Saturday, March 21, 2009

Overtraining, part 3 - Enough is enough

So far I've covered the easy stuff - describing what over training is. The challenge is to know when you're sneaking up on getting overtrained and what to do about it, so you don't suffer a setback - whether that comes in the form of illness, a protracted plateau or injury - and to do this without being overcautious and not thereby getting in enough training. There's no crystal ball to make this determination, and striking the right balance between overtraining and undertraining is very much an individual thing.

I'm a person of extremes and habit. When I first hopped on the CrossFit train, I didn't want to get off. If I missed a day, I'd do two a days to catch up. That didn't last long, but in the same vein, sometimes I'll program myself a week of workouts that looks great on paper, but turns out to be a bit much when coupled with the demands of life, and it's very hard for me to let go and dial back the workload midstream. On the flip side, when I need an couple days off and decide to kick back and watch a little TV instead of hitting the gym, my motivation to get back in there and abuse myself CF-style quickly wanes. That shouldn't be a suprise. The body seeks stasis, and the couch is a good deal more comfortable than the second round of Fran.

The general population obviously prefers the couch, but there are lots of CFers who err on the side of overtraining. We want to push as hard as we can, and that's a good thing. So, how do we figure out when to back off?

The science of overtraining is much better developed for endurance athletes - folks who pile on a training volume that dwarfs the output of, say, a Fight Gone Bad, even if it's performed with an intensity that doesn't come close to a sub-20-minute CrossFit WOD. The science for resistance training or hybrid CF-style training is relatively new, but
here's a good article that discusses some of the science of resistance-exercise overtraining that I found researching the subject.

Symptoms of overtraining that seem to apply to CF athletes include (and this is based on my limited experience):
  • Decreased performance;
  • Sleep problems;
  • Decreased coordination (including technical faults in your lifts);
  • Elevated resting heart rate;
  • Moodiness;
  • Increased susceptibility to colds;
  • Lack of energy;
  • Decreased appetite;
  • Random pains (as opposed to workout-related soreness);
  • Decreased confidence and motivation in the gym; and
  • Occurrence of nagging little injuries - muscle strains, sprains, joint tenderness.
Which symptoms affect different people will vary, of course. Performance will suffer for just about anyone, but that can happen for plenty of reasons besides overtraining. I never have problems eating, but if I'm getting overtrained, I'll wake up at 3:30 a.m. every day, get irritable, catch colds, and develop random joint pains. How much the latter three symptoms are related to lack of sleep and how much to overtraining is sort of a moot point. As I said a couple of days ago, overtraining and underrecovery are two sides of the same coin.

I've gotten much better about identifying overtraining. I have an autoimmune disorder that gives me arthritic symptoms when I'm close to catching a cold, and while this has gotten much better since I went to a paleoish diet without as many inflammatory nightshades, I've learned to tune into my joints as an indicator of overtraining the way an old farmer might predict the weather with his rheumatism.

Not everyone is so fortunate as to have a built-in warning system. Of course, mine comes with a price. When the immune system goes haywire, I can get real sick. Last March, after fighting off a cold for over a week and having had a less-than-dedicated winter of training, I decided it was time to hit it again and do the MainPage WOD - Fight Gone Bad. This wasn't a case of overtraining, but it was one of underrecovery, and I paid for my stupidity in the form of a three-week bout with the flu. I've been much smarter this winter, backing off a little when my stress level is way up and some of the warning signs of overtraining are there, especially when my kids are clearly incubating opportunistic viruses for me. It's not so much that I take days off (although that has happened, too), but I tweak my programming to do things that I know don't stress my system too much. Wednesday, I decided against the Filthy 50 I had planned in favor of squats and a short metcon - an intense workout, no doubt - but one with much lower volume and of the type to which my body was more accustomed.

You'll need to develop your own experience with what workouts you can get away with while flirting with overtraining. Workouts that crush you with volume or intensity, like a chipper, a Fran or a Fight Gone Bad are clearly ones to avoid. Likewise, avoiding intense sessions with the types of exercises that brought you to the point of overtraining is obvious. However, a Cindy for you might be like a heavy squat day for me - something that you can do without over-stressing your system and still get in some decent training, even if your performance isn't at it's best.

The question remains, however, how do you know when you're getting overtrained. Getting sick or injured is really too late to figure it out. Beyond self-awareness, there are some tests you can do to see if you might be overtrained. I started trying two of these today, so I have no personal experience upon which to evaluate these yet, but I'll put them out there for you to try.

For volume-related overtraining, track your resting heart rate before you get out of bed in the morning. Elevated metabolic rates are associated with high-volume overtraining, at least among endurance athletes. If your heart rate goes up and stays up for several days in a row, even after a rest day, you might be getting overtrained.

For intensity-related overtraining, do a test to see how many dots you can put on a page in 10 seconds. Again do this first thing in the morning. This one comes from Dan John, who found that for his strength-focused training program, this test worked much better than the resting heart-rate test. The idea behind this is that as instense work overloads the central nervous system, fine-motor skills are the first to go. If you start putting fewer dots on the page, even after a rest day, again you might be getting overtrained.

I tried to establish a baseline for these this morning, but given that I took a 12-hour decongestant to help fight off a head cold and got only 6.5 hours of sleep, my numbers might not be indicative of baseline conditions. My results:

49 bpm
51 dots

I'll try to keep this up for the next few months and see what I learn.


OK, that was lengthy. I'll keep the workout post short and sweet. Another great day in the sun, this time with some finely aged PRs matched and broken.

Cross-country hopscotch
Triangle drill
Hip mobility drills

Skill work
MU progressions - 3 consecutive MUs
Back lever progressions

Heavy stuff
Back squat 45x5, 95x5, 135x5, 185x3, 235x2, 255x5, 265x5, 275x5 (new 5RM)

50 in the clip

    50 burpee C&Js, 95#

Core work
5:00 rolling planks

(Photo from early in the metcon. Form didn't look this good as it went on and even here it looks like I didn't give it a good shrug.)


jenna said...

You come up with the most brutal variations of the Burpee, EVER. Burpee C&J?!? Is that a burpee, followed by a C&J? Sounds....awesome. 50 of them, huh? Great work!

Patrick Haskell said...

I don't come up with the variations, I simply see them and realize that they are anxiously waiting to torture me. Kirez did give me an idea for a wholly new one - the burpee dive forward roll, a certain metabolic/equilibrium challenger.

Toots said...


Thanks for dropping by my blog AND for looking at my digital coaching videos. I wasn't sure at what point to jump back into that thread (haha), but have been talking to Bob on the side about it. I've been slowly working through your blogs here on the overtraining/under recovery. Nice, basic, understandable. I think I've been in under recovery lately so the past few days I've been chosing to sleep longer in lieu of training and although my body feels good, my mind is like, "YOU'RE WEAK!" Oh well, I'll get over it. See you around.

jenna said...

sweet car, btw. I miss my Honda!

Patrick....when are you gonna post again? I'm having withdrawls from your blog. Help!

Patrick Haskell said...

Thanks for the comments, Amber, Jenna. There might be a nice geeky post on overtraining some day, but that presumes I come up with the time to research the particulars of hormonal changes related to overtraining and underrecovery.

I have a particularly good perspective on the latter, working on my 3rd night in a row with less than 6 hours sleep. I've been crazy busy with family and work, so no training, and the rule is train first, then blog.

Elizabeth said...

Great article on overtraining! I need to find out how to email your blog to myself so I can check it more often. The family, work, training, bloging thing is hard to balance. How are the dot drills coming along?