As a coach, I’m guessing that you have, at some point, worked with the athlete that just can’t get enough. They execute every workout with impassioned dedication and even add extra training on their own. Although this athlete may sound like many coaches’ dream come true, they commonly fall susceptible to overextending themself to a breaking point. And voila! I’d like to present the concept of overtraining.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining happens when an athlete stops making progress and even starts to lose fitness by constantly exposing their body to training load without sufficient recovery.
What are the major signs of overtraining? First, it is important to establish the difference between overtraining and over-reaching (Wikipedia, n.d.). With over-reaching, the drop in performance can be resolved in a few days, but overtraining can take a few weeks to months to restore.
In order to avoid overtraining, a coach should carefully monitor their athlete’s overall health and RPE scores. Today, I’d like to get even more specific and take a look at four major signs of overtraining:
1. Change in Resting Heart Rate
2. Change in Blood Count Levels
3. Reduced heart rate variability
4. Hitting a Training Plateau
Change in Resting Heart Rate
Experiencing an elevated resting heart rate (RHR) for an extended period of time is a good indicator of fatigue. Generally speaking, an athlete’s resting heart rate will become lower as their fitness level increases, indicating more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness.
On the other hand, if your athletes are regularly tracking their resting heart rate and see an unusual increase, then this may mean they’re too fatigued and need rest. It is completely normal to have an elevated heart rate after a hard training day. Usually, an RHR 5 bpm above their average indicates they need more recovery time. However, if their resting heart rate doesn’t stabilize and remains elevated for multiple weeks, then it could mean they’re overtrained, or even developing an illness or medical condition.
Make sure to have your athletes consistently track their resting heart rate every morning. This will give you an indication of whether or not they need more rest.
Change in Blood Count Levels
A blood count can tell us a lot about our wellbeing. An overtrained athlete will find a decreased count of red blood cells, hemoglobin and hematocrit. In contrast, a well-rested and prepared athlete, with a combination of altitude, may find their count higher than usual.
Red blood cells play a vital role in exercise as their main function is to transport oxygen throughout the body (NCBI, n.d.). “Hemoglobin” is the essential protein inside red blood cells that transports oxygen (Rochester Edu, n.d.).
“Hematocrit” is a test that measures a ratio of red blood cell volume to the volume of all other components combined, called ‘whole blood.’
Make sure your athletes keep track of other elements such as iron levels, B1, B2 and other vitamins. It’s important to take blood tests at least twice per year to identify your usual numbers. It’s not recommended to compare blood count numbers between athletes as every athlete is unique.
Reduced Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) is another important metric every athlete should measure on a regular basis. HRV is the variance in time between the beats of your heart. So, if your heart rate is 60 beats per minute, it’s certainly not beating once every second. Within that minute, there may be 0.8 seconds between two beats, for example, and 1.10 seconds between two others. The greater this variability is, the more “ready” you are to perform at a high level. (Whoop, n.d.) You can measure your HRV with most devices that use heart rate strap, such as Garmin. Read more here how to measure your HRV.
If your HRV is lower than usual, for a longer period of time, despite taking recovery days, then you may be overly fatigued, stressed, sick or even overtrained and need to recover. It’s worth noting normal HRV varies widely for each individual and goes down dramatically as athletes age.
Hitting a Training Plateau
A fourth solid indication of overtraining is when an athlete stops improving, despite keeping training hard. This is often referred to as hitting a “training plateau”. An athlete should not train hard year-round without taking regular periods of reduced volume and intensity (ProCyclingCoaching, n.d.).
In TrainingPeaks, the metric CTL (chronic training load) can help you track how close you are to your peak training load or the point at which further training won’t lead to improvements. For most amateur athletes, this point starts around 110 CTL. So pay close attention to your athletes’ CTL and notice how much long-term training load capacity they have.
1. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overtraining
2. NCBI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3824146/
3. Rochester Edu: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia
4. Whoop: https://www.whoop.com/thelocker/heart-rate-variability-hrv/
5. ProCyclingCoaching: https://www.procyclingcoaching.com/annual-training-plan/