Image via @sethgerber on Instagram.

There comes a point at which your body will no longer be able to absorb the training load you are subjecting it to. We reach the limits not of what it can do but more importantly what we can do and effectively recover from. When we are motivated we can push past these limits and this can sometimes be where improvements lie but it can also be a very dangerous area if we go too far for too long.

Our bodies give us signals when we’re reaching that point and it’s important to learn to recognise them. I think overreaching is an important and integral part of improvement. It’s happens when we push our bodies past their current physical limits and force it to adapt and become fitter, stronger and faster. It typically takes a couple of days off or of very easy, short sessions to recover from overreaching.

The danger lies in overtraining, this is when we push beyond overreaching and our bodies simply can’t absorb the training load. Recovering from overtraining can take months to recover from and while in this state we loose motivation to race and train, can be tired all the time and usually see our performance going backwards.

Signs of over-reaching

For me overreaching often occurs towards the end of a hard training block and usually while I still have what I might see as important sessions to be done before a recovery or easy week and I don’t want to back off. There are a couple of warning signs that I’m getting into a state of overreaching and a few of these these are.

  1. Poor sleep. When I go to bed early but struggle to sleep and when I do its poor quality, light and disturbed.
  2. Night sweats. Even in the winter when the room is cool I can have nights when I have night sweats. I think it’s got to do with the bodies metabolism constantly running at a high rate and not shutting down (good fur burning off any excess fat, not so good for sleep and recovery)
  3. Lack of motivation to train although this is often coupled with the fear of going backwards if I don’t.
  4. Mood; my mood is usually a very good indicator that I’m starting to reach my limit. I often get cranky and short tempered as I stretch past what I’m able to handle.

Should we over-reach? 

I think overreaching is an integral part of stretching ourselves and pushing for improvement. That being said we must be very careful to recognise the signs and pull back and allow the body recover fully after a training block.

Over-reaching or under-recovering? 

Probably a much less common but nonetheless important state to be aware of is what I call under-recovering. This is usually when we are in good shape and life goes a bit pear shaped or some other stressor is introduced and we continue to push our limits on a number of fronts. The problem here is when we are really fit we can often handle a certain level of training load coupled with the added stress but we may not benefit from the training in the same way we normally would. In 2013 in the run in to Kona I was in great shape and kept on building and loading more training on. At the same time we had a big increase in our workload and stress in the business. Because of the massive motivation provided by the upcoming Ironman in Kona I continued to train harder and harder. I was able to handle huge training hours and felt pretty good (as good as we ever do while running the fine line of training that hard, tiredness is a constant companion) the problem came when I got to Kona and all of the extra training resulted in very little improvement and not nearly as much as I would have expected given how hard I worked and how well I prepared.

I believe the problem was that I was under-recovering. I could handle the workload I just wasn’t improving with it. I think all stresses have a similar effect on the body whether it’s training, work, problems at home or whatever else life throws at us. Training is a stress and if it’s done correctly and we allow sufficient recovery our bodies reaction to it is to repair and grow stronger.

Fitness gains happen when we recover. Not when we train. Which is counter to what most people think.

Making smart training and recovery decisions involves looking at our whole life. If there are other stressors going on that mean you may not be able to absorb and recover from a particular training session then it’s worth assessing how clever it is to push on and do it regardless. Maybe shortening the duration or dropping a session altogether may be more beneficial if it means recovering from the previous training and allowing you deal with whatever other issues you have to deal with. Life, unfortunately has a tendency to interfere with triathlon and sometimes it’s important to recognise whether pushing on regardless is going to make us fitter and stronger or dig us into a hole. Training smart trumps just training almost all the time.

It’s probably worth adding that this was written at 4am after a very disturbed few hours sleep while at the end of a big block of training.

If you made it this far thanks for reading.

I have written a report examining how 5 of the most successful Irish Ironman triathletes have qualified for Kona an incredible 29 times. If you’re interested in learning their lessons you can check it out over here.
You can read a little about us how we got into Ironman and how I went from an extremely unfit heavy smoker to Kona over here

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