Even triathletes who feel like they’re dialed in to their training could be doing things that are ultimately a detriment to their performance. Take note of these risk factors to avoid burnout.
You’re stressed at work or home.
When you’re under an extreme amount of stress, you have an increased risk of catching a cold (among other illnesses) because your immune system gets taxed. If you’re dealing with life stressors and add multiple hours of training on top of that, it’s no longer a question of being mentally tough—there are biological changes that occur in your ability to handle that stress, which can play a big role in recovery. “Even things we think are objective, like heart attacks, many people think it’s your cholesterol, but we know that stress and anxiety have an impact on inflammation and can play a key role in blood pressure and heart disease,” Taylor says. “How we think and how we feel mentally has a huge physical impact as well.”
You’re combining the wrong workouts.
Combining prolonged efforts like a long run with high-intensity efforts at the same time can prove to be too risky. Doing too much high-intensity work in one week can also be too much on the body.
You’re not fueling properly.
If you don’t eat smart to fuel your body before, during and after training, you could be missing out on all the nutrients that are needed to rebuild your muscles for the next workout.
You’re glossing over recovery.
Self-coached athletes are particularly susceptible to just training on autopilot without believing they need a day off after a big training session. “They can get into a groove and skip easy days and weeks, and that pattern can get them caught in overtraining,” Byrn says. When your schedule says “recovery day,” take a proper recovery day. “I will have athletes tell me, ‘I had a recovery day on Monday, so I just did 30–60 minutes of each discipline.’ They’re trying to do all three disciplines and they’re going too hard,” Austin says.
You’re combining a big training load with race weight goals.
“Amateur athletes would like to be at race weight 365 days a year, but it’s important to remember that you only have to hit it for a short amount of time,” Byrn says. “You should get to a healthy training weight, where you’re strong and able to perform, and after that it’s very much fine-tuning. That drive to get to an artificially low weight will make you prone to injury.”
Have You Overdone It?
After a full season of training, these warning signs could indicate that you’re overworked—or at least on your way there.
The musculoskeletal system responds to overtraining in the form of overuse injuries such as shin splints, stress fractures, IT Band syndrome or tendonitis. They can serve as a protective measure, as overuse injuries indicate that you’ve added excessive loads or your body isn’t recovering properly.
Unexplained performance drop-off
If you’re not able to perform at the level you’re used to or you generally feel “stale,” beware. The rule of thumb is that if that feeling lasts longer than two weeks and can’t be explained by anything readily identifiable (getting the flu or battling heat fatigue), it could be overtraining syndrome.
Heart rate variation
Take note if your heart rate is elevated in the morning, or it takes longer to bounce back and recover after high-intensity efforts. Alternatively, pay attention if you’re unable to increase your heart rate. “You’ll see it in races, where all of a sudden, no matter what, they’re so blown out that they can’t get HR up,” Byrn says. “It could be that the legs are beat up and damaged and can’t put any load on the cardio system, or it could be energy depletion.” New tools such as Omegawave (see sidebar on page 67) can help optimize training based on heart rate information.
You’re always hot at night and wake up with soaked sheets.
Excessive sugar cravings
The desire for a second helping of dessert is fine, but it’s a bad sign if you constantly crave sugar and never feel full regardless of how much you eat.
It can go both ways—you’re unable to fall asleep or you’re completely exhausted at strange times.
Avoid the Burnout
Follow the rules
You’ve probably heard the 10 percent rule (don’t increase volume by more than 10 percent per week), but we don’t all obey it. “Most athletes don’t get to elite status by not breaking that rule most of their lives because it takes too long to get to your goal,” Taylor says. “But let’s face it, people who are training well can cut corners and train harder and recover faster than other people who have to follow that rule.” Unless you’re truly an elite or have had zero history of injury, stick as closely to the 10 percent rule as possible.
Schedule multiple-day recovery
Just like a swim block or bike-specific weekend boosts performance, an intentional rejuvenation period can do the same. Winter is a natural time for most people to do it, but a mid-season rest period of one to two weeks is also a good idea for longevity.
Train to your strengths
“Athletes are all engineered very differently,” Austin says. Do you get injured with high running mileage? Thrive with lots of intensity? Cater your training program to your specific needs as an athlete.
Assess your peer group
If you hang with a crowd that never takes a true off-season and piles on the miles all year long (“In Boulder, everyone thinks 100 hours a month is baseline,” Byrn says), you may need to find friends with more aligned goals.
Race more strategically
It depends on the athlete, but if you’re into sprint or Olympic, racing once a month is reasonable, Byrn says. “The more experienced athletes have the ability, physically and mentally, to really cap themselves in their A race,” Byrn says. If you race long course, alternate your years between an Ironman year and the “other” year where you focus on bucket list or shorter events, or on family.
Invest in a coach
Get a second pair of eyes, whether it’s a coach or even an experienced friend, to look at your training program. “We always lose some measure of objectivity when we’re assigning our own training,” Winsberg says. An outsider whom you trust can help bring in the reins when you’re training to excess.
Leave it to Science
New tools are popping up that aim to objectively measure recovery to help athletes maximize their training and avoid overtraining, and to give coaches extra insight into how their athletes are really feeling. Restwise (starts at $49 which includes $30 oximeter and $19/month-to-month subscription, Restwise.com) uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative markers—such as resting heart rate, oxygen saturation, sleep, hydration, appetite, etc.—to give an athlete a “recovery score” that predicts fatigue levels. Omegawave ($99 for ECG sensor belt, 60-day subscription and mobile app, Omegawave.com) takes measurements of your heart-rate variability and tells you your cardiovascular readiness level based on stress, fatigue and adaptation reserves, so you can train hard when you’re truly ready and back off when you’re not. It also keeps track of how your endurance is improving over time.
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