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Coach's Column: Diagnosing and Avoiding Burnout, Have Your Fastest Summer Ever

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |July 29, 2014 12:34 AM

Coach's Column with Ben Ollett: Diagnosing and Avoiding Burnout, Have Your Fastest Summer Ever

Question: How do I know when I'm pushing too hard in training and racing and what can I do to avoid getting burned out?


Answer: This question really hits on the most fundamental principles of training.  We all know that to get faster, you need to train hard and push your body with a progressive overload.  But knowing how much is enough, and how much is too much, is certainly one of biggest questions on every cyclist’s mind.  Overtraining is quite common among endurance athletes. The training mindset of "more is better” is deeply engrained in our culture and because of this, often times a person must experience overtraining firsthand before he or she can truly accept that there is such a thing as "too much.”  Training load is definitely a major part of the equation, but a common misstep is to only consider training load when evaluating a training program.


When I look at an athlete’s program, I try to separate it into 4 factors: 1) Training load 2) Stress levels 3) Quality and Quantity of Sleep and 4) Nutrition.


1)  Training Load

There are a number of ways to quantify training load.  The most accurate is with a power meter.  If you use it on every ride, there are programs such as TrainingPeaks that will take much of the guesswork out the equation by quantifying Training Stress Score (TSS), Cumulative Training Load (CTL), Intensity Factor (IF), and Acute Training Load (ATL), among many other algorithms.  This is a great option for some people, especially those who enjoy data. For others, this method can actually be stress inducing. Training load can also be tracked via hours per week on the bike or total mileage, but both methods are considerably less accurate than power, and rely heavily on an individual’s self-awareness and self-reporting.


2)  Stress

Stress comes in many forms, and is a frequently overlooked factor in a training program.  Physical, mental, and emotional stress all have the same basic effect on the body and on recovery.  Stress has an actual physiological response.  Regardless of what type, stress causes a release of hormones into the bloodstream that have detrimental effects on recovery, performance, and general well-being.  Stressful periods in a person’s life need to be taken into account when designing a training program, and strategies to minimize stress should be part of every athlete’s daily routine. 


3)  Sleep: Quality & Quantity

Sleep is where the bulk of recovery and muscle repair occurs.  Its importance cannot be understated. Without enough sleep, recovery and subsequent fitness gains will take much longer, if they occur at all.  When an athlete gets in a sleep rut of either short hours or fitful, choppy sleep, I will usually postpone any hard training rides until normal sleep patterns have resumed.


4)  Nutrition

The calories that go into your body are not created equal from a nutritional standpoint.  Some have recovery-enhancing effects, while others are recovery-neutral, and others have detrimental effects on recovery and performance.  Nutrition is a topic with many opinions regarding the ‘best’ diet, and it can be hard to sift through at times.  If you have any questions about your nutrition and how to optimize it, I recommend meeting with a qualified nutritionist. 


The process of learning when you are pushing too hard in training and approaching burnout begins with improving your self-awareness.  Pay attention to your general mood, irritability, energy levels, and physical sensations.  Are you grumpy for no apparent reason?  Do your legs burn when you walk up stairs?  Are you achy in general? Do you have to ‘warmup’ for an hour on the bike before you start feeling ok?  These are warning signs that you are accumulating too much fatigue and that you need to back off.  However, sometimes it is expected that you will feel this way, maybe after a hard race or a big weekend of training.  Deciding what is an acceptable amount and duration of fatigue can be difficult. So, I recommend starting a daily training log that looks at the 4 pieces of training discussed above.


1)   Training load  

While training with power makes determining training load very easy, let’s assume you’re not training with power.  Rate your training rides as Easy, Moderate, or Hard.  If you are seeing a lot of Moderate days in your log, you are not designing your schedule properly. I prefer to see a lot of Hard and Easy days.  A 1:1 ratio of Hard:Easy is a great place to start when designing your program.  Also track total hours per week and use caution to not ramp up volume and intensity at the same time.

2)   Stress

Stress management is an area that most people can improve.  Start a Daily Stress Scale in your log from 0-10.  This helps provide a more complete picture of the training cycle when assessing yourself.  If your Stress Score is high, determine what needs to happen to bring it down. Sometimes a bike ride is a great way to relieve stress, but consider backing off of intensity if your stress score is exceptionally high.

3)   Sleep Quality & Quantity

Track your hours of sleep per night in your training log, and rate the quality as poor, moderate, or good.  Make sleep a priority in your life.  It will help more than just your cycling performance.  On easy days, consider skipping the recovery spin and instead go to bed early.  If people bragged more about their hours of sleep instead of their hours on the bike, we’d all be better off.  If you have 2 or more consecutive nights of poor sleep, back off of hard training until you’re back to normal.  Poor sleep can also be indicative of high stress levels, so compare those two factors often.

4)   Nutrition

If you have any question on your diet, consult a nutritionist.  You may be asked to keep a 3-5 day food log, which is a good way to increase your awareness of what you are putting in your body.  It’s important to fuel your body for optimal recovery and performance, but it’s also important to not let nutrition become a source of stress. Find the balance that works for you. 


If at this point, you’re still headed towards burnout, plan a mid-season, week-long break where the bike is off limits!  It can be just the mental and physical rest that you need.  Generally speaking, the saying "Less is More” is a great one to keep in mind, and erring on the side of rest when your training plan is in question is a good rule of thumb.

Ben is a cycling coach and bike fitter with Plan7 Endurance Coaching.  He has coached athletes to a total of 15 US National Championships at the Pro/U23 level in mountain biking and cyclocross as well as a Bronze Medal in Mountain Biking at the London Olympics.  He holds degrees in Exercise Physiology and Sport Pedagogy and is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. Visit for more information.

anonymous 09/20/2014 9:13 PM
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