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Recovery and Avoiding Overtraining

By Earl Zimmermann, Peaks Coaching Group Elite Coach

Peaks Coaching Group

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Earl Zimmermann writes:

At some point, most endurance cyclists training for a century or ultra event have experienced sore or fatigued legs during a workout, a training phase, or at the actual event. This could be attributed to lack of calories, limited recovery time, or failure to follow a regimented training plan. Having scheduled workouts and days off will make a significant impact toward arriving at the event with fresh legs ready to rock the course, and a training plan removes the guesswork out of each workout (in fact, a day off can be more important than any workout when timed properly).

To build a training plan, begin with your targeted event and work backward, filling in all your existing commitments and their dates, such as your family schedule, projects at work, and travel. There are several training phases to choose from: three weeks on, one week off; ten days on, one day off; or four days on, three days off. Keep in mind, however, that what works for one athlete may not work as well for another. Review your previous year’s log and determine if there was a pattern that worked best for you, then apply that to this year. If you don’t have a log, it may be a good idea to start one. Planning ahead will help you avoid going over the edge toward overtraining.

One way to reduce the chance of doing too much is to know your resting heart rate (HR). An elevated HR could be the first sign that your body isn’t ready to tackle another hard or long workout. You can feel strong and ready to ride, but an elevated HR will indicate that your body hasn’t recovered enough from the previous workout, or it could indicate the onset of a cold. Just before you clip into your pedals, take a minute and relax. Watch your HR drop and note when it has reached a steady heartbeat (say, 54 bpm) to establish a base. To confirm, retest over several days. If your heartbeat is up by 5-10 beats from the previous day’s hard workout, it’s a good idea to remove intensity and cut the duration in half, possibly even taking the day off.

My clients have seen huge benefits from knowing how much time they spend in each training zones instead of guessing. Using a HR monitor during all of your workouts and uploading the data will give you a better idea regarding if you followed the scheduled workout. Knowing which zone you’re in may prevent you from attacking up a climb or “chasing a rabbit up the road.” The more time you spend above threshold during each workout, the more fatigue or soreness you’ll have in your muscles, possibly requiring more days off than planned, during which time you should have been training. The result is “detraining,” and then you get stressed out because of the days off and do another long hilly ride and continue the cycle, possibly leading to overtraining.

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There are many tools available to track your workouts throughout the season. One I recommend is Training Peaks, which is currently compatible with more than ninety different HR monitors and power meters available today. The website has several different charts to track your fitness progress, including the performance management chart (PMC). On this chart you can see your fitness improve as the blue line (CTL, or chronic training load) increases along with the pink line (ATL, or acute training load). Fatigue sets in very fast if your ATL rises too quickly. Then you can put a value against your fatigue level to determine whether to press on or reduce your training load for a few days.

Consuming enough calories during rides longer than 2.5 hours is very important; if you don’t get enough, you’ll hit the dreaded bonk or finish so hungry you eat everything in sight when you get home. Begin the day with a complete breakfast of 350-500 calories, giving it 1.5-2 hours to digest. During the workout, target 350 calories per hour for a 5' 10" rider weighing about 160 pounds (adjust caloric intake for your own height and weight). Energy bars or blocks and liquid carbohydrates/electrolytes or carbohydrate/protein powders are a good source of such calories. The only preferred combination of solid and liquid calories to bring on a ride is one that won’t upset your stomach and tastes good to you, and it’s best to test this out on a training ride instead of during an event itself. Also, waiting until your stomach growls to begin eating is too late, and your performance will suffer. Many cyclists experience better results eating small bites every 30-45 minutes into the ride, with more liquids in between, and repeating until finished. Events lasting longer than four hours create a challenge to carry enough food, so bring cash or a debit card to purchase food and drinks in the middle of the ride.

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Listening to your body and, if needed, adjusting the intensity or duration of your workouts can make you stronger more quickly. Using all the tools to avoid overtraining allows you to reach the next level of fitness. Remember to always eat and drink during your long workouts. Finding your personal balance of hard intervals, long rides, and recovery makes crossing the finish line that much more rewarding.

Acute Training Load (ATL): Previous seven days of training
Chronic Training Load (CTL): Previous forty-two days of training
Training Stress Balance (TSB): Balance between fitness and freshness

Earl Zimmermann has been coaching endurance athletes for more than eight years. He’s currently an elite coach working for Hunter Allen, coauthor of Training and Racing with a Power Meter, at Peaks Coaching Group. You can contact Earl through

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