Do you ever wonder if it would be better to take a day off — or, alternatively, if you are going hard enough?
Fatigue comes in many forms and knowing when to take time off or when to push harder is a question sports scientists, coaches and athletes have a hard time answering. You could be tired from one heavy deadlift in your strength routine or a hard set of hill intervals on the bike or from completing a 24-hour endurance race.
Our readiness to perform is influenced by the training we do and the lifestyle we live. Even though that late night at work, second glass of wine or post-dinner movie doesn’t appear in your training logs, it can certainly affect how you feel during a Saturday morning group ride or your next race.
SIGNS OF OVERTRAINING
Studies of overtraining use a variety of factors to try to predict when fatigue will set in and guide an athletes’ recovery. While it is tempting to jump to high-tech, expensive and complicated measures, it is actually the cheap and easy subjective markers that respond quickest and most accurately in overreached athletes. Subjective markers are variations on asking the seemingly obvious question: “How do you feel?” Sleep quality, mood (irritability) and motivation are also telling factors to track athlete recovery.
For athletes who are self-coached, following a training plan or working with a coach online, it is worth tracking these in your training logs and/or with an application like HRV4Training that will record and present trends in your resting heart rate, heart rate variability and subjective measures. However you track these, the key is to watch for disruption from your normal rankings and use these disruptions as an indication to reduce your training intensity or take a day off to get back to feeling good and focused for your next workout.
Your performance data is also a great indicator of whether you are tired. Power is the main form of performance data in cycling but you may also use races or your time on local routes or climbs. If you struggle to hit your interval targets then this is a good reminder to take a break. If you watch closely, your subjective scores may change before you see the drop in performance and help you make better decisions in the future.
KNOWING WHEN TO PUSH
Cyclists often ask me how hard they should go. Much of the year it is wise to hold back a bit. I like to save those huge efforts for the weeks ahead of your biggest race and for the race itself. Go through the motions, keep an eye on the trends in your performance, skills and other metrics but don’t stress too much. Keep progressing slowly and surely. We are not testing every day but we are seeing those numbers creep up. If our training is working, we should see this gradual progress. In a set of 2 x 20-minute threshold intervals you might average 250 watts in Week 1 and then aim for 305 watts in the second week, for example.
It is very likely you could ‘survive’ more wattage in that first workout if you really suffered, but could you come back and progress that in the second workout? If you train at this appropriate workload you might be able to do the same workout 2–3 times a week and pair them with lower intensity rides the other days of the week. By the end of the week, you would have 2–3 great workouts, some beneficial low-intensity work and a few off days rather than a handful of moderate, or incomplete, workouts.
In the 1–2 months prior to your goal you can become more concerned about pushing your limit, and you will understand them after all the training in the general phase described above. These final weeks are very specific to your race and should really challenge you. You might do a few workouts that really push you to the limit, require a nap when you get home and take a few days to recover.
PLAN, ADJUST, SUCCEED, REPEAT
This gradual overload is great but it can’t go on forever, you will still get tired at some point due to the riding or lifestyle factors like travel, nutrition or stress. We can head off some of this by taking planned days off (often Mondays and Fridays) and easy weeks every 3–4 weeks where we drop the time by ~50% and do fewer intense rides.
You can also plan off days and weeks to match hectic times at work or for your family to ensure you aren’t overdoing it. Save your big training blocks for weeks when you can focus on training. This periodization of training and life is a big part of how cyclists with limited time make breakthroughs without training more (since they don’t have any more time).
If you notice you are struggling to get your heart rate up in workouts, that your motivation to get out the door is low or that you can’t hit the wattage targets, you have a few indicators that you should back off to take some extra recovery. If you have been pushing yourself in training or have just completed a big block of racing or you have a large disruption in subjective and objective measures, then a full week off and maybe even a doctors checkup with some blood work is a good idea. If everything looks good, return with 30-minute easy spins for Week 2 and if things are looking good, do a short test at the end of Week 2 to see how you feel and perform after the time off.
Most fatigue can be remedied by a day or two of extra recovery. This extra recovery often means skipping that mid-week race or hill interval set, which is hard to do, but if skipping that hard day to spin easy (or to do some yoga and take a nap) and then resuming your schedule the next day means you finish the week fresh, with a couple of solid workouts, then one missed (or adjusted) workout is no big deal.