Q: "How do I know when I'm pushing too hard in training and racing and what can I do to avoid getting burned out?"
This question really hits on the most fundamental principles of training. We all know that to get faster, you need to train hard and push your body with a progressive overload. But knowing how much is enough, and how much is too much, is certainly one of biggest questions on every cyclist’s mind. Overtraining is quite common among endurance athletes. The training mindset of “more is better” is deeply engrained in our culture and because of this, often times a person must experience some level of overtraining firsthand before he or she can truly accept that there is such a thing as “too much.” Training load is definitely a major part of the equation, but a common misstep is to only consider training load when evaluating a training program.
The process of learning when you are pushing too hard in training and approaching burnout begins with improving your self-awareness. Pay attention to your general mood, irritability, energy levels, and physical sensations. Are you grumpy for no apparent reason? Do your legs burn when you walk up stairs? Are you achy in general? Do you have to ‘warmup’ for an hour on the bike before you start feeling ok? These are warning signs that you are accumulating too much fatigue and that you need to back off. However, sometimes it is expected that you will feel this way, maybe after a hard race or a big weekend of training. Deciding what is an acceptable amount and duration of fatigue can be difficult. So, I recommend starting a daily training log that looks at the 4 pieces of training discussed below.
When I look at an athlete’s program, I try to separate it into 4 factors: 1) Training load 2) Stress levels 3) Quality and Quantity of Sleep and 4) Nutrition.
There are a number of ways to quantify training load. The most accurate is with a power meter. If you use it on every ride, there are programs such as TrainingPeaks that will take much of the guesswork out the equation by quantifying Training Stress Score (TSS), Cumulative Training Load (CTL), Intensity Factor (IF), and Acute Training Load (ATL), among many other algorithms. This is a great option for some people, especially those who enjoy data. For others, this method can actually be stress-inducing.
Training load can also be tracked via hours per week on the bike or total mileage, but both methods are considerably less accurate than power, and rely heavily on an individual’s self-awareness and self-reporting. In your training log, pick a method and track it daily.
Stress comes in many forms, and is a frequently overlooked factor in a training program. Physical, mental, and emotional stress all have the same basic effect on the body and on recovery. Stress has an actual physiological response. Regardless of what type, stress causes a release of hormones into the bloodstream that have detrimental effects on recovery, performance, and general well-being. Stressful periods in a person’s life need to be taken into account when designing a training program, and strategies to minimize stress should be part of every athlete’s daily routine. Track your stress on a 0-10 scale, and if your score is above a 6, consider backing your training down until you've decreased your stress.
Sleep: Quality & Quantity
Sleep is where the bulk of recovery and muscle repair occurs. Its importance cannot be understated. Without enough sleep, recovery and subsequent fitness gains will take much longer, if they occur at all. When an athlete gets in a sleep rut of either short hours or fitful, choppy sleep, I will usually postpone any hard training rides until normal sleep patterns have resumed. Track your sleep both in hours and quality (0-10).
The calories that go into your body are not created equal from a nutritional standpoint. How you fuel your body has a major impact on all of the above factors. The topic of nutrition is a real can of worms these days and it can be hard to sift through at times. If you have any questions about your nutrition and how to optimize it, I recommend meeting with a qualified nutritionist.
Everyone will reach a point of burnout eventually, so it's important to plan breaks throughout the season for a mental and physical rest (that means no bike!). Generally speaking, the concept of quality over quantity is a great one to keep in mind, and erring on the side of rest when your training plan is in question is a good rule of thumb.