Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Overreaching on Purpose: When Too Much Is Just Enough

(Courtesy of Active.com, Triathlete Magazine and written by Matt Fitzgerald)

Simon says: - A very interesting article for those of you who think I've gone bonkers and am heading into the realms of overtraining and injury. You might be right but this explains the logic of it. I've added my thoughts at the bottom.

You've heard of overtraining. Overtraining can be defined as a decline in athletic performance caused by subjecting the body to more training stress than it can properly adapt to in a given period of time.

In extreme cases, overtraining becomes overtraining syndrome, a severe disorder of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems that requires many weeks of rest to fully recover from.

Even moderate cases of overtraining can seriously disrupt the training process and thus must be scrupulously avoided. There is, however, a sort of gray zone between training progressively, well within one's adaptive limits, and overtraining—a middle zone that is well worth visiting on rare occasions in the training process.

I'm talking about overreaching, which is a short period of training stress that slightly exceeds the body's adaptive limits but is terminated before it causes the performance decline associated with overtraining.

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of overreaching in endurance sports training. Some coaches actually use the word "overreaching" as a synonym for "overtraining." Others say that you are overreaching anytime you are training hard enough to generate fatigue and a need for recovery.

My definition of overreaching splits the difference. I say you are overreaching when you are training hard enough so that, after seven to 10 days, your performance begins to decline due to accumulating fatigue. But the art of overreaching lies in cutting back your training as soon as you reach that threshold of performance decline in order to give your body a chance to adapt to all of that hard work.

Why Overreach?
What is the rationale for overreaching? It certainly is not a necessary feature of triathlon training. You can get fit enough to race well by merely training progressively—that is, by increasing your training load very slightly from week to week for many weeks, with the occasional reduced-training recovery period thrown in. But effective use of overreaching will raise your fitness to even higher levels.

The greater the amount of specific training you do without exceeding your body's limits, the fitter you will become. Overreaching is simply a way to pack a little extra training into your program through controlled risk-taking. That's why it is widely practiced by elite endurance athletes.

To gain a better understanding of the rationale for overreaching, it is helpful to consider the difference between acute and chronic training stimuli. An acute training stimulus is a single workout that is challenging enough to stimulate improved fitness. A chronic training stimulus is a sequence of workouts in which perhaps no single workout tests your limits, but the sum of them does because your burden of fatigue increases as you go.

Endurance training always relies more on chronic than acute training stimuli because it's the total volume of training that has the greatest effect on fitness. Volume is necessarily limited when individual workouts are extremely challenging.

Strength athletes are often heard bellowing about the need to give 100 percent in every workout and to leave the gym crawling and trailing vomit. Endurance athletes can't do that. Rather, they need to train in a way that gradually reduces them to crawling at the end of each week or training block.

Overreaching is simply a training strategy that puts even more emphasis than normal on chronic versus acute training stimuli. There are hard individual workouts, to be sure, but the real challenge comes from the sheer volume of training that an athlete takes on.

Not for Beginners
Because of their genetic gifts and experience, elite athletes are able to make more liberal use of overreaching than you or I could without risking serious injury. A pro might overreach for three straight weeks on two separate occasions during focused training for a major competition.

Everyday athletes like us should begin with just one week of overreaching in the final weeks of preparation for an upcoming race. If that goes well, you may advance to two and eventually three or four non-consecutive weeks of overreaching when training for future events.

Beginners should not even attempt to overreach. A novice triathlete's body simply isn't resilient enough to positively adapt to a full week of training without any recovery opportunities. If you have less than two years of consistent endurance training experience behind you, it is best that you never go more than three our four days without training lightly enough to fully recover from your most recent batch of hard workouts. Wait another season or two before you try to overreach.

Planning to Overreach
To plan a week of overreaching, simply sketch out a week of workouts that represents the most total training you think you can absorb in seven days without becoming injured or experiencing a severe decline in performance before the week is through. I find that the safest and most effective way to plan an overreaching week is to retain all of the hard training sessions you normally do in a week and replace any and all light sessions with moderate ones.

In other words, when overreaching you need not make your hard sessions any harder than normal—although one or two of them should be a bit more challenging than the previous week's key sessions. What transforms the week from a normal progressive training week into an overreaching week—in a manner that limits risk—is reducing the amount of recovery you are able to enjoy between hard sessions by replacing light days and rest days with moderate workout days.

Overreaching periods should only be done in the latter weeks of training for a peak race, when you are already fairly fit.

Overreaching Aids
Supporting the post-workout recovery process with every available means is always important, but it's never more important than during periods of overreaching, when the most effective recovery method—rest—is taken away. The most effective methods that remain are sleep, massage, stress management and good nutrition with some supplementation if necessary.

Sleep is critical to the recovery process. The more you sleep, the more training you can handle. Runner Constantina Dita-Tomescu of Romania reportedly slept 13 hours a night while training for the 2008 Women's Olympic Marathon, which she won.

In an interview with the Boulder Daily Camera, her coach and husband, Valeriu Tomescu, said, "You want my advice, for the athlete and the coach? Don't care as much about your training as you care about your recovery. Why is that? Because if your recovery is good, then your training will be good. Always."

It is very unlikely that you need 13 hours of sleep a night or could even allot that much time to sleeping if you did. But you should at least make sure you're getting enough sleep during overreaching periods to be well-rested for your workouts.

A new review of scientific research on the effects of sports massage on muscle recovery and subsequent muscle performance, authored by researchers at The Ohio State University, was published recently in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. They analyzed the results of 27 past studies. While as a group they provided little support for the proposed benefits of massage, the authors of the review found that the 10 studies using the preferred randomized controlled design yielded evidence of "moderate" benefits.

Sports massage is one of those things that is very difficult to study properly. To really do the job you need to collect data from a large number of athletes in heavy training over a long period of time, and that just hasn't happened yet.

My hunch is that the effects of massage therapy are numerous but subtle, in some cases almost intangible, and as such they are very difficult for the scientist to recognize even though these effects may well hold the potential to make a worth-the-money difference in helping athletes recover faster, train harder and avoid injury.

One thing is certain: Athletes who get regular massage treatments swear by their benefits. Indeed, Tim DeBoom recently stated that his long-time massage therapist made a significant contribution to his two Ironman World Championship wins.

Stress Management
There are many different types of stressors, ranging from exercise to deadline pressure at work, that affect the body in similar ways. Thus, the more stress you experience outside of exercise, the less exercise your body can handle without breaking down.

Managing your general life stress is an effective way to increase the amount of training your body can absorb. Proven ways to manage stress include spending time with friends, laughter, meditation, avoiding conflict with others (by practicing good communication skills), minimizing commuting time, sex, spending time on a favorite hobby, avoiding overworking and enjoying one or two alcoholic drinks in the evening.

Nutrition and Supplementation
Nutrition provides all of the raw materials that the body uses in recovery processes. Protein from animal foods rebuilds damaged muscle fibers, antioxidants from fruits and vegetables limit post-exercise muscle damage caused by free radicals, omega-3 fats from fish control inflammation, and so forth.

To maximize recovery, maintain a well-balanced diet, be sure you're getting enough total calories each day, and never fail to consume carbs, protein and fluids within the first hour after exercise.

Certain supplements may also promote recovery. For example, Olympian Laura Bennett uses Optygen, a recovery drink rich in the amino acid glutamine, which overtrained athletes lack. Terenzo Bozzone, the 2008 Ironman 70.3 world champion, uses a mixture or herbal and fungal extracts called ARX.

"I started using it eight weeks before Clearwater and it helped tremendously," he says. "I was waking up in the morning and thinking, 'Gee, maybe I didn't go hard enough yesterday, because my legs aren't that sore!'"

Listen to Your Body
In a well-planned and executed period of overreaching, you should experience a gradually increasing level of fatigue from day to day. On the last day of the designated period, you should feel sluggish from the very beginning of the planned workout but still strong enough to complete it without undue suffering.

Olympic marathon runner Brian Sell summed it up in a recent interview in which he described his own experience with overreaching as "a kind of calloused, dull feeling...where I never feel great but I never feel like just stopping and walking either."

If you find yourself in the middle of an overreaching period and feeling that you do need to stop and walk, or that an injury is developing, abandon the plan and take it easy for a few days. Chalk it up to experience and apply the lesson learned to your next overreaching period by making it a little shorter and/or lighter, beginning it in a more rested state or waiting until you are fitter before attempting it.

Simon says: - This certainly all makes sense however I seem to be on a training plan that ignores the need for a recovery period but rather allows the body to decline in terms of performance only for it to bounce back on its own to a new level. The fascinating thing about the prolonged overreaching plan I'm on is never knowing when a session is going to be surprisingly strong and relatively "easy" or a complete struggle and miseryfest - honestly you never know once the deep fatigue has set in.

Burnout and injury are two worrying factors but provided you have a strong enough goal, a strong enough mind and buy into the plan's demand that you never miss a workout for any reason other than injury or serious family issues then burnout is not an issue. (So far the only sessions I've missed are extra ones that I've added to the actual plan).

Injury is another matter and I reiterate what this article says about having many years of training under your belt before you contemplate this type of "risky" training strategy. I have the years and the fitness I think but most importantly I have the experience to sense an injury or potential injury coming on and adapt accordingly.

Regarding the overreaching aids - I never get the time for massage and stress is something I try to shy away from.

Sleep and nutrition are without doubt the two things that I consider super important.

I am a vegetarian and I reckon I eat just about the healthiest and most balanced diet of anyone I know (mainly thanks to Shilpa's amazing skills as a chef). This is especially true from January through March where I give up drinking and this year I've given up pizzas, cakes, cookies, chips, sweets, ice-cream (amazing but true), french fries and come February I'll be giving up all types of caffeine until race morning. I really focus heavily on drinking water nonstop throughout the day too, that is often a missed discipline by many people.

I score myself with marks out of 10 each day for all of the above issues plus overeating, eating too late etc... and record an average score at the end of each week.

As for sleep, this is probably the MOST IMPORTANT thing and the one I'm failing to achieve at the moment. I also score myself out of 10 each day for this and the results are not encouraging but they are there and there's no place to hide so hopefully by doing this scoring exercise I will shame myself into getting more sleep.

Let's be honest, as I've taken the overreaching philosophy to the next level with extended periods of many weeks at a time so the only real opportunity to "catch up" on recovery is during sleep where the body adapts more rapidly than during rest time when awake.

The final little piece to the puzzle I reckon is the scheduling of the workouts. On the whole most similar sessions are kept 24-36hrs apart i.e. running sessions will never be closer together than 24hrs.

All good so far; and yes I am permanently tired but hey I can rest on March 15th.

A big test this weekend - the usual 186k/9k ride/run brick on Saturday followed by Pacesetters 30k "hillathon" run on Sunday. I did an identical weekend this time last year so it will be interesting to see what happens to me this year in terms of physically, mentally and time-wise - should be interesting - stay tuned.


Denis Oakley said...

I was thinking about this yesterday. I bumped into a friend who I hadn't seen for a while; he looked absolutely shit due to the amount of training he was doing.

Now looking at someone for 2 minutes is not a great diagnostic tool. But how do you tell the difference between over reach and over training. Over training is by definition something that you don't set out to do. It's usually something that you realise after you've bumped.

It's one of the advantages of a coach. Partners struggle to find the right balance between - your pushing too hard and being overly supportive.

Self knowledge is an issue given the obsessive compulsive nature of many triathletes. Is over reach something you planned months ago? or is it a last desperation burst to get to that PB?

In the end I think experience lets you know what you can do and what you can't. With 6 weeks left till IMMY the next three weeks will be umpleasant for many. :)

Simon said...

Valid input Denis. Thanks.

As for me I planned for two periods of overreaching in August. The first one would lead me to Powerman and Miri (with 70.3 Putrajaya as part of the journey) - My results speak for themselves I think! - I averaged 19 hrs a week for 10 weeks.

I then took it ralatively easy for about 10 days (active still though) before embarking on my second period of overreaching doing 26-30hrs per week up until Ironman Malaysia - certainly it is an attempt to get a PB but a planned one rather than a desperate one.

Stemmet said...

Very interesting article, thank you.
Being a vegetarian do you supplement your protein or not.
Are you a full vegetarian, no fish as well?
Best of luck with the weekends training/race.

Simon said...

Hi Johan,
Yes I'm a full veggie and have been for the last 28years. No fish but I love my dhal (lentils), tofu, eggs and dairy so I don't really worry about protein.

Thanks re this weekend, in fact I'm really looking forward the the time comparisons year on year - there's a good chance that there'll be a meltdown along the way too so I'll be alert and looking out for that.

Ben said...

I'll read the full article and your input after my workout tonight but my immediate response is to agree with Dita's coach that sleep is the key. I don't believe in overtraining. The problem is usually not recovering from the training. Sleep is key.

More thoughts to come.

Ben said...

I read through the entire article in detail and I can say that I agree with everything the author states. I think the most important piece of information, if you are considering 'overreaching' is:

"Everyday athletes like us should begin with just one week of overreaching in the final weeks of preparation for an upcoming race. If that goes well, you may advance to two and eventually three or four non-consecutive weeks of overreaching when training for future events."

This is a great piece of advice. If more people used the long-term approach to training, increasing their total workload 5-10% per year (not per training cycle) most would be AMAZED by the benefits. You ward off injury and keep improving without undue risk. So while you won't set the world on fire in any single race, you'll likely have a respectable string of PBs year-after-year.

One thing that I wonder Simon is this comment from you:

"I seem to be on a training plan that ignores the need for a recovery period but rather allows the body to decline in terms of performance only for it to bounce back on its own to a new level."

I know this goes without saying, because you are even more experienced than me, but I wonder if this is the best approach? You do not get stronger / faster from training, you get stronger / faster by recovering from the training.

One thing is for sure though, I'll be with you on those weekend long runs up and down the hills for the foreseeable future. All the hard work WILL pay off in Langkawi or China.

Simon said...

All I can say Ben, is that is the way the training plan works and although I "borrowed" the plan it was written by coaches that regularly succeed in getting their athletes to qualify for Hawaii and it's the same philosophy that Brett Sutton uses for TBB athletes so I'm not gonna argue nor really offer any explanation as to the whys and wherefores - I just follow the plan feel like sh*t one day and amazing the next. Come Ironman it will work (or it won't) we'll see. Looking forward to running with you over the next few weeks, it'll be an interesting journey.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Got a lot out of it.

First is I'm going to find some of that ARX, I want to win the World CHampionships 70.3 next year.

Second, you are an overtrained, period. Don't bullshit the regulars. You just found this article to support your madness. What does your coach say??? hahaha. Like you have one that you would ever listen too. haha. I can predict your weekend, every weekend. 180 km bike, 32 km run. No ramp up or down.

Third, I don't care how good of a cook Shilpa is, you can only make carrots and peas so many ways. 28 years of suffering, time to come to the "steak Side".

Forth, hell there is no forth....wait, I got it....You're an idiot. hahahaha


Rueban B said...

Hey mate,

I read this article with great interest but then I read your comments. It seems to me that you're doing something very different from what overreaching entails: a short period of training stress that slightly exceeds the body's adaptive limits etc.

As you admit, you're doing something different because you are omitting rest so the period of training stress is not short. Am I right?

If so, then you're on different training terrain where I guess all that will prove whether or not this works is success itself.

I am just not clear as to why you think the principles of overreaching cover your case when it looks like you're working with a different set of assumptions having to do with the body "bouncing back on its own terms." I am intrigued by this statement. What does that mean?


Simon said...

Hey Rueban,

I think that what I'm doing is exactly overreaching but rather than resting at the end of the block I continue to train through it, That said no one only rests they back off but still train if they are following this strategy to improve performance.

Therefore I'd suggest that what I'm doing is exactly this strategy although when I exceed the body's adaptive limits then the body simply doesn't respond. You continue getting the training effects but the performance falls off until the body recovers.

The danger is in trying to push too hard through this period of "catching up" where the body either gets injured or sick. Add to this trying to lose a lot of weight too and you really are treading a fine line.