In 2014 – during my lightweight rowing ‘past’ – I found out what it meant to train too hard.
Over the winter, I was getting faster and faster, but just as the summer race season began, everything started to fall apart. I was unable to train properly, with legs that felt sore even after plenty of rest. Every time I attempted a return to training I was knocked back again. Moreover, I found myself unable to concentrate properly at work, so tired that all motivation seemed to have disappeared.
Most weeks I had been training 12-14 times, with some weeks reaching around 20 hours of rowing and strength training. In the elite rowing world, that’s nothing special, it’s what’s required to reach the top of the sport. I was competing against athletes in the GB squad, university students and a few full-time athletes funding their training with part-time work. Alongside my own training, I had a job in engineering consultancy.
In total, I was rowing or working 50-60 hours per week, with another 10 hours of commuting. That wasn’t leaving much room for recovery.
Training, Periodisation and Recovery
Training for any endurance sport doesn’t just entail doing the same thing every day, the best way to improve fitness is to repeatedly push yourself, hard, and then back off again. This happens both day-to-day (ie. you spread out your high-intensity days), but also over longer cycles of a few weeks – the training load and intensity will gradually ramp up until just before breaking point, and then drop back down to allow you to recover and adapt. Adaptation is, after all, the entire purpose of training.
If you don’t get this quite right, then your body will never recover between intense periods, and instead of a gradual increase in performance, you’ll stop improving or even get slower. Leaving this unchecked for too long leads to what is referred to as overtraining syndrome: you’ll be tired, sore, restless during sleep, constantly getting ill and a whole host of other symptoms. In short, you’ve pushed it too hard and your body’s telling you to stop.
The problem is that many athletes, myself included, won’t back off before it’s too late. There’s a compulsive desire to go out and train – after all, easing off will give your competitors the edge… right?
Illness and Resting Heart Rate
Before 2014, I’d been aware of the dangers of overtraining – my masters actually focussed on heart rate variability and training load – but I’d managed to avoid any serious issues of my own. I thought that I was good at listening to my body and backing off when needed. But I was wrong – the urge to train got the upper hand.
I kept detailed training logs and monitored my resting heart rate and weight religiously, so it is easy to go back and analyse the data from early 2014.
Everything started back in late January. Looking at the green curve on the chart below (resting heart rate), you can see a spike where I had been ill with a virus. In fact, you can see that my heart rate had dropped back to normal (~40bpm) by early February. However, I was trying to get back into training too early; at the end of January I made several attempts to return to training. These were followed by illness again the following day.
Regardless, I did eventually resume full-on training, and what happens next on the graph is rather interesting. Up until the end of February, my heart rate was back in a normal range, but from then on, it seems my resting heart rate actually dropped to a lower level (~37bpm). Rather than being suspicious of this, I just took it to mean that I was fitter. In retrospect, I don’t think that this was the case – I think a combination of factors were leading to my body ‘shutting down’.
Diet & Weight Loss
The blue (and red) lines on the graph detail another contributing factor – as a lightweight rower, I had to weigh-in for races at 70kg1. If you look carefully, you’ll see that I started the year at about 75.5kg, and dropped down to just over 70kg for the rowing trials in April. During that period, I was training on a calorie deficit of about 400kcal per day. That might not sound like much but believe me, it’s not that much fun.
While dieting, it’s a tricky game to get your nutrition right. You need the right balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein, but you also have to think about timing meals carefully around training and how to survive at work when you feel hungry all the time!
Ultimately, I don’t know whether my nutrition was completely correct. I’m not a qualified nutritionist but just someone with a keen interest and a scientific approach. Additionally, as those who know me will no doubt attest, I was already quite lean at 75.5kg, so it’s a reasonable guess that I had very little body fat left at 70kg (and you do need some body fat!2).
There’s also an interesting observation from the graph that resting heart rate is very strongly correlated with body mass. I do not know the exact reasons for this (higher muscle/fat mass = higher RHR? Changes to metabolism to avoid weight loss?3), but it is interesting nonetheless. I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on the matter.
Illness and diet are obviously elements that might contribute to overtraining (or more to its counterpart – under-recovery), but extra stress isn’t going to help either. I am naturally a “worrier”, but leading up to the trials in April, I was stressed at work and in my personal life too. Hardly ideal.
Symptoms in Training
Despite all of these factors above, I simply carried on with the training regardless. However, I was becoming concerned. I was not recovering adequately between sessions, and I started to notice differences in my heart rate during training – it was too low. I was finding that I could go out rowing and be unable to push my heart rate up to its normal training levels. It was almost as if my heart was lethargic; a little voice saying, “must you? I’m tired!”.
After ignoring these signs for two months, I raced at the final round of GB trials in April. I hadn’t been feeling quite right in the run-up to the trials, where despite a big “taper” (reducing training load in the run-up to an event), I was still fatigued. However, I was managing some good times in training, and when it comes to your key focus of the year; it’s hard to say no.
Thanks to our unpredictable weather (a strong headwind that was forecast to prevent racing on subsequent days) the format of the trials changed and involved racing three times in one day. Initially I wasn’t concerned, but after the first race I found myself struggling to recover for the semi-finals. I then under-performed in my semi-final, feeling that I had no energy left at all. In fact, between the semi-final and final, I fell asleep in my car… not a good sign!
The final did not go well, as I limped home in last place.
More worrying was how I felt the following week. I had planned to return to work on the Tuesday (after 2 days to recover) but ended up having to take a further two days off. Even then, I found myself completely wiped out and unable to concentrate properly. Over the couple of weeks, I found that my energy wasn’t returning, and attempts to do anything more than very light exercise resulted in excessive fatigue the following day.
The Recovery Path
After a nearly three weeks, I decided it was time to do something and went to see my GP. The GP was able to refer me to a specialist sports doctor, and after several blood tests, ECGs and echocardiogram, the conclusion was that there was nothing obviously wrong (beyond signs of a partial “right bundle branch block” 4 ).
The conclusion really came when analysing my training diary – the viral ‘episode’ back in January seemed to be the starting point. As such, the diagnosis ended up being that I was suffering from post-viral fatigue… from a virus that I had three months beforehand! The cure, unfortunately, was more rest. I could start bringing back in some training, but only shorter sessions < 1hr, capped at a very modest (for me) heart rate of 130bpm.
I followed this advice and thankfully started to see improvements in my energy levels over the subsequent weeks. By mid-June (nearly two months after trials) I was able to bring the training back up to relatively normal (albeit conservative) levels. I was lucky: I managed to pull together a last-minute entry for Henley Regatta, and also prove to the selectors that I was still on track to race at the Commonwealth Rowing Championships.
What is overtraining?
Over the course of this article above, I’ve written at length about “overtraining”, but then described my own diagnosis as post-viral fatigue. Surely this isn’t very coherent? Actually, I think I would include post-viral fatigue as a result of overtraining in athletes. Ultimately, I ended up with post-viral fatigue because I failed to reduce my training in light of illness; I was over-training given the circumstances.
How can I avoid overtraining?
Easily said, but much harder to implement in practice: listen to your body. Largely because I ignored many of these signs last year, I can now highlight a few:
- If you don’t feel well enough to train, don’t. It is easy to worry that you’re missing out, but the rest will do you much more good than the extra training.
- If you see that your heart rate is unusually low during training, ask yourself why. It’s possible that your body is trying to tell you something.
- Keep a careful eye on your diet (more below).
- Look for changes in your mood, weight and resting heart rate that might indicate something’s not right. If you catch yourself before becoming increasingly fatigued then it’ll be easy to recover.
In a weight-category sport, it’s always going to be difficult to manage nutrition, and the more time you can spend on this the better. After talking to my doctor and a nutritionist, I came away with a couple of points that are quite interesting and worth investigating.
- Check that you’re eating enough protein. Particularly while dieting; it’s important to keep protein levels up to help the body recover from training. Enough protein for me, given a daily intake of about 4000kcal, is the best part of 200g. It’s not trivial to consume this much – 200g is what you’d find in five chicken breasts. Dairy can form a good part of this, but meats, beans, nuts and seeds are also invaluable.
- Get your vitamin D levels checked. A surprising number of people (even athletes who spend a good amount of time outdoors) have lower-than-ideal vitamin D levels. If you do find you need more, then oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals are a good source. If you find you’re really deficient, then supplements might be the way forward.
- Lightweight weigh-in is carried out 2 hours before racing, giving some scope for dehydration as a means of weight loss.