It was the end of April 2016, and I was closing out the first month of training for Ironman Louisville. I stepped off for another routine interval training session at a local park and noticed a strange pain on the top of my left foot. I thought nothing of it and the words “train through it” popped into my head. So I did exactly that and sure enough the pain only progressed, and during my next interval my right Achilles tendon felt like it was going to rip clean off of my heel. I had to stop. I immediately thought, “What the hell is going on? I’ve been feeling great lately with no pain and hardly any muscle soreness. I’ve been getting a decent amount of sleep each night. My nutrition is on point. I’ve been progressing my training volume steadily. This doesn’t make any sense”. Yet I failed to take into account the following factors:
- What I thought was enough sleep for me was not enough sleep
- I woke up every morning realizing I had to go to a job that I was less than fond of, which initiated a pattern of negative self-talk
- Most of my training was anaerobic in nature, with very few easy, recovery-paced workouts
- The time I spent “recovering” at home on the couch was not a beneficial use of my spare time
- I had transitioned from motion-control shoes to zero-drop shoes far too quickly
Angry and frustrated, I turned to my good friend and mentor, Rob Wilson, Mobility WOD Staff Coach and owner of Performance Therapeutics located in Virginia Beach, for advice. As I sat in his office with an EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) unit attached to my legs, Rob disected my training schedule. He asked me one simple yet powerful question: “What is your goal?” What did this have to do with the physical pain I was experiencing? EVERYTHING.
At that point in my training, I had been strength training and CrossFitting three times per week while running, swimming, and cycling twice per modality each week. After my recovery session with Rob I quickly realized that I needed to dial down my training, focus on quality over quantity, and eliminate some excess cargo from my training plan and every day life. I didn’t need to do heavy Back Squats and three additional conditioning sessions per week in order to keep up with the other athletes at my CrossFit gym. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to finish an Ironman triathlon. I needed to do just enough strength training in order to support this goal. The body has fascinating yet infuriating ways of telling us we are doing something wrong. In my case, it was the pain in my foot and Achilles tendon I experienced that day. We need to acknowledge these warning signs and continually remind ourselves of our primary goal and the most effective and practical way of getting us there. More is not always better.
Overtraining and underrecovery go hand-in-hand and one can easily lead to the other. Overtraining can be defined as excessive frequency, volume, or intensity of training that results in extreme fatigue, illness, or injury (which is often due to lack of sufficient rest, recovery, and perhaps nutrient intake) (Baechle & Earle, 2008). Some markers of overtraining include decreased performance, altered resting heart rate, and increased submaximal exercise heart rate (Baechle & Earle, 2008). Underrecovery is described as training for the sake of training, with no change in performance or improvement, which can result in stagnated performance and never getting faster, better, stronger, or happier with your results (Greenfield, 2014). It is up to each of us to monitor our recovery status throughout our training using the tools and knowledge we have. If we manage our recovery effectively we can expect to see our performance improve and have a better overall quality of life. We will be happier, stronger, and more energetic on a daily basis.
Let me leave you with some tips that will help you maximize your recovery and avoid overtraining:
- Sleep, Sleep, Sleep! Physical training places stress on the body, which is the mechanism for adaptation to occur. Deep sleep is where the adaptation to that stress is solidified and our bodies are repaired both physically and psychologically. Do not underestimate a good night of sleep or the power of a mid-day nap
- Think you can out-train a bad diet? Think again. I don’t know of anyone that would put less than premium fuel in a Ferrari. So why would you put fast-food and processed junk into your body expecting to perform and recover at a higher level? Clean out your pantry and fridge, and replace that junk with high-octane foods
- Move and Mobilize. Our bodies were made to move. Consider buying a standing desk if you’re sitting all day at work, keep your muscles warm by wearing compression gear, and do self-myofascial release daily
- Minimize Stress. We all deal with stress at home, at work, on the way to work, in the gym, and in our personal lives. The body does not differentiate these sources of stress (Greenfield, 2014). They will compound and beat you into submission if you let them. Experiment with a stress-management tool (e.g. yoga, tai chi, meditation, deep breathing) and create a routine for yourself
- Less is more. There are so many different training methods to help you achieve your goals. Whichever you choose, be sure to always revert back to your goal and ensure that your training methods are in line with this goal. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that one more training session is what you need. If your body is so beat that you aren’t able to accomplish the goal of the training session, perhaps you should turn it into a recovery session instead
After my painful interval training session I had to back off the running and strength training for a week and rethink my training plan. My ultimate goal was accomplished five months later but had I continued on my original route things could’ve been much worse. Overtraining and underrecovery can result in months of detraining due to exhaustion and injury. They are not something that should be taken lightly. However, if you monitor your body’s response to training and recover appropriately you are well on your way to reaching that next big goal you have set for yourself.