Surviving the Overload

How to deal with periods of training overload leading into a race


Whether you’re a professional triathlete training nearly 40 hours a week, or a busy age grouper trying to squeeze in 10 hours between your job and spending time with family, surviving a period of training overload is never easy. During a period of training overload, a significant amount of physiologic stress is placed upon the athlete.  The stress may come in the form of overall volume, duration of an individual session, or intensity.  No matter the form, it taxes the athlete both physically and mentally. It’s common during this period to feel persistent muscle soreness, an elevated resting heart rate, a rate of perceived exertion that seems high for a given physiologic output (heart rate or pace), irritability, self doubt, and flat out fatigue! Athletes must be monitored closely during this phase to ensure that keep balance in the seesaw between stress and recovery. At Breakthrough Performance Coaching, we use both TrainingPeaks and Whoop with our athletes to monitor their training states.  There are certainly risks associated with this type of overload, but if one can survive and adapt, a breakthrough to a new fitness level can be attained.

The key to attaining new fitness level is the adaptation, which takes place during periods of rest and recovery. We work incredibly hard during our training sessions; it’s equally important to work just as hard at recovery. The two most powerful ergogenic tools we have at our disposal are sleep and nutrition. In our super busy world, we seem to be getting less and less sleep. It’s almost a badge of honor to boast about how little sleep we get. Maximizing the amount of sleep during this phase is critical. There are a number of hormonal changes that occur during an overload period. Three of the most important hormones involved here are cortisol, testosterone and human growth hormone. Without adequate sleep, these hormones can become imbalanced and interfere with recovery. This can also lead to illness or injury as well as impaired recovery. In a well-documented study entitled “Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function”, by Speigel et al, 1999, 11 young, healthy men were subjected to 6 consecutive nights of 4 hours sleep. By the end of the six nights, the men exhibited glucose intolerance, impaired athletic recovery, and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The good news is that after resuming adequate sleep levels, their hormonal levels returned to normal. Take your sleep seriously, and if you can get in a nap following your workout, this will jumpstart your recovery by allowing your body to focus on protein synthesis.

Maintaining proper nutrition during this overload phase is also critical. Proper fueling will help you absorb the maximal training benefits. Here are some guidelines on nutrition:

  • Pre-workout – Low-fat, moderate protein, high carbohydrate (CHO) (low to moderate glycemic), low fiber snack 1-4 hours prior.  The snack should be about 1g of CHO/kg of body weight x number of hours prior to event.  This means a 70 kg (155 lb) athlete eating the snack 3 hours before a workout will aim to consume 210 g CHO.  The further away from the workout, the more solid food can be consumed.  As you get closer to the workout, liquid choices become more appropriate.
  • During the workout – We must meet three needs – hydration, glycogen, and electrolytes.
    • You should have a sense of our hydration and electrolyte needs through sweat rate tests performed under various environmental conditions and differing intensity levels.
    • For your glycogen needs, a decent starting point is 1.0 g/kg every hour. This is 70 g or 280 kcal per hour for our 70 kg athlete. High CHO liquids are preferred. Depending on the discipline (bike vs run), intensity, and duration, you may choose to include a bit of protein and amino acids.  It is important to pay attention to the osmolality of the liquid to ensure proper gastric emptying.  Generally a 6–8% CHO solution, which is what most commercially available sports drinks contain, works for most. It is exceptionally important that you train with the same formula that you will be using on race day.
  • Post-workout – This is a crucial component that is often overlooked.  Research shows that refueling enzymatic activity is primed immediately following exercise. Depending on the duration and intensity of exercise, there is a 2 hour, or so, window post-workout during which you have the best opportunity to replace the glycogen used.  If you can get your nutrition in liquid form and within the first fifteen minutes post workout, great!  This should be your goal.  Most of the research suggests a 4:1 CHO to protein ratio with 1-2 g/kg of CHO.  Making the first calories after a workout, especially a strenuous workout, liquid calories will hasten absorption.  After these calories are “in,” you can then shower and eat a “proper” snack/meal.  However, do not miss your window by skipping the liquid meal.  There are many commercially available “recovery” products on the market to make it easy.

Other supplemental modalities to employ are massage (professional or self massage with a foam roller), Normatec recovery boots, an ice bath or compression garments.

As an athlete going through a period of training overload you will experience physical and mental fatigue. Persevere, focus on recovery, and the overload can bring your fitness to new heights.

Jeffrey Capobianco

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