Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Overtraining and under-recovery - Two sides of the same coin

I really have no desire to become the poster child for my subject matter, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from squeezing in an evening workout, despite my lack of sleep and crazy work schedule. I really haven't had the time to pile up the volume in the gym to get overtrained. However, I have had enough stress and bad night's sleep recently that even with a more-than-reasonable workout volume, I have plenty of potential to be under-recovered.

There are those who say that there's no such thing as overtraining; there's just under-recovery. While that may be true in a literal sense (you're overtrained if you can't recover from your workout), I think there's some benefit to maintaining the semantic distinction. Just remember that the two are inextricably related.

I tend to thing of overtraining as a failure of programming and observation. You eat great, you sleep 10 hours a night, you take time to stretch and do soft-tissue work, but you simply pile on too much work to maintain performance over time. This happens to elite endurance athletes like cyclists, who get too far "out on the razor," leaning out in response to training and being able to positively rip up a mountain pass early in the season or at the beginning of a stage race, but then finding they lack the reserves to recover. They're eating all they can; they're getting daily massages; and they're sleeping as much as they can, but they peaked too soon and trained to hard early on to succeed later in the season or the race. They are a classic example of someone who is overtrained. For them, the fall from grace is swift and hard. They are so specialized and up against such severe physical challenges that they can't rely on a different energy system or a different group of muscles to help them compete. They, as they say, start to go backwards quickly.

In the CrossFit world, we don't load ourselves up with such specialized training, where the same muscles and energy systems get hit day-in and day-out. As a result, overtraining is not as obvious to us. The programming of CrossFit, in fact, is designed to maximize intensity while minimizing the potential for chronic overtraining. There's enough variety of exercise and workout duration that broad, intense stimulus can be delivered day-in and day-out with a less severe risk from overtraining. Still, working like a dog three days out of four will catch up to just about anyone eventually, no matter how disciplined you are with your recovery when you're not working out. That's the reason that the conventional wisdom for following the mainpage WOD is to do it on a 12-week cycle where every 4th week is performed at ½ intensity and every 12th week is taken off from training entirely (or similar variations on that theme).

Don’t underestimate the value of those ½-intensity sessions. These are prime opportunities to dial in form refinements that will lead to improved performance down the road. Alternately, the light weeks provide an opportunity to learn new skills that can’t yet be performed at an intensity that might inhibit recovery.

Bill Starr says that when people get overtrained, it’s almost always because they do too much work on their light days. They throw some isolation exercises in to get those beach muscles pumped up or they add a metcon to work up a sweat. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating a variety of activities into a program (heck, CF is grounded in such variety), doing additional work without rhyme or reason is the surest way to interfere with recovery and inhibit progress.

Missing workouts every week makes it easy for me to avoid overtraining. However, that doesn't get me off the hook. The things that keep me at work until after the gym closes produce their own form of systemic stress that can produce the symptoms of overtraining. In this case, however, it's related directly to under-recovery, rather than my workout programming. I don't have time to foam roll; I don't eat quite as well; and I wake up at 3:30 every day thinking about what I have to do today. Still, I have to make the same adjustments to my programming as if I found that I piled on too much work the previous few days. Therefore, I bagged catching up on the much-needed chipper I missed yesterday, in favor of something that while difficult, wouldn't beat me down so much that I caught the family head cold (at least that's my hope).


Row 1,000m 3:41.6 (D6, 28spm) - sped up my stroke rate and this felt much easier, like a warmup even
Hip mobility drills
Goblet squats

Heavy stuff
Front squat 45x5, 95x5, 135x3, 185x2, 205x1, 205x3, 215x3, 225x3, 235x2 + fail
Back squat 45x5, 225x17

Tabata rowing 1,017m (D8)

Core work
2 rounds:

    15 Glute-ham raise
    15 GHD situp
The 225x3 front squats felt strong, and I was really close to getting out of the hole on that last rep at 235. I probably should have fought it out a little more. My 3Rm is 230, which I did last fall on a day when I popped into the weight room in jeans and sneakers while my kids were in gymnastics. While it's fun to have that as a benchmark, it's also time for that mark to fall.

The high-rep back squats were surreal as always. I staggered forward after the 16th rep and ended up with my right foot a good 8 inches in front of my left. I tried to put it back to parallel, but I just kept picking up my foot and placing it down in the exact same spot, like a horse counting to three. It wasn't that I didn't have the strength left to adjust my feet. I quite simply had lost control of my extremities, like some elongated character in a Dali painting.

The tabata rowing was a first and a suprisingly good showing. I did add some extra meters on there, because I needed to do a soft-pull to get the timer to keep going for a full 10-second rest, but I'm sure I've still got a 1K row with stricter timing. I think the form work is paying off. Thanks to Tom Taylor, Erin Davidson, and Kempie for some helpful tips.


Rory said...

Hey, just found the blog recently and like it so far. Keep up the good work!

For tabata rowing, why not use the built in interval/rest functionality? I don't have a C2 to remind myself exactly how to do it, but roughly you set the work time for 20 seconds and rest time for 10 seconds. After you've done 8 rounds then you click back through your scores and add them up. This way it doesn't count any momentum/movement during the rest periods.

Patrick Haskell said...

Thanks for the comment, Rory. I've had that suggested to me. However, that interval function isn't part of the oldest C2 monitors. Frankly, I think the momentum produced during the work period that rolls on by during the rest period should count. It's only the bonus row done to keep the clock running that shouldn't count.

I intend to do this again, and I intend to get a clean 1K tabata total. More importantly, however, I simply need to spend more time on the rower.