We all know that you need to push your limits to make athletic gains. But how far beyond your current athletic limits should you push to make further athletic gains without overtraining. It is well known that overtraining will lead to a less than desirable training state, which will lead to plateaus and/or losses in sports specific strength and overall fitness. But it is the goal for most athletic based programs to work into the first stage of overtraining, named overreaching, where slight irritability, reasonable losses in power and strength, and noticeable daily soreness is present. It is a fine line that an athlete and coach must walk to maintain steady gains in sports specific fitness while avoiding long term fatigue associated with overtraining.
Two to three week training periods with one week rest is the norm when it comes to general training ideas. But as with all training concepts, there is no one size fits all rule. Each person is different in regards to how much training stress he or she can handle. At times, a person who can normally handle three weeks of training may develop a trend of increased amount of fatigue during the second week of a training block, leading to an earlier rest period than was in the plan. On the flip side, a person who has only been able to handle a two week period may build endurance over time to handle more than two weeks of training. Handling a little more over time is how you continue to push your limits.
The best way to asses training stress is to look at trends in fatigue, with all biological feedback, over short periods of time from a few days to a week at a time. There are also different types of fatigue to look at within each training period, including acute fatigue from recent training bouts and fatigue associated with the overall training stress of the training period. Acute fatigue is associated with the type of fatigue you experience a few days after a hard workout, such as sore legs, slight drop in power, and increased breath. But with acute fatigue, you are able to rebound quickly with good feeling legs, lower perceived exertions, and the ability to work within the daily targeted heart rate and power ranges. As you work through your training periods, you will build a different type of overall fatigue. Within your overall fatigue you may experience sore legs and a non-responding heart rate, but your sore legs and non responding heart rate will last for days with the inability to recover. You will also experience a higher perceived exertion within your endurance ranges, especially while breathing easy. Fatigue associated with the overall training stress of the training period is also related to the need for extra sleep, sore tight muscles when awaking, increased cravings for food, especially sugar, and slight irritability.
Experiencing these types of fatigue within a training period, especially towards the end of the training period, is the goal. But how much of this type of fatigue to experience, before you push into an over-trained state, is the question. When you start to experience the need for more sleep, more food, tight muscles, and especially irritability, you have pushed into the first state of overtraining, named overreaching. These signs will also be accompanied by non responding heart rates, heavy breathing within your endurance ranges, and a decline in power anywhere from 40-60 watts, depending on your ability and overall watt output. You may also notice a daily overall soreness when awaking. It is the goal for a good training program to reach this state. But it is also the goal for a good program to recognize this state, react quickly, and turn the focus towards resting rather than training. A proper rest period should follow which could take anywhere from seven to ten days, or more to allow for proper rest, adaptations, and the ability to handle another period of training. A less than desirable rest period is the most common mistake and is what usually leads to overtraining within the next training period.
It is important to realize the need to push the limits to make gains. Each person will have their own threshold for how many times they can push their limits within a year, and that may be determined by age, lifestyle, fitness, and individual drive. It is also important to realize the importance and need for rest. Proper rest will allow you to feel good again and have fun. A feel good day will only fuel your fire to push your limits a little further. Play hard, rest harder and train smart!