This training article was written by Cycling-Inform for L’Étape Australia by Tour de France.

Overtraining sometimes happens when our enthusiasm for training overshadows our body’s ability to absorb our training load.

Training Load and Recovery

For us to improve our fitness, we need two things, training and recovery. The training is what stresses our body. It’s the stimulus that signals to our body that it needs to adapt. But it’s in the recovery that the actual adaptation happens. It’s in recovery that we build our fitness.

To ensure that we are training optimally, we need a balance of more demanding training sessions with light recovery sessions along with enough rest. When we get the balance wrong, we can’t complete quality demanding training sessions because we’re too fatigued.

The Three Scenarios

The first scenario is cyclists that don’t train enough to stress their body enough. They end up not developing any further performance gains and plateau. The second scenario is cyclists that train too hard and don’t give themselves enough recovery. This is what I’m calling the overtrained cyclist. They end up plateauing or go backwards. Finally, the third group of cyclists are the ones that have training load and recovery balanced. These cyclists see ongoing performance improvements year on year.

Getting the Balance right 

As a coach, I’m closely monitoring these two fundamentals with the one-on-one clients I work with. This ensures that we optimise their training so that every hour they spend is used productively. We use various performance metrics to regularly monitor their training load and adjust their programs to ensure that they remain balanced.

What are the signs of overtraining?

Overtraining doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a gradual build-up of training loads over several weeks that contributes to the chronic fatigue that impacts the cyclist’s ability to perform quality workouts.

Here are some of the signs of overtraining.

  1. Reduced performance – if you see a drop-off of performance over several weeks when you are training hard.
  2. No improvement – same as reduced performance, you may be training hard but seeing no improvement after several weeks.
  3. Increased resting heart rate – if you monitor your resting heart rate, you may see it increase.
  4. Inability to get your heart rate up – if you struggle to get your heart rate up into the higher zones while performing intervals sessions or on your harder rides.
  5. Being overly emotional – if you find you are more irritable or more emotional than you usually are.
  6. Low motivation – if you are a highly motivated cyclist and see your motivation drop off and aren’t experiencing any external stressful events in your life that would contribute to a drop in motivation.
  7. Trouble sleeping – if you start having symptoms of insomnia and disrupted sleep.
  8. Getting sick or injured – you find an injury flare-up or become more susceptible to getting sick more frequently.

How to Overcome Over Training

If you have any of the signs mentioned above, one of the best things you can do is rest or reduce your ride intensity and duration for a few days. If you start feeling better, ease back into your training and monitor your training load, so you don’t relapse.

With all our training programs, we cycle our clients through a three-week build with a one-week recovery. We also watch for spikes in our client’s training during the three week build to ensure that they are not overreaching. We also balance their recovery week to ensure that they are not fatigued when they start their next four-week training block. We recommend that you do the same with your training.

During your build weeks you must look after yourself. You’ll be stressing your body as you build, so make sure that you eat good quality food and get enough good quality sleep. Also, tension and stress created in the workplace or at home will impact your ability to absorb training load and hinder recovery. So, monitor your stress levels and adjust your training load accordingly when it happens.

Final Words

Fortunately, many cyclists don’t end up overtraining for months on end because they usually get sick, injured or lose their motivation – which naturally forces them to back off their training.

If you are experiencing the signs of overtraining for several weeks or months, then take a few days off and see if it helps. If a period of recovery and rest doesn’t help improve your overall performance and well-being, seek medical advice as there may be an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed.