The terms overreaching and overtraining are often used interchangeably in the cycling world, but they are not one and the same. It’s important to understand the difference so you can train smarter, not harder.
Here’s a quick primer on overreaching vs. overtraining.
Overtraining results from your body’s inability to cope with the total amount of stress. Several symptoms are associated with the overtraining syndrome: Decreased performance, mood changes, weight loss, decreased appetite, muscle soreness, reduced motivation, and fatigue.
I guess most cyclists have experienced at least one or more of these symptoms, but that doesn’t mean that most cyclists have been overtraining.
Understanding the term overreaching
Distinguishing overtraining from overreaching is essential because overreaching is a very natural process when we train. For example, if you look at one of my training programs, you will see that it is based on three weeks with overreaching followed by one recovery week.
When you get to the third week, you will not feel more robust than you were in the first week, but after a recovery week with super-compensation, you will be stronger than you were when you entered the program. Using a training program structure like this is what I call ‘controlled overtraining.’
Overreaching is a deliberate increase in training volume or intensity that is followed by a period of reduced training to allow for a full recovery. This type of training is often used by athletes trying to break through a plateau in their performance. When done correctly, overreaching can lead to increased strength, power, and endurance.
Overtraining doesn’t happen overnight
Many riders use the term ‘overtraining’ for both overreaching and overtraining, which is why many riders diagnose themselves as overtrained.
The problem is that if you are really in an overtraining situation, it can take several months before your performance is back at 100%. However, if you have overreached in a period, a week or two usually is enough to get you back on track.
This principle is often used in tapering protocols, where training volume is reduced the last two or three weeks before a big event. However, Overtraining syndrome doesn’t happen over a night or a week. Instead, it takes 6 to 8 weeks or even longer to develop.
The cure is recovery
The cure for overtraining syndrome is often a significantly reduced training volume and intensity. Your body needs time to fully recover from the total accumulated stress in the past months.
When you are overtrained, you have probably forgotten about the basic principles of recovery. A differential diagnosis could also be that you have reached a training plateau, which is also a very natural thing, still frustrating, though. I covered that topic in two posts: Dealing with training vacuum – Part one and two.
Theories about overtraining
Our understanding of overtraining relies on theories that are not yet proven. Sympathetic and parasympathetic overtraining is often discussed, referring to the autonomic nervous system. In this model, the symptoms are caused by an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system. This theory was made back in 1958 but is still one of the most referred theories about overtraining.
Minimize the risk
As we don’t know precisely what overtraining is, we should try to use our knowledge about basic exercise physiology to prevent the development of overtraining.
A good strategy is to write a training diary. When you notice some of the symptoms mentioned above, consider whether that is caused by an insufficient recovery from the past training. In this way, it is possible to minimize the risk of overtraining because a training diary implies you react early.
What is your primary strategy to prevent overtraining?