The Dreaded Overtraining Syndrome
My friend called me the other day and asked: "Do you ever feel like you don't want to train?" I knew exactly what he meant because I just went through the same experience for a week prior to that call and I was just about out of the water (not completely yet) by the time we talked.
I have been training for triathlons consistently (meaning with a coach) for 4 years now but I have never experienced overtraining before - until last week. I spent the 3 years prior to that training without a coach, just on my own and finishing my first Ironman (3.8km/2.4mi swim, 180km/112mi bike, marathon run - 42.2km/26.2mi) in 2017. All together we could say I've been consistent for the last 7 years.
I've read about overtraining but I never experienced it. In retrospect, I know exactly what led to it and I was lucky enough to recognize the signs instantly and get out of the hole in record time. I caught it so early and made the corrections so fast that we can even say it was just a bit more than overreaching and really not full overtraining.
Here is what I told my friend: there are two very different reasons why you might feel like not wanting to go out to train and you must know which one you are experiencing. In Ironman training especially, the whole point of the training is to get used to biking and running when you are tired - very tired! This means that in a normal training cycle, especially towards the end of it, you will build up a lot of fatigue and that is what you want.
There comes a point in the last week or two when you are just sooooooo tired that you really don't want to do any of it. But mentally you are not broken, you still want to do the race and want to be strong for it. What you need to tell yourself is that "this is how I'm supposed to feel at this point in my training and that is the whole point" and just go out and do it. You might not hit the paces you want, or the power you want, but you do your best and push through it and that will get you ready for race day.
However, when your motivation is gone and you are just overwhelmed, you feel sluggish and lethargic and questioning the whole point of doing all this - then you need to pay attention. Because that is a sign of overtraining and you MUST pull back.
How do you know which one it is? That is a very valid question and extremely important to be able to answer. For me, personally, I know, because I have been through the "normal Ironman fatigue" so many times that I know what it feels like, and I recognized that what I was experiencing this time was different and not normal.
For someone who hasn't been through it yet, because for example they are training for their first Ironman race, it is harder to figure out which one it is. My best attempt at differentiating them would be that they are two completely different mental states. And the main difference is probably motivation. If you are still excited about what you are doing, then you are certainly not overtrained.
What do you do when you think you are on the wrong path? You pull back. It doesn't even necessarily mean cutting training, but that is the most obvious option. In my case it was just mostly re-structuring in a way that included more full rest days while doing the same volume in less days. Normally I don't take rest days, I just do some light recovery exercise instead. This time I took 3 full rest days in the last 2 weeks and it seems to be working. My swimming is going well again, my running is going great, cycling is the weak point right now, but I'm just patient with it and hope that my power will be back soon too.
But cutting a long ride short (planned, not on the fly), taking a few workouts out of the plan, taking a day or two off, they are all excellent ways to reset. If you are lucky, and you haven't dug yourself too deep in the hole yet, this can work. That's why it is important to act at the first signs right away - which is exactly what I did.
If you got deeper down the hole, then you might need more than that. You might need to completely stop and reset.
I did one more thing that was really hard: I withdrew from a fun backyard ultra race (Little Dog's Backyard Ultra in Tennessee) that I was going to do just as a long training weekend, to enjoy the atmosphere, the people and a "long run". I really wanted to do it and it took a lot of self discipline to skip it. But I couldn't imagine running 24h+ that weekend and I knew that for my longevity in the sport this was the right move. I wasn't going to be able to enjoy it the way I planned mentally or physically.
A backyard ultra can mean a very long day - or two, or three...
It is also very helpful if you have someone to talk to about the huge emotional ups and downs that come with overtraining. Someone, who will understand and care. Usually nothing more is needed than compassionate listening ears. If you can talk it out when you are feeling down, when things are not working out, when you don't feel like doing it, that can help a lot. And once things get better, talking about those experiences can reinforce the positive turn.
I mentioned that I know exactly what lead to my overtraining. Ironman racing is very intense. Unlike ultras where you start out at a pace that will allow you to go the whole way - however long that is -, in Ironman I run the marathon at almost my open marathon pace: as if I didn't swim 3.8km/2.4mi and bike 180km/112mi beforehand. And the bike is just as intense, we are not going at a relaxed pace by any means.
Normally I only do 2-3 Half-Ironman and Ironman races total per year, because mentally it takes so much out of me that I can't handle more. I also know from experience that I can't race triathlons close together, because of the mental demands of the race. This time, however, I decided to try and race two Ironmans relatively close together, because once I have the fitness for one, it makes sense to cross out another goal.
I had no idea how my body and mind would react and it was an experiment. Can I do it? So after the World Championship 3 weeks ago, we started to build for the next one right away, without much of a recovery. That unfortunately backfired. It was just a tiny bit too soon - less than a week after the race. Then the following week things blew up...
It's easy to see it now, that I'm almost out of the hole. My motivation is back, my recovery numbers are through the roof, my mood is good and I still have one or two hard weeks of training before my next taper.
I think the conclusion is that it is doable - I CAN race two Ironman triathlons only 6 weeks apart, but we need to allow for just a tiny bit longer recovery, maybe a full week or even 10 days before jumping back into the hard stuff.
Hopefully I will say the same after my race in 3 weeks!