overtraining. A better approach is to focus on really nailing a few key sessions a week and recovering adequately in between.
To paraphrase Craig Taylor, the basic idea is to train with the highest sustainable, repeatable load, while minimizing monotony. Or even more succinctly, train hard on hard days, and easy on easy days.
Besides monotony, there are evidently some other problems with my training week. Like, why was I running and cycling before every swim? Because I had chronic early morning insomnia (another overtraining warning sign) and pre-swim workouts seemed like a good way kill time before the pool opened at 6:30 AM. Crazy, huh?
A single training week like the one above would not have been a problem. But consider the context; it was sandwiched between several other virtually identical weeks following a demanding race season and an even more demanding final year of university. Why was I training 100 hours a month in the late fall, a time that many triathletes ease off, focus on a single sport or cross-train? More on that some other time.