The Endurance Athlete Dilemma

The Endurance Dilemma

This article discusses the fine line between fitness development and overtraining.

The Importance of Rest for Endurance Athletes

As an endurance athlete, you’re probably used to pushing your body to the limit. You will likely know the feeling of pushing hard in workouts and feeling tired in the hours and days post-training. Sometimes this is normal, and we need a certain level of residual fatigue within our bodies when training for an event to allow us to build endurance and progress. However, it’s essential to build proper recovery into your training plan, as rest is just as essential as hard work when it comes to endurance sports.

In today’s article, we will look at what fatigue is, how you can recognise non-functional overreaching and the importance of rest in strengthening your body. 

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Fatigue, What is it?

So, what is fatigue? Fatigue is commonly defined as a decrease in physical performance resulting from exertion. However, this is a significant oversimplification of a process that needs to be fully understood. Many factors contribute to fatigue, including physical and mental stress, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition. However, all of these contribute in some way to a decrease in your body’s ability to perform optimally. 

Fatigue at a cellular level results from exercise, causing damage to the cell structures from reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced during exercise. Your body needs time to rest and recover to remove these ROS and repair the cellular damage. Your body can repair and adapt to the training stimulus with proper rest, and the concept of overload is crucial when it comes to endurance training. Understanding that there is sometimes a delicate balance between functional overload and non-functional overreaching can make a significant difference in your performance and overall well-being. Non-functional overreaching is a state of fatigue that occurs when the body is pushed beyond its capacity to recover adequately. So, what is functional overload?

Functional Overload

Functional overload is the state in which you push your body just enough to stimulate adaptation and improve your performance. It allows for the necessary physiological changes to occur in your body, such as increased cardiovascular efficiency and improved muscular endurance, and coupled with adequate rest and recovery between sessions and possibly some easier training sessions (depending on your current fitness and training history), your body can adapt to the training stress and come back stronger.

Non-Functional Overreaching 

Non-functional overreaching, on the other hand, occurs when you push your body beyond its limits without giving it enough time to recover. This can happen due to excessive training volume, intensity, or both. It can also occur when other stress factors, such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or mental fatigue, are present. When experiencing non-functional overreaching, your body enters a state of prolonged maladaptation. This means that your body cannot recover and adapt to the training stimulus, leading to decreased performance and an increased risk of injury. This can lead to overtraining syndrome, where the symptoms become even more severe and recovery times may be prolonged or absent altogether.

Over Training Syndrome

Overtraining syndrome is the most severe form of non-functional overreaching. It is characterised by a significant decline in performance, chronic fatigue that does not improve with rest, mood disturbances, decreased immune function, and an increased risk of injury. To avoid overtraining syndrome and achieve optimal performance, endurance athletes must prioritise rest and recovery. Clearly, this is a point you don’t want to get yourself to, and you should be paying attention to your body’s signals and taking appropriate rest and recovery measures. One way to monitor this could be through HRV tracking, which can provide insights into your body’s readiness for training and indicate whether you need more rest. Please take a look at one of our previous articles discussing HRV here.


How do I avoid overtraining? 

  1. Have a good plan and structure your training program: It is crucial to have a well-designed training plan that includes rest and recovery periods. This means incorporating rest days, easy training sessions, and lower volume or intensity weeks into your schedule. You can start with the classic three weeks load and one-week de-load approach that works well for most athletes, but it’s essential to listen to your body and adjust the plan as needed. For some older athletes 45+ or those more prone to injury, shorter training cycles followed by more extended rest periods may be required, and a 2-week load and 1-week de-load may be more suitable.
  1. Listen to your body: Pay attention to how your body feels and any signs of fatigue or excessive soreness. If you notice any of these signs, listening to your body and taking the necessary rest is essential. If you feel unusually tired, lethargic, or have prolonged muscle soreness, it’s a sign that your body needs rest. If you have trouble getting to sleep or experience changes in appetite, these are also indications that you may need more recovery time. Also, if your moods are different from usual or you’re feeling irritable and easily agitated, it’s a sign that your body and mind are under stress. Finally, if your performance is plateauing despite your training efforts, it may be a sign that you need to prioritise rest and recovery. The final point is to be mindful, as it’s easy to assume that more training or harder training is required if you are not improving despite your efforts. This is a fast way to dig yourself into a hole that will take a lot of time to get out of or, worse, lead to overtraining syndrome.
  1. Prioritise quality sleep: Good sleep is crucial for recovery and preventing overtraining syndrome. I can’t overstate this; sleep is number one on the list of things that will help you improve. Studies have shown that poor-quality sleep can contribute to symptoms of overtraining and hinder athletic performance. Ensuring you get a good night’s sleep is essential for your body to repair and rebuild from all the hard work you put into training. Getting restful and recuperative sleep is difficult, especially in the modern world, but it is essential for your performance and overall well-being. Try to make sure you go to bed at a similar time each night, reduce your exposure to bright lights in the evening and sleep in a cool dark room to maximise your chances of getting a good night. 
  1. Incorporate active recovery: While rest is essential, it doesn’t mean you must be sedentary during your recovery days. Incorporating active recovery into your routine can aid in the recovery process. This is especially beneficial for those who have been training for some time and have built up to a high training volume. Active recovery can involve light, low-impact activities such as walking, swimming, easy cycling or gentle stretching. These activities help promote blood flow, reduce muscle soreness, and can aid in the removal of waste products from your muscles. Active recovery keeps your body moving and helps prevent stiffness and tightness.
  1. Implement a proper nutrition plan: Proper fueling is essential for recovery and performance optimisation. Without adequate nutrition, your body won’t have the necessary resources to repair and rebuild after training sessions. Ensure you consume a balanced diet that includes various nutrient-dense foods, incorporating healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and good quality protein sources. Think about how your eating habits are structured and how they support your training goals.

In summary, being aware of how training load, your recovery and your mental and physical well-being all play a crucial role in optimising your performance as an endurance athlete is essential to ensure you perform well and maintain a healthy approach to your sport and a good level of consistency which will have a significant effect on your level of performance over the months and years you spend in the sport.

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