In general, most cyclists and endurance athletes believe they need to train hard and feel either tired or "wasted" from most workouts (i.e. more is better). It is now the beginning of July and a lot of athletes continue or are beginning to have feelings of fatigue characterized by a general decrease in performance.
We are so motivated at the beginning of the year; we forget the season can last up to 10 months. The long season, combined with family, work and other daily activities can take its toll rather quickly.
How we get there
Fatigue can come about through a combination of many factors, making it very difficult to pinpoint at times. Beyond off-the-bike issues, the common ingredient is too much on-the-bike intensity. Intensity itself can be difficult to quantify, as it is a dynamic combination of volume (frequency, duration) of training along with actual effort level (e.g., watts/HR during intervals).
In addition, the level of on- and off-bike recovery also affects overall "intensity" of training. This is why monitoring, such as using tools like heart rate and power monitors, along with training diaries, becomes crucial.
At the edge of fitness, where you're aiming for a training stimulus beyond your current capacity, followed by a period of the body adapting to and super-compensating to the workload, there are three terms that are important to understand when diagnosing athletic fatigue:
Acute overload is a good thing. It's the means by which we make athletic improvements, in which limited physical stress (in line with our sporting goals) allows us to improve our physiological performance. View acute overload as doing some type of lactate tolerance or lactate power workout on a given day, followed by recovery the next day.
Over-reaching is also a good thing where we overstress the body longer than we do with acute overload. An example of overreaching may be how you feel during a stage race or in successive days of intense training. It is usually characterized as having lower heart rates, while at the same time still being able to produce just as much power as when you are fresh.
Overtraining, however, is not a good thing. We've gone far past overreaching and our performance has declined significantly. We can't get our heart rates to rise up to normal levels; we don't have the same power or motivation to train or race. Our legs usually feel heavy and our pedal stroke loses its suppleness.
An interesting and far too common occurrence that usually results in overtraining (and eventually fatigue) is when the athlete's performance starts to decrease; their first thought is that they are not fit enough. They then decide they need to train harder. The hole has already begun and by going back and training with more intensity and volume, the hole grows deeper and deeper.
Trying to identify what type of fatigue you have
I think it is very important to understand that there are many forms and causes of fatigue. The first step is to identify specific characteristics of fatigue:
Subjective factors include: appetite and weight loss (or gain), sleeplessness, irritability, lack of motivation and possible depression.
Nervous system factors -- Younger athletes can experience fatigue that affects the sympathetic nervous system, including: higher resting heart rates and blood pressure, sleeping disturbances and elevated basal metabolic rate. Older athletes can experience the symptoms that affect the parasympathetic nervous system. Some examples are: lower resting heart rate and decreased blood pressure as well as early fatigue in your workouts.
Other characteristics of fatigue include more sickness (i.e. colds), aching leg muscles that are sore to the touch and lack of quality sleep.
How to remedy the situation
First and most importantly, you should seek help from a qualified coach and/or medical doctor. Describe the situation in detail and have a blood test done to check for a variety of markers that could be contributing to, or are a result of, fatigue. For example, iron deficiency anemia is a common problem that can be identified with a common blood test.
In addition, have your ferritin levels checked. Ferritin is a protein in the body that binds to iron. Most of the iron stored in the body is attached to ferritin. The amount of ferritin in the blood may help indicate the amount of iron stored in your body.
Enlist help of a good sports psychologist to talk with about performance issues and dealing with the daily stresses of life, while also trying to be an elite level athlete. Probably even more importantly, talk to your partner and support network!
Complete rest or a reduction in training volume and intensity is a sure treatment, but not a final solution. You and your team have to determine the cause of the fatigue, how long to reduce training, and then make the necessary adjustments to prevent the problem in the future. Your training logs can also help in this process.
In closing, prevention is the best cure. The optimal solution is not to get to the point of being fatigued. In terms of a training program, remember that it is better to be over-rested than over-trained. If you begin to go through a period of persistent tiredness, back off and get some rest. A customized training program and good communication with your coach can prevent a chronic problem before it begins.
Having routine checkups from your physician which include blood work can also identify signs before they happen. Consulting with a good sports nutritionist can help give you a diet that meets your athletic needs, a vital component. Think of the long haul and what stresses you are putting onto your body. Good Luck!
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com.