This week, our favorite physiologist Dr. Stephen Seiler is back on the program to talk about something that many of us get wrong: the distinction between overtraining, overreaching, and burnout. Often these terms are used synonymously, but there are many nuanced differences between these conditions, and that’s what we’ll explore in today’s episode.
We’ll dispel any myths about these terms, point out the scenarios that lead to each, and talk through how to avoid the worst outcomes.
While research on overtraining syndrome is still in its nascent phase, we now know more about the complex hormonal and physiological complications that can lead to this debilitating condition.
On the other hand, while the term hasn’t long been defined in the scientific literature, overreaching is a training method with a long history. We’ll differentiate between functional and non-functional overreaching, and how to differentiate between the two.
Then there’s burnout, that lack of motivation or mental fatigue that most likely all of us have experienced at some point. Is burnout an inevitable part of being a bike racer? We’ll discuss.
In addition to Dr. Seiler, we’ll hear from a host of great names in the endurance sports world, including Sebastian Weber from INSCYD, Jim Miller at USA Cycling, pro mountain biker Payson McElveen, and coach Neal Henderson from Wahoo.
One final note before we dive in. In this episode, you’ll hear Coach Connor describe his bout of overtraining syndrome. When we were recording the show, Trevor thought back through the haze of 25 years to try and remember the training volume that led to his Issues. You’ll hear him say it was only 10 hours. On later reflection, he feels it was more like 15 hours per week. And that’s a massive difference, given how he was training at that time. Stay tuned for that discussion.
And with that, let’s make you fast!
- Aubry, A., Hausswirth, C., Louis, J., Coutts, A. J., Buchheit, M., & Meur, Y. L. (2015). The Development of Functional Overreaching Is Associated with a Faster Heart Rate Recovery in Endurance Athletes. PloS One, 10(10), e0139754. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0139754
- AUBRY, Anaë., HAUSSWIRTH, C., LOUIS, J., COUTTS, A. J., & MEUR, Y. L. (2014). Functional Overreaching: The Key to Peak Performance during the Taper? Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(9), 1769–1777. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000000301
- Bellinger, P. (2020). Functional Overreaching in Endurance Athletes: A Necessity or Cause for Concern? Sports Medicine, 50(6), 1059–1073. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01269-w
- Buyse, L., Decroix, L., Timmermans, N., Barbé, K., Verrelst, R., & Meeusen, R. (2019). Improving the Diagnosis of Nonfunctional Overreaching and Overtraining Syndrome. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 51(12), 2524–2530. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000002084
- Halson, S. L. (2014). Monitoring Training Load to Understand Fatigue in Athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(Suppl 2), 139–147. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0253-z
- Halson, S. L., Bridge, M. W., Meeusen, R., Busschaert, B., Gleeson, M., Jones, D. A., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2002). Time course of performance changes and fatigue markers during intensified training in trained cyclists. Journal of Applied Physiology, 93(3), 947–956. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01164.2001
- Halson, S. L., Bridge, M. W., Meeusen, R., Busschaert, B., Gleeson, M., Jones, D. A., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2002). Time course of performance changes and fatigue markers during intensified training in trained cyclists. Journal of Applied Physiology, 93(3), 947–956. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01164.2001
- Halson, S. L., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2004). Does Overtraining Exist?: An Analysis of Overreaching and Overtraining Research. Sports Medicine, 34(14), 967–981. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200434140-00003
- HAUSSWIRTH, C., LOUIS, J., AUBRY, A., BONNET, G., DUFFIELD, R., & MEUR, Y. L. (2014). Evidence of Disturbed Sleep and Increased Illness in Overreached Endurance Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(5), 1036–1045. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000000177
- Hawley, C. J., & Schoene, R. B. (2003). Overtraining syndrome: a guide to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31(6), 25–31. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3810/psm.2003.06.396
- Kreher, J. (2016). Diagnosis and prevention of overtraining syndrome: an opinion on education strategies. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 7, 115–122. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2147/oajsm.s91657
- Lehmann, M., Baur, S., Netzer, N., & Gastmann, U. (1997). Monitoring high-intensity endurance training using neuromuscular excitability to recognize overtraining. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 76(2), 187–191. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s004210050233
- Lemyre, P.-N., Roberts, G. C., & Stray-Gundersen, J. (2007). Motivation, overtraining, and burnout: Can self-determined motivation predict overtraining and burnout in elite athletes? European Journal of Sport Science, 7(2), 115–126. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/17461390701302607
- Meur, Y. L., Louis, J., Aubry, A., Guéneron, J., Pichon, A., Schaal, K., … Hausswirth, C. (2014). Maximal exercise limitation in functionally overreached triathletes: role of cardiac adrenergic stimulation. Journal of Applied Physiology, 117(3), 214–222. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00191.2014
- Meur, Y. L., Pichon, A., Schaal, K., Schmitt, L., Louis, J., Gueneron, J., … Hausswirth, C. (2014). Evidence of Parasympathetic Hyperactivity in Functionally Overreached Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Publish Ahead of Print, 1. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1097/mss.0b013e3182980125
- Nieman, D. C., Groen, A. J., Pugachev, A., & Vacca, G. (2018). Detection of Functional Overreaching in Endurance Athletes Using Proteomics. Proteomes, 6(3), 33. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3390/proteomes6030033
- Saw, A. E., Main, L. C., & Gastin, P. B. (2016). Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(5), 281. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2015-094758
- SELYE, H. (1946). THE GENERAL ADAPTATION SYNDROME AND THE DISEASES OF ADAPTATION1. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 6(2), 117–230. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1210/jcem-6-2-117
- Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome*. British Medical Journal, 1(4667), 1383. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.1.4667.1383
Overreaching, Overtraining, and Burnout with Dr. Stephen Seiler
Speakers: Chris Case, Dr. Stephen Seiler, Jim Miller, Trevor Connor, Neal Henderson, Sebastian Weber, and Payson McElveen
Chris Case 00:12
Hello, and welcome to Fast Talk your source for the science of cycling performance. I’m your host Chris Case. This week our favorite physiologist, Dr. Steven Seiler is back on the program to talk about something that many of us get wrong: the distinction between overtraining, overreaching, and burnout. Often these terms are used synonymously. But there are many nuance differences between these conditions. And that’s what we’ll explore. In today’s episode, we’ll dispel any myths about these terms, point out the scenarios that lead to each and talk through how to avoid the worst outcomes. While research on overtraining syndrome is still in its nascent phase, we now know about the complex hormonal and physiological complications that can lead to this debilitating condition. And we will discuss that in depth. On the other hand, overreaching, and that term, hasn’t long been defined in the science literature. But as a training method, it has a long history. we’ll differentiate between functional and non-functional overreaching and how to differentiate between those two scenarios when it comes to your training. Then there’s burnout, that lack of motivation, lack of get up and go, that mental fatigue, that most likely all of us have experienced at some point. Is burnout an inevitable part of being a bike racer? We’ll discuss.
Chris Case 01:36
In addition to Dr. Seiler today, we’ll hear from a host of great names in the endurance sports world, including Sebastian Weber from INSCYD, Jim Miller at USA Cycling, pro mountain biker Payson McElveen, and coach Neal Henderson from Wahoo.
Chris Case 01:52
One final note before we dive in. In the episode you’ll hear Coach Connor describe his bout of overtraining syndrome. When we were recording the show, Trevor thought back the haze of 25 years to try and remember the training volume that led to his issues. You’ll hear him say in the program it was only 10 hours. On later reflection, he feels it was more like 15 hours per week. And that’s a massive difference, given how he was training at that time. So, stay tuned for that discussion.
Chris Case 02:22
With that, let’s make you fast.
Chris Case 02:29
This episode of Fast Talk is brought to you by Whoop. Whoop is a fitness wearable that provides personalized insights on the performance of your sleep, how recovered your body is and how much stress you put on your body throughout the day from your workouts to the normal stressors of life. I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the bootstrap is this sleep coach that they offer. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Trevor Connor 02:54
Yeah, something I like about this sleep coach is it’s more than just a number. So, they do give you in the morning a percentage score of how well you slept.
Chris Case 03:04
Trevor Connor 03:05
Right. Which I look at but then I I think the value is diving into it. You can really go, no pun intended, deep where you can see the whole heart rate profile of your night asleep. So, you can see when you are awake, when you are in deep sleep, when you are in REM sleep. It’ll really tell you a lot about how much was I waking up, how much was I’m moving around, how much good quality deep sleep did I get? You can dissect the nightly sleep patterns and learn a lot about yourself. Then once you’ve start to dissect that and learn what your typical sleep pattern looks like that actually is something that also goes beyond the assessment, they give you as be able to look at a bad night or a particularly good night and see how it varies from what you are used to.
Chris Case 03:57
Well, it’s always a pleasure Dr. Seiler, Dr. Steven Seiler, to have you on the program. Welcome back to Fast Talk.
Dr. Steven Seiler 04:05
Well, thanks, guys. I feel pretty at home here in the hot seat with you guys.
Chris Case 04:10
Nice! Even though you’re way over there and Kristiansand, Norway, enjoying a lovely late summer day?
Dr. Steven Seiler 04:18
That’s right. The first twinges of fall seem to be in the air. So fall comes a bit earlier here in Norway, I guess it does than in a lot of the United States.
Chris Case 04:30
I know you want to get right into telling a story about the backstory of this episode. Trevor, you got scolded publicly – chastised.
Trevor Connor 04:37
Oh I did, I’m glad we went right there. Yeah. So this is not the typical subject that we’ve talked with you about Dr. Seiler, but this is, I think it was a Twitter post.
Chris Case 04:48
Trevor Connor 04:49
I mentioned burnout. And you rightfully chastise me saying I was using the term burnout incorrectly. And that sparked this episode. There are all these different terms, there’s overreach and there’s different types of overreaching, we’ll talk about, there’s overtraining, there’s burnout – and they are not the same things.
Chris Case 05:11
Right. Sometimes people use those terms interchangeably and incorrectly. So, you know, this episode is about differentiating those, talking about each of those, their attributes, the complications thereof, maybe even, how you back out of these things and how complicated that situation can be. So yeah, overtraining versus overreaching versus burnout, and all the complexities.
Trevor Connor 05:36
I was commenting that I can’t hear these terms again for another week. I spent so much time over the weekend practicing them just to make sure I get them right.
Chris Case 05:44
Well, we’re all going to be on each other to make sure that the correct terminology is used in each situation. I can almost guarantee one of us is going to make a mistake but, let’s all try to keep each other on track.
Trevor Connor 06:00
But to get us started, who wants to take on the kind of one minute overview, what is the difference between these three things?
Chris Case 06:10
Yeah. Let’s, let’s hear from Dr. Seiler.
Functional overreaching versus non-functional overreaching
Dr. Steven Seiler 06:13
Well, yeah, you know, just to complete the puzzle, I think you could even start with a fourth one, but it’s the easiest one because it gets us started. And that is, you do a workout, and you’re tired after. And that’s normal, you know, that, that we train, and we’re fatigued, immediately after, and maybe for hours after to the next day, and hopefully we were recovered, we train it again. So, this is a cycle that we go through all the time as athletes. Now we take it a step higher. And we’re in a normal training routine we’re pushing but now we want a little extra we want to really, you know, we add some volume, or we add an extra interval session each week or we add even more, and we start stretching that rubber band you might say as a metaphor, with the intention that it will bounce back. We’ll get a kind of an overshoot. And that’s that classic general adaption syndrome from our hero, Salya way back decades ago. Athletes use this, you know, in training camps in preparation for big events – they really dig in, they have the intention of sometimes digging a bit of a hole for themselves, swimmers are notorious for this, and then getting a super compensation. And if they get that right, then that’s what we call functional overreaching. So it’s an intentional you know, taking out the shovel digging a bit of a hole for yourself, physically, where performance actually declines a bit. Really, you know, you’re pushing the volume, you’re pushing the training load, and then you let up on the on the gas pedal, you give your body some recovery time in a taper, and you get, you know, maybe a 3% overshoot. Well, that’s fantastic. So that’s so that’s functional overreaching, it may take days, up to maybe two weeks to come all the way back and get that overshoot.
Dr. Steven Seiler 08:25
Now, non-functional overreaching. It’s not hard to imagine that that just you took it too far. It didn’t work, you end up kind of damaging the rubber band and it doesn’t, you don’t get the overshoot and in fact, you get a delayed recovery. So, you, you’re starting down that pathway towards a more profound and more long-term deficit functionally. And this can take several weeks, maybe a month to come back from, maybe two months to come back from. But it’s fuzzy – the key difference definitionally between functional and non-functional is just it’s the function. Did you get that super compensation as planned or did you end up limping back to normalcy after weeks of things not going well? And that championship event you were supposed to be really primed for you end up sucking, you know, you just weren’t there because you ended up pushing too hard. That’s a typical non-functional overreaching situation.
Trevor Connor 09:36
That’s really important. You can even see a non-functional overreach if it takes too long to come out of it. If it takes a month or longer. You can D-train so you can come out of it weaker, not stronger.
Dr. Steven Seiler 09:48
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a critical distinction. And let’s be honest, I would almost say functional overreaching is not for beginners. That process, it’s usually, it tends to be successful in athletes and coaches, coach athlete groups or teams, that really are tuned in, and they know how much they can stretch that rubber band. They know, they’ve learned through experience, what the athlete tolerates. Because it is, it’s tricky, and it can easily go the wrong way.
Chris Case 10:28
Yeah, you’ve used the rubber band analogy, you could also maybe talk about walking sort of right up to an edge with overreaching, and if you don’t get it right, you go off the cliff, or if you stretch the rubber band too much, you snap that rubber band, and that’s where we get into problems.
Trevor Connor 10:47
A lot of coaches like talking about the razor’s edge. So functional overreaching is going to the edge, non-functional overreaching is going over the edge.
Dr. Steven Seiler 10:56
Yeah, and there’s there are some sports – swimming I think would be the one I see most common that functional overreaching is almost built into the psyche of the athlete. It’s almost like they don’t know how to not do that before a major competition. They really dig in deep they count on that kind of super compensation from a hard overreach situation. But there’s been some research, there are some studies that say that, you know, they’re not even sure this actually works, you know, that if you just train smart, you end up the same place. So, the whole idea, I think it does work for some, if they know how to do it, if they get that increase appropriate because it always involves an increase in training load, either through volume or intensity or both. So you are purposefully increasing the load at a higher rate of increase than you normally would. And that’s usually a recipe for problems. You know, when you do a pretty drastic increase in volume, or overall training stress, then there will be some negative consequences. Here the goal is that, yes, we want that to happen, but we we’re going to control it so well that it’s going to give us a bounce back. Yeah, that’s what you’re gambling on.
Trevor Connor 12:29
I did a lot of research for this one. But I think this study or review I spent the most time on that I found really interesting was from this year, February of 2020, by Doctor Bellinger, and the title of it is “Functional overreaching and endurance athletes: a necessity or cause for concern.” And he makes a pretty good case for the fact that well, yes, you can get a super compensation from functional overreach. When you look at studies that compare functionally overreached athletes to athletes who just increase their training load but don’t get functionally overreached, you see pretty equal super compensation. So, he’s really questioning is it necessary at all?
Chris Case 13:11
Well, and we’re going to get into this more later, but that brings up the question of how does one determine if they’re functionally overreached or not? And I know that’s a tricky thing to answer, and we’ll get into that later. But that is the first thing that springs to mind.
Trevor Connor 13:30
If there’s ever been a guest on our show who’s been precise about the definition of terms, it’s Sebastian Weber, the head physiologist at INSCYD and for good reason. He understands that you can go in the wrong direction if you’re not clear on what you’re talking about. So, we had him on the show recently, we had to ask him his definition of overtraining.
Trevor Connor 13:51
What’s the difference between overreaching and overtraining?
Sebastian Weber 13:55
I cannot tell you because the definition obviously of overtraining is pretty weak. So, if you cannot define one of two items, you cannot compare them appropriately.
Trevor Connor 14:04
So that’s interesting. But talk a little bit about that with overtraining and why you feel the definition is weak and what you think of it as.
Sebastian Weber 14:13
So why I think the definition of overtraining is weak it, there are tons of papers, and it’s very difficult to really get a grip on how you – maybe I should not say define – but how you diagnose overtraining, because there’s so many different aspects to it. And the only common ground so to speak is maybe a drop in performance. And then you have to distinguish between fatigue and overtraining. Right. So that’s, that’s really, really a difficult piece here. There’s not so much really, I think, I can contribute to that beside the definition is difficult. And the only thing maybe I can contribute to that is saying that when you have the symptoms of like, have some symptoms of overtraining, then I would like to believe that is mostly derived from a kind of central fatigue. So, if you’re talking about hormone systems, we are talking, mostly about hormone systems which react, or you can link to a phenomenon of overtraining. The muscle itself is pretty resistant and very, very good adaptable to whatever kind of training load and the muscle itself has also huge amount, a huge ability to recover. If it is in the event, it is in the right environment and this is then you know, a little bit messed up to say in an overtrained scenario. For me, overtraining refers mostly to more like central, you know, central fatigue or central issues or problems going on and not so much on the local muscular level.
Trevor Connor 15:58
How do you identify that in your athletes, like how would you be – what do you look forward to saying to an athlete, this isn’t normal training fatigue, you’re off course we need to adjust.
Sebastian Weber 16:10
Now for me we are talking more about how to get a grip on fatigue and recovery. And for me, one of the most important things, believe it or not, is talk to the athlete. Talk to the athlete and get his feeling. Sometimes it is on purpose that the athlete is fatigued and doesn’t feel fresh, and you know, it’s a little bit tired and feel slow and so on. And sometimes it’s not on purpose. That’s important to communicate with your athlete, even maybe write it as a training problem. Like, you know, in this session on this week, be ready to feel overtired, more like muscular fatigue whatsoever. So, first important thing for me is talk to your athlete. And then the second thing is there are some measures which you wish you can look at. I personally look at heart rate kinetics and heartrate to power kinetics is one indicator and the training. Also, to get a grip on some inflammation, what might be possibly going on during the training, you might want to call it heart rate uncoupling. Don’t treat these things as the lucky term for that, but nice term. Anyway, because it’s difficult also to distinguish from dehydration, but that’s something I look at, personally, then if it’s really like an ongoing thing, we normally do a full metabolic profile, so we don’t do a full test and look what’s going on in VO2 max and so on. Because especially VO2 Max, you will be able to see fatigue or overreaching or non-recovery and drop off performance. That is one of the very first metrics that actually will react. So that’s a good indicator and then on the short-term level, what I used was hormone levels, so we will check in the saliva. If you do in training, we will check for example for cortisol reactions. Normally, if you are, if you’re fresh, then you would see a reaction of cortisol levels after hard effort. And there’s technologies where you can either, for example, monitored on a daily basis like morning measurements, which is important because cortisol levels depend on the on the time of the day as well. But we will actually use it also in training where which say, okay, you know, like that, for example, say, it’s Wednesday, you had to hydrate on Sunday, and you want to understand, okay, are we ready yet? And the athlete also is not really sure, do we want to do another hot effort, we just want to keep going easy for so today. We could do just one hard effort for a few minutes, three, four minutes, two minutes, something in that ballpark – measure as a call to the levels afterwards, if it spikes, it’s a good sign that you are, quote, unquote, fresh again or fresh enough. If it doesn’t spike up, it has a blended reaction, then the attitude is not fresh, and you should maybe keep going easy. So, these are some of the tools I’ve been using.
Overtraining versus burnout
Trevor Connor 19:11
So, before that let’s finish defining overtraining and burnout and then we can talk about how to differentiate them.
Dr. Steven Seiler 19:18
Right. So, if you go several steps further and if you have an athlete that has solved every problem with doubling down on training load, meaning that when it hasn’t gone well, they have answered that problem by saying well I need to train more, they will be a candidate for that ultimate problem, which is overtraining. This overtraining syndrome. Now, the reason overtraining has been given this extra word at the end, a “syndrome” is because syndromes mean that there are several ways to get there. When that happens, in other words, there’s this set of symptomologies that may happen because of several different mechanisms, then they end up calling it a syndrome. And that’s kind of where we’re at with overtraining. You can be overtraining, like, I talked to a national team coach, and he says, look, we’ve had overtraining cases because of viruses because of infections, where you got this highly trained athlete that is on the razor’s edge, but they’re okay they’re doing well. Then they get mono or some other kind of virus that drags them down and they keep training, and the combination puts them into this overtraining state. That happens. But another way it happens, and the more probably more typical way that happens, is just a long-term pushing the volume and you know, the total load too hard and not recovering.
Dr. Steven Seiler 20:57
Basically, one way of calling it is overtraining, but you could call it also under recovery syndrome. It’s pretty hard to distinguish the two because they’re two sides of the same coin. And in fact, if you look at the historical literature, under recovery has been one of the terms that’s been used. And I should forgive you Trevor for also using burnout because that term has also been used synonymously with overtraining. So, the literature is itself, it has been kind of what should I say inconsistent. And I think part of that is just that science has taken a while to figure this out. They’ve looked at different things, seen different symptomologies, different snapshots of a, what we might say is a continuum. And I think that’s where we’re at in our understanding of this is that we’re really looking at a continuum, in a stress and recovery kind of balance and to different degrees that that this stress recovery balance becomes shifted or out of balance and how the body responds.
Trevor Connor 22:15
I think you brought up a couple of important points one about overtraining, the fact that it’s not just you trained even harder than you did for overreach. But I think all the definitions I read had something on the lines, and I’m reading this right out of one review, says part of the criteria for overtraining is an additional trigger beyond excessive training load. So that’s what you’re saying there’s something else like a virus or something. And as you pointed out, when I didn’t use burnout correctly, burnout is much more mental. So that simply you just look at your bike and go I don’t want to touch that.
Chris Case 22:51
What is the literature saying now about the true definition of burnout? Is it exclusively mental or is it a combination of physical and mental?
Dr. Steven Seiler 23:01
If I were going to do just the poor men distinguish, you know, how do I distinguish these; I would -for me, overtraining is a physical syndrome, but it can have obvious psychological consequences. Whereas burnout, at least from the way – the literature I’ve read, burnout is more a mental stress related syndrome that can have physical consequences.
Trevor Connor 23:27
When I was reading about burnout, one of the things they talked about was monotony. There’s actual metrics for monotony, but its kind of the term explains it fairly well. And there’s just certain point where you get tired of the training where mentally it just gets tougher and tougher. And you just hit that point where you just don’t want to keep doing it. You just can’t keep pushing yourself. So, in some ways, I would even say there is a form of burnout that happens in most athletes towards the end of the season where you’re just like, I’m ready to be done.
Chris Case 23:58
Dr. Steven Seiler 23:59
And you might call that a functional burnout; in the sense that, yeah, it they almost should be there at the end of the season. But then they know that now that now the recovery period is coming. So, you’ve kind of timed everything so that they’ve used up that motivational energy at the right time.
Chris Case 24:18
Exactly. Yeah. It’s a spectrum here, as you were saying that the overtraining syndrome is never a good thing. It’s out in the extreme, to the left or to the right, whichever you prefer. Overreaching, however, sort of done correctly is a can be a positive thing. It’s what a lot of athletes use to get better. But it also has potential to be a negative thing. Burnout on the other end of the spectrum is never really a positive thing, but it’s less extreme than overtraining.
Trevor Connor 24:52
Now, burnout can occur while you’re also overtrained or overreached, they go hand in hand. Dr. Jeukendrup back in 2004, wrote a review where he questioned whether it was a continuum from acute fatigue, to overreaching to overtraining. It did make the argument that actually overtraining might be something different, that can happen concurrently. The other really important thing to point out is they didn’t officially define overreach until 2006. So, this is evolving, and it was it was right around then when this concept of functional and non-functional came around and when you are talking about so when you hear people say, oh, I’m, I’m overtrained, I’m really tired, I need time off. Normally what people are actually talking about is nonfunctional overreach. As Dr. Seiler said, overtraining is actually really rare. Right?
Dr. Steven Seiler 25:45
Right. Yeah. Most of the people listening to this show, because statistically speaking, most of them are not pros. They’re not elites, their age groupers, they’re guys that have normal jobs and so forth. So, it’s really hard for them to hit a true overtraining state. But that terminology it’s just kind of like the term anaerobic. It just kind of gets misused a lot and used for anything high intensity now everybody so I’ve gone anaerobic or now I’m overtraining. So unfortunately, the term is misused. I do think though a lot of age groupers are chronically overreached; meaning they’re in that stagnation phase that you could call nonfunctional overreaching. But then it gets tricky to say, are they overreached or are they just training wrong?
Chris Case 26:44
Dr. Steven Seiler 26:47
And really to be honest, when I was kind of trying to find my legs as a sports scientist and decide what I wanted to do, I was looking at all – that’s when this overtraining research was really in its peak. I said, well, you know, I don’t really want to study how you do it wrong, I would kind of like to figure out how to do it right. How to – if all that, if this is the wrong thing to do, then what’s the right thing to do? What’s correct training look like? And that was really, in a way, my motivation for kind of going down that pathway that I have, which has been more on these issues of trying to optimize the training process and all this intensity distribution and so forth. But what’s interesting about it is it ends up going full circle, because after 20 years of doing this, when I look at trying to understand correct training, it is about that fine-tuned balance between signal and stress. Which, you know, years ago, that’s what overtraining the literature was talking about is overtraining is fundamentally a failure to get the balance between training and recovery or training and stress, or signal and stress. You can you choose your metaphors to get that right. So, it’s the back side of all the research, all those things we talked about with intensity distribution and volume progression and all of that. They are intimately related, in my mind. It’s kind of approaching the problem from different directions. And the problem with understanding overtraining and overreaching is you really can’t diagnose it until it’s already happened. You are kind of like ‘Yep, that was a train wreck.’ Well, it’s a little late.
Training and recovery
Trevor Connor 28:51
We asked Jim Miller, USA, cycling’s chief of sports performance, his thoughts on overreaching and he also brought up that important balance between training and recovery.
Chris Case 29:03
How do you explain or what’s your definition of overreach versus overtraining versus burnout and what have you seen in athletes you’ve worked with?
Jim Miller 29:15
I think it’s always under resting. Your body is actually really capable of handling a massive amount of anything you throw at it. I always use the grand tour for example. If if anybody were to write 21 days of six-hour rides, with two rest days, but on those rest days, you have to ride an hour and a half, so you don’t shut down. Everybody in the right mind be like that’s an insane training program. What idiot writes this? But yet, guys do it three times a year and they’ve done it for 75 years. So, you’re humanly capable of it. The issue is always under resting. I think people under rest – that’s most of their issues. And you do it, for example, you do a 10-day training block, ideally, after five days athlete generally says, I feel okay. You as a coach say, okay, let’s do a little bit of work, or you as a coach say we’ve rested for almost seven days, and it’s time to go back to work. But if they’re not rested, they’re not rested. And any time I think you finished training blocks or hard racing blocks, the first thing that has to happen is they have to be rested. Without the rest, then the next block isn’t as good.
Trevor Connor 30:41
I wrote an article a long time ago that was a little bit controversial, but that was the theme of it. And my message was, there’s no such thing as overtraining, there’s only under recovery.
Jim Miller 30:53
That’s what I think, and you know, the same human I guess sort of analogy is, as humans we’re just so adaptable to anything. It’s like you can, if you stay in four seasons everywhere you travel, you become accustomed to Four Seasons and you believe that you can only stay in a Four Seasons. Vice versa if you’re a prisoner of war and you get put in a cage, ultimately you can become fairly accustomed to that cage and you just adapt to the circumstances and survive. So, I really think with training if you rest appropriately then you can pretty much throw anything at them that you want to throw at them.
Chris Case 31:41
I guess the question becomes, in this I know is a big question: How do you know what is the appropriate amount of rest? What do you look for in an athlete to understand whether they’re leading towards being overtrained or burnout? Do you use, do you look for signs in their mood, do you use devices? Is it all of those things? Look at the comments they’re making in in their training records?
Jim Miller 32:08
Yes, all of it. I think you have to. That’s where I think not one metric tells a story, but collectively they will tell you what is happening if you look for them. And for me, really, at the end of a training block before we start another training block. I like to hear them, I like to talk to them and hear their voice, what they may say in a text or what they put in their training notes, whatever analytics you’re using or saying those are all good and very object able, but I like to hear them. Especially if I know it was a really hard training block and then make my decision that way. And a lot of times with rest I’ll – if there’s a time to err on the side of caution that’s it. So, if I’m undecided, like do we start training today? Do we start training tomorrow? I will almost always just default too tomorrow. Giving it another day doesn’t hurt, one day of rest won’t make or break.
Jim Miller 32:13
But getting back to training before you’re ready, that makes a big difference.
Jim Miller 32:43
Yep. And if you listen to athletes, right, they’re always going to tell you they’re good. Just always.
Chris Case 33:14
Yes, yes. Well, especially if you built warriors, right?
Jim Miller 33:19
Yeah, that’s it. They’re good. They’re ready to go. And that’s where you have to proceed with caution.
Trevor Connor 33:28
What is the way of indicating you’re heading towards a non-functional overreacher, or even overtraining? And they so far have not been able to find a biomarker. They found hormonal changes, but they basically said any sort of, even just acute fatigue, is going to produce those hormonal changes. So, there’s minor changes in immune function, but nothing that really gives you that big red flag. So the way – when you look at the definitions how they show the differences between these, this nonfunctional, functional overreach and overtraining, the biggest one is just length of recovery, which doesn’t really help you because you have you don’t know until you’re in it.
Chris Case 34:14
Dr. Steven Seiler 34:16
How bad was it – that’s very, not very useful to us at all.
Trevor Connor 34:21
If it takes you days to a week to recover, that’s functional overreach, takes weeks to a month that’s nonfunctional, but takes you months to years, you are overtrained. But that’s after the fact.
Chris Case 34:33
Yeah, yeah. Not very helpful in the moment.
Trevor Connor 34:36
But another one that can be helpful that a lot of the more recent studies and reviews that I read is a drop in performance. If you are pushing yourself, so in all these, you’re going to feel fatigued, even just that acute fatigue, you’re talking about. If you go and do a couple of hard training days you’re going to be fatigued. But it’s one of the lines that you can cross is when you start seeing your performance drop. Then you’re starting to get over that razor’s edge.
Dr. Steven Seiler 35:06
Right. And a drop in performance is the golden criteria. For all of these, they’re all associated with a state where the athlete’s performance has declined, despite the maintenance or even an increase in training load. So that definition is there for all three states but, what comes after that is the difference. So, you’re right, that’s the first signal. But then I guess what you also want to start looking for is – I’m seeing a drop in performance, you know, this workout these last two or three workouts, I, I’m not holding my usual threshold power during these threshold sessions. I’m down 20 watts. So that’s the first canary in the coal mine for sure. And then, you know, often you, I would want to, if I’m the coach, I’m going to want to triangulate that with some other stuff, you know, heart rate and perceived exertion, is this feeling harder. Or initially you may see that the athletes you’re seeing this decoupling, the heart rates are higher than they should be but then later in the process they actually may be lower. Then that’s corresponding to the fact that the entire system has become depressed, so their max heart rate has gone down. So, heart rate is tricky. Blood lactate may go down, but that also can be associated with their max lactate is going down. So, you know there’s different phases in this development that you can try to capture by triangulating with physical performance, we always, we’re measuring power and pace for key workouts where we kind of have a good idea of where they should be. And then we’re looking at perceived exertion either using the metrics or just using good sensitive, you know, feeling. And we’re doing a little physiology were, you know, occasionally measuring heart rate and lactate, and we’re looking at that relationship, and is it changing in an unknown or an abnormal way. So, the same tools that we use for monitoring they’re the tools that are available to us for trying to avert the beginning of an overreach situation? Or titrate it really carefully if that’s the goal.
Trevor Connor 37:47
You brought up that really important one of the, that drop-in heart rate. So, there’s some recent studies that talk about parasympathetic hyperactivity, which is just going to bring that heart rate down. So, see at both maximal and submaximal intensities, your heart rate lower than normal. You also see after an effort; your heart rate comes down much quicker. And I certainly when I’m working with my athletes when I have them do a fatigue block, I don’t once I see that drop in the heart rate, I don’t like to see them go that much longer before we take a break. Now when you talk about Tour de France athletes, they’re in that state after the first week and then just keep pushing through it for a couple weeks. And we’ll talk about how, like what’s a normal training heart rate becomes their max by the end of the Tour de France.
Dr. Steven Seiler 38:36
For sure. The Tour de France is an excellent example. I would for most you know, for the domestics, you know, the guys like that that’s it’s a non-functional overreach protocol for them. Occasionally, you’ll hear, you know, Tour de France riders that maybe were protected enough that they were able to pick and choose their battles that they can almost go straight from there. A week later they’ve competed and track championships and taken gold medals, you know. So it can be that extreme three-week loading can either be functional overreaching, or non-functional overreaching, depending on their position in the peloton, what their role is, and so forth. But for sure, it’s an overreach situation for them.
Differentiating between overtraining and extreme overtraining
Trevor Connor 39:25
Yep. Now, I think the really the most interesting part of this, the conversation we’re going to have today is this difference between functional and non-functional overreaching, and whether it’s needed. But before we go there, do we just want to dive into overtraining and try to explain to everybody how extreme overtraining is, just so that people understand how much we’re differentiating this.
Chris Case 39:49
Yeah, I think it’s, it’s worth illustrating the extreme nature of this, how, you know, that would help people understand that when they tossed that term around there using it incorrectly, most likely. I know, Trevor, you have personal experience here so we can, we can have you share that as well. I guess one of the questions I have, and I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to this is: how long you have to go – you know, you’re talking about the Tour de France being three weeks, it’s really hard. It’s an overreach situation for most guys. It’s a non-functional overreach situation, how long would well they’re not a good example maybe to bring up here but, for the average person, how long do they have to go in an nonfunctional overreach situation to tip over the edge and it to become overtraining syndrome? Is it’s not that easy to answer that question, I would assume.
Trevor Connor 40:44
I do think one of the important points was the, every definition that I read said there needs to be some sort of concurrent stressor. So, I actually think that there’s a certain point you can train yourself as hard as you want. You can put yourself deep into nonfunctional overreach. But I think at some point you’re going to shut down before you hit that true overtraining syndrome without other factors involved. Dr. Seiler, would you agree with that? Or do you think you can truly train yourself, just with training too hard, get yourself to that state?
Dr. Steven Seiler 41:19
Yeah, I’m not sure. I suspect that there have been cases of just a pure, an overtraining situation that’s occurred just as a function of continuously doubling down on the training. And I think that’s where, that’s why this is a bit less or I hope a lot less prevalent now that the overtraining syndrome, this really severe state because there’s been so much discussion about it that I think coaches and athletes are more sensitive to it, that you cannot solve every training problem with more training.
Chris Case 41:57
Right. It’s good to recognize that fact.
Dr. Steven Seiler 42:00
There was, there have been periods where that has been the default for the athlete and the coach; ‘well buddy you just need to go hard or you know, you just get pick yourself up, let’s go.’ So that’s unfortunately that Gestalt has pushed some athletes into overtraining when really there was no reason for it to happen. In other words, there wasn’t that additional stressor. But of course the additional stressors come in, I think, you know, for example, in the university sports settings, where you’ve got athletes, you know, scholar athletes that are trying to make grades and all these things at the same time and get the economy to work out for themselves and all this, then yeah, those are ripe scenarios for overtraining conditions, or overtraining, you know, to slide into that overtraining state. You throw in a little eating disorder issue, and then you’ve got to perfect storm.
Dr. Steven Seiler 42:00
I hate to say it, but a place where that attitude of “Oh, you’re not performing train harder” is still quite prevalent is high school sports. You see a lot of high school coaches like “toughen up.” They don’t recognize when their athletes are needing rest.
Dr. Steven Seiler 43:19
Now I just use the term burned out.
Trevor Connor 43:21
Ah you were the first one.
Dr. Steven Seiler 43:23
Yeah, what I owe you a beer now? But anyway…
Trevor Connor 43:27
Chris Case 43:28
The loans start.
Dr. Steven Seiler 43:29
They do slide into each other. You know, there’s overlap in here, the mental and the physical. But maybe you should tell your story, Trevor.
Chris Case 43:38
Trevor Connor 43:39
I did this in the 90s. And this was back I had no understanding of the science. I was that dumb 20 something kid that was, ‘Well, I’m going to go train really hard because that’s going to make me stronger.’ And when I started to see the drop in my performance, I went, ‘oh, well, that’s because I’m not fit enough. So, I need to train even harder.’ And actually, so even though I said there needs to be something concurrent, I’m not immediately thinking of anything that was concurrent. I just trained myself into the ground.
Chris Case 44:12
Is this post college or…?
Trevor Connor 44:13
Yes, this was after college. And so, there was a week that I really remember where it just flipped. It started with – we had, I was living in Boston at the time, we had a Tuesday night race. And I was really struggling, I couldn’t do my intervals, I was just like, ‘I’m going to go to this race. I’m going to turn things around.’ I’m at the race. And back then I actually believe it or not, I had a good sprint. I had a good one-minute effort. And there’s this really steep one-minute climb early in this race. So, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to attack on that climb and see what I can do. I’m going to break away I’m going to show myself; I’m going to show them that I’m back.’ And then I looked around and realized we’re 40 minutes past that climb. I had literally just…
Chris Case 45:06
Amnesia, you overtrained to amnesia
Trevor Connor 45:08
I truly could not…I spent the rest of the race trying to remember there was 50 minutes of that race and I could not remember it all. Then it was just downhill. A couple days later, I got in my car, and I couldn’t drive because my feet were shaking so much, I couldn’t control the pedals. I will give you the very short version, but I ended up going to the doctor. Most doctors don’t understand overtraining syndrome. They just assumed I was depressed, put me on an antidepressant, that lead to really bad places. And that’s actually been shown that when you’re overtrained, there is an imbalance of serotonin and tryptophan; so, they put me on a serotonin inhibitor which made things even worse. Two days after they put me on the antidepressant, which is also as a combination antidepressant, anti-anxiety, I had an anxiety attack, a panic attack, which I’ve never had before and went to the hospital, thought I was dying. This ultimately, I got so dysfunctional, actually ended up at the Mayo Clinic. I ended up there for three weeks, and they were testing me for ALS, MS conditions like that because I had out of control shaking. Like my fingers wouldn’t stop shaking, my feet wouldn’t stop shaking – couldn’t ride a bike at that point. And at the end of it, they just said you have chronic fatigue syndrome and sent me home. Again, nobody, most people in the medical community who aren’t sports doctors, don’t understand overtraining.
Chris Case 46:48
How does it – I mean that’s a interesting question: How does it compare to chronic fatigue syndrome?
Trevor Connor 46:54
Well, so that’s one of the reviews I read about overtraining said it is actually one of those things. That it is a diagnosis of exclusion because it looks like so many other conditions. And I just had a host of symptoms that when I would explain to the doctor so just go, we don’t know. I basically did not ride a bike for a year after that I couldn’t get on and ride, like I could commute that was about it. So, I pretty much thought my cycling was done. It was over. A year later I decided no, I want to get back to cycling and tried. And it was a year, well, so at the start of it, I would get on my bike, I would go up for an hour easy ride, like averaging 13-14 miles an hour, super easy. And that was all I could handle. And I would come home, and I would get the shakes back. My digestive system would start really bugging me I would get headaches. And it just took an hour ride of that, and I finally just went ‘I want to be a cyclist.’ So, every day I went out my hour easy ride come home that night I’d be dysfunctional you know all those symptoms headaches, sweating, shaking, digestive system shutting down…
Chris Case 47:00
This sounds pretty similar to your dysfunctions now though – interesting.
Trevor Connor 48:13
That’s – so I do suffer from migraines. And I do think that’s one of the lasting effects. I don’t remember having migraines before that. I went through that for a while before I finally started to be able to train, actually train. For several years after that I was always scared to take more than a day off a bike because if I took several days off of the bike, I’d have about a week of those post-ride strange symptoms again, so I was just always terrified of rest for a while. There are some effects that just never went away. Like I said before that happened, we joke about how bad a sprinter I am, I actually was a sprinter before that.
Chris Case 48:52
And now you’re not at all.
Trevor Connor 48:53
I came back and I was a different type of rider.
Chris Case 48:57
A couple questions come to my mind. I know that this you can’t apply your situation to anyone else’s because everyone’s different. But I’m curious, again, back to that question of how long did you push yourself before that you went got to that race and that switch turn? And then the second question would be, and this is maybe a cautionary tale, or a cautionary note will be in there, how does that compare to the training you do now? Because I think I know the answer, and it was far less, but you were a different person then.
Trevor Connor 49:27
Right. I did not know how to train, and I was not, yeah, actually, the truth is I train harder now. But I know my limits. I know what I can handle. And as you said, I’m a much fitter rider now. But the year before that happened to me, I had a really good year. You know, I was just starting to take up bike racing and I was having my going into the local races and winning them and then started to have that dream of making a career out of this. So, the following year was I’m going to take this seriously and I right from the start it was trying really hard. And I took that approach of every time I’m on the bike. I’m going hard the idea of going slow. Why would you ever do that? That’s ridiculous. Basically, everything we talked about on the show, Dr. Seiler, everything that you have written about, I didn’t do any of that. I was the intensity all the time. And very quickly started getting fatigued. And you know me, my stubbornness, and just went ‘nah’ keep going.
Chris Case 50:28
Yep, yep. Head down, keep smashing it.
Trevor Connor 50:31
And I just went out every day. And no matter how miserable I felt, even when I couldn’t do the intervals, I just get angry at myself and try to force them out, try to push them. It was probably, it was definitely months of that before I started experiencing those things that I told you about. And even then, I tried to push it until like I said, I was shaking so bad, couldn’t sleep, I hit a point where I actually just couldn’t get on a bike anymore. So that’s overtraining. That is something fundamentally different from when we were talking about overreach.
Chris Case 51:09
And your recovery is that typical that it would take months to years, more likely years to come back from something like this that extreme?
Trevor Connor 51:19
I have a few friends who have also experienced overtraining to that extreme and heard similar things. It took years and also had them say they’re things that never, like I was a different rider, never the same after that. Like said I was certainly saying I was more of that sprinter one minute effort type. Now I’m more the pure endurance was no big top end.
Chris Case 51:43
Wow. Interesting. So there were some just physiological, biological changes that took place. Yep.
Trevor Connor 51:52
And there are people who experience overtraining and never, probably because they hated the experience so much, never come back.
Chris Case 52:01
Right, right. Yep. Don’t do this people. Don’t do this to yourself.
Trevor Connor 52:07
Don’t do what I do.
Chris Case 52:08
Yeah, be smarter, train smarter, listen to this podcast more, whatever it takes, just don’t go to that extreme place.
Dr. Steven Seiler 52:15
I’m hearing a number of things that number one, I think you should not directly try to correlate the development overtrain with the actual training volume. Because you can do a lot of training volume and never get overtrained. If you manipulate intensity and rest appropriately. That’s what you didn’t do. And so, you can get over trained on 15 hours a week, and do marvelously on 25 hours a week, with the difference being how those hours are being distributed. And you know, I got to say I, what I find is that the appropriate intensity distribution is a pretty strong vaccine against overtraining. Pardon the use of the term right now. But that’s, I think that’s one of the key things you did wrong and then a lot of athletes who become overtrained do wrong and that is you develop this monotone, high intensity stimuli, you know that you’re pushing pretty hard every darn day. And that just lots of different research a lot on animals on humans – that is just a great recipe for overstressing and in a sense, what should I say, burning out that organism. Whether it’s a rat or a human or a horse. If we go way back to our beloved, General Adaptations Syndrome, which is kind of that was Han Selye, the idea of the alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. You know, in training, we’re doing alarm and resistance, bouncing back and forth all the time titrating those, trying to push, you know, in the body, every kind of adaptation the body has whether it’s being able to handle alcohol better or being able to handle heat better, or altitude or training, they all have the same stages. And what Han Selye showed in his early rat studies, you know, he started with 100 rats, he put them in a cold room. So, the stress they had to deal with was cold, it was colder than they were used to. And it’s stressed them, but they adapted. And so, they first had this alarm stage and then they had this resistance stage where their bodies handled, they lived in the cold, but he would take different rats out at different times, and each was able to show that there were also, even the rats that got well adapted, if they kept being stressed long enough, they fell apart, they failed, their bodies eventually failed them because of that chronic stress. So, then they fell into this exhaustion stage. So, you know we have the capacity to deal with stress for a long time, but all organisms have a limitation on how long we can handle that repetitive stress. And then you can exhaust the athlete or the organism and one of the best ways to do it is with a monotone stress load. So, I guess you know, if I was going to ever try to make that connection between overreaching, overtraining and training intensity distribution, all those things we tend to talk about, I think the common denominator is the ability of the athlete and the coach to create the appropriate variation in that intensity profile.
Trevor Connor 56:14
Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. Going back to what Chris was saying. I put myself into that severe overtraining state. I was probably only training 10-11 hours a week. And got to the point later on when I was training, right where I was training 20 plus a week and was fine.
Trevor Connor 56:31
The quick little bit I’ll finish my story with just to tell you how stupid I am; My first mentor Glen Swan, before I overtrained, I went and told him my plan and my plan was stupid. It was it was training hard all the time and since that wasn’t even enough, I had this great idea that I was going to wear a weight vest because that was going to make the training even harder. And Glen, when I told him all this, got so frustrated, he started like – he was trying to explain to me how stupid this was, and he couldn’t get the words out.
Chris Case 57:03
He didn’t slap you across the face?
Trevor Connor 57:03
He just goes wait here, goes into his back room at a shop comes out with this big board with a graph on it, which is the graph of the diminishing returns, but also showing the increasing risk of burnout and overtraining. So, he explained all that to me, I listened intently, and then walked out of there and went, ‘Well what does the old man know?’ Then put myself through that overtraining and went ‘Apparently he knows a lot.’ And went back to him after that and said, okay, re explain this graph to me, which he did. And then when I was able, as I said, once I was able to train again, I did almost all low intensity, so it’s up 18-20 hours a week, and that first year or once I was able to do any sort of intensity. I’d only do one intensity session a week. That was it. completely turned things around. So, I couldn’t agree with you more that the distribution is such a huge part of this equation.
The effects of overtraining on mental health
Chris Case 58:08
Interesting to see how awful overtraining syndrome truly is, and how long term, if not chronic, the effects can be. And we didn’t even really talk about the mental side of it for you, but I’m sure it was pretty devastating for a while.
Trevor Connor 58:26
That was not fun. But the worst part of it was sitting in the hospital having needles shoved into my nerves to see if the nerves actually functioned or not.
Chris Case 58:34
Dr. Steven Seiler 58:37
Well, you guys, you know, in preparation for this, I had a chat with a former national team, he was the national team cross country skiing coach at one time, he got quite a few Olympic and World Championship medalists to his credit, but he also just maybe for whatever reason, it may be kind of his way, but he was very good at working with athletes that did fall into this overtraining syndrome. He didn’t put them there, but they would come to him after, and he would work with them. So, I had a little chat with him. You know, I said, well, what was the formula? How do you bring them back if you can bring him back? And it was interesting because most of what he said was all about psychology; all about relationships all about and then he kind of got into a little bit of the actual intensity stuff, but he says, look, the first thing you got to think about is it’s going to be this, it’s an elite athlete that’s been used to all this and they are at an all-time low, mentally, because everything they understand about their bodies has been turned upside down. He said, in worst case scenario, they’re struggling, they are fatigued, going out to the postbox. So, you take a person that has been in a high-level performer and they don’t recognize their body in the way it’s responding. And so he said, look, the first thing you got to have been you got to have one person that you trust, a support person, that you two are going to go into this process together. You know, and he was saying that they will need often somebody to talk to, and somebody who can help them recalibrate from their old way of examining themselves and evaluating their performance to a different calibration during that recovery, or else they’ll never get there. Because he says you’re going to have, they’re going to have to celebrate very small victories in that build up process – which you were talking about. Going out for, you know, 20 minutes and coming home and feeling exhausted, but saying, well, yeah, but 20 was better than the 10 I could do last week.
Chris Case 1:00:59
Sounds very much like coming back from a severe injury of some other kind, whether it’s a broken bone or something else, you know, those small victories are the steppingstones that bring you back.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:01:12
Right. And as Trevor alluded to, the volume comes before the intensity. Just being able to get to an hour or maybe two hours before you even think about some small surges. Where you say, all right, well, now we’re gonna go up for 30 seconds, maybe 60 seconds up into that kind of threshold zone. And then we’re going to come back down. You know, and if we do that once or twice in this workout, and we come home, and now oh, no, you feel more exhausted tonight because it’s tougher… But it’s just that very careful titration that he described of volume intensity and then being satisfied with those that progress because it will, you know, it can get better, you’ve shown it does get better, but you have to do something very different than what got you there in the first place. You know, you have to break your own instincts in terms of trying to recover quickly, trying to do it too fast, because that will almost certainly put you back. That was his – a lot of what he was telling me, this can work. And it does go, you know, it doesn’t have to be the end of a career, good things can happen but, it’s a very careful process. And you’re comparing it to a severe bone injury or something that, yeah, I think that’s, that’s reasonable. I can remember when I had knee surgery, I had the patellar tendon rupture, come off the bone. Man, I thought after that surgery for months and months, I thought, I’ll never be the same. I’ll never function the same, but it just slowly got better. And that’s the thing the body can heal, the nervous system, the endocrine system can restabilized but, it has to be cokes their very gently over time.
Trevor Connor 1:03:28
For a month, I had a rule that I could not break a 123-heart rate. I can’t remember why I landed on 123 but I always remember the number and my max heart rate was close to 200 at the time. It was super, super easy.
Chris Case 1:03:43
Is there any data to suggest what type of athlete is most prone to overtraining, amateur professional, veteran elite totally beginner?
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:03:56
Not that i know of. I mean, obviously, I actually Trevor kind of proved me wrong because I’ve tended to say, look, if you’re not training at least 10 hours a week, you probably can’t get truly overtrained. But I guess if all 10 of those training hours are at threshold plus intensity every workout, then I guess you can. You proved me wrong, Trevor.
Trevor Connor 1:04:23
Not in the way I wanted to.
Chris Case 1:04:25
Yeah, not the best of ways. All right, well, that’s overtraining. We said we were going only going to talk a little bit about it, but in some ways, a pretty fascinating syndrome. It’s not pleasant, but it’s fascinating.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:04:41
If an athlete has trained has prepared themselves, and they planned a season, and there’s some highlights, and there’s some key big events and that, I don’t think it’s that unnatural to expect – I would almost call it a functional burnout – at the end of the season. Meaning that towards the end of the season, if everything’s gone well, they get past the championship event, it goes well, and they’re pretty much not too motivated, they are burned out temporarily. Well, that’s okay.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:05:16
I experienced that with my daughter last year. And I said, well, that’s all right. Now you’re going to take an entire month off. And so, you know, I don’t know if we want to touch on that. But the fact you know, Kipchoge, the great marathoner, he takes a month off after one of those major builds and major races. The ability to, to allow yourself to do that is perhaps kind of connected to this idea of burnout. Between seasons it’s really important to have that unload period as much mentally as physically. So maybe, you know, maybe this cycle of kind of a build up and a burn down or a burn out at the end of the season, there is a natural ebb and flow of the enthusiasm, the energy of the athlete that is okay. It’s okay to be tired. And I think, you know, particularly collegiate athletes, they hit the end of a season, the semester, they’ve got their final exams at the same time, they get championship events… So I think it’s normal, you know, to feel burned out. But what’s not normal is to not listen to that, and give yourself a freaking break; literally, you know, for a period of time and allow that mental energy and physical energy to return.
Chris Case 1:06:41
How many seasons? Would you say you’ve raced, or ridden, Trevor, where you haven’t had some amount of burnout at the end of the year? Is it just almost an inevitable thing?
Trevor Connor 1:06:52
I’ve had a few where I haven’t, but those are usually actually pretty unsatisfying years because I feel like I finished the season-
Chris Case 1:07:01
With a little bit left in the tank-
Trevor Connor 1:07:03
Like I didn’t accomplish everything. I like to finish the season where I go, yeah, I’m ready to hang up the bike and not look at it for three weeks.
Chris Case 1:07:10
Right, yeah, I bet a lot of people feel that same way. It’s kind of like the energy stores that they have reached that peak part of the season and they meet up and you’re like, ‘okay, it’s time,’ And it’s hopefully at the end of the year and not in May. Because that’s when you get into trouble sometimes.
Trevor Connor 1:07:29
I would say that’s the only danger is if you’re starting to have that feeling in the middle of the season. And when I have an athlete experience that my general recommendation is let’s take a week off the bike and get that little mini rest.
Chris Case 1:07:41
Yeah, yeah, reset. Some things get hungry again.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:07:46
And that’s a great, I think these two: the physical aspect and the mental aspect of these long train these long performance years are similar that y`ou know, at a high level because of Television and World Cup seasons and so forth. The athletes have a lot more competitions than maybe they did decades ago. And it’s hard to maintain the training during the season because you’re going from race to race. This is at least true in some of the you know, like cross country skiing and running and so forth. As these workup schedules have stretched longer and longer. So sometimes what athletes are doing is they’re just hopping off the train at some point. They’re not they’re jumping off of the World Cup cycle for a couple of weeks, in order to both recover mentally but also to just put in a volume period. So, you know, and it’s the two go together. So, I’m seeing a lot of that you know, it’s it. That’s what we did with skaters when we were working, the speed skaters, is the best ones realized ‘well look you know, it’s not my job to be at every race to satisfy television audience,’ if I don’t give myself sometime in the middle of the season I won’t be there at the end where I want to be. So, I do think that mid-season burnout issue can be a factor when there’s a lot of races a lot of competitions that you want to do well at and you have to make a few choices you may need to go against your wishes and not compete, you know, and give yourself a little mid-season, what should we call it, a hiatus.
Benefits of overreaching
Chris Case 1:09:39
Let’s turn our attention to overreaching because in a way this is where some people out there can actually benefit from the positive side of doing this right. So shall we talk a bit more about this topic of overreaching?
Trevor Connor 1:09:57
I just want to throw one quick thing out and then Dr. Seiler take it away. But there’s been some recent research on functional overreaching, really questioning, is it necessary? And I think one of the biggest studies that keeps getting referenced is this 2014 study led by Dr. Aubry, actually I don’t know if it’s doctor, it’s first author, but I’ll say Dr. Aubry,
Chris Case 1:10:22
How do you spell that?
Trevor Connor 1:10:22
I think A u b r y. I think I got it right.
Trevor Connor 1:10:26
Very good. I think he did.
Trevor Connor 1:10:28
And he, so this study, they tried to, they increased the load on the athletes trying to put them into this overreach state. But they found that some went into the definition of functional overreach and others did not. They were looking at in terms of – so, everybody reported, ‘yes, I’m tired, I’m fatigued.’ – So, they really talked about this difference between acute fatigue and overreached. Their differentiator was the overreach athletes a decrement in performance. Then they had a two-week taper after that and found the ones who didn’t see a drop in their performance had a super compensation after the taper. The ones who were functionally overreached by their definition, just went back to baseline, they actually didn’t see a super compensation. So this has raised this question of is an overreach actually necessary to improve? And that’s really the thing I wanted to bring up. So please, Dr. Seiler, take it away.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:11:34
Yeah, and I haven’t, I have to say, I haven’t done any intervention studies where we have purposefully tried to create an overreaching state. And if I talk about the daughter who I coach, I do not purposefully try to put her at any time in an overreached state. I think it’s too early in her career to play that game yet, we just focus on doing things well. So I just am going on feeling here that, again, my feeling has been based on all the research that we’ve done and just being around athletes that if we go back to that hierarchy of training needs, doing some type of a functional overreach protocol where you purposefully increase the load more than you know, is good for you or you, you know, it’s going to have negative consequences, at least temporarily, that’s going to be way up on top of the hierarchy. It’s going to be the kind of thing I’m going to do with an athlete only after all, the good basic normal training process is no longer creating continued progress. Does that make sense? That would be my – because these functional reach protocols where you really try to push the athlete into a state of, you know, a depressed performance state getting really tired, try to get the super calm – it is a high-risk strategy. And it can work but, you need to really know the athlete. I know, for example, an athlete that did this successfully was a guy named Olaf Tufte, he won the gold in rowing in both 2004 and 2008. He didn’t win a lot of World Cup races, but he was able to do just a perfect super comp period before both the Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics and win the gold medal in the single schooling in rowing. That’s what he did! And he had at timed so well that he was still recovering from his overreach protocol or, like we call it a super comp protocol, he was still recovering in the first round of the competition, but he gambled that, you know, he was good enough to get through the early rounds without being at 100%. So, they were literally part of his timing. You’re really pushing things when you’re using the early races as part of your recovery towards a super comp, you know, final, where you win the gold medal. But he pulled that off, twice. It’s living on the edge, but it was also an athlete that had been in the game 10 years and had a coach athlete interaction where they were willing to take that chance and they learned how to do it. He knew his body really well. And he was able to make it work. So, I’m not saying at the highest levels of performance, you know those are the kinds of things you do that separates gold and fourth place often, but for most of us, I think you need to focus on getting the basic things right before you do those high-risk type protocols – for a lot of people that’s just going to mess themselves up.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:15:38
Now, to that end, if I wanted to try an overreach protocol or you know, try to create an overreach situation, I might then use a block periodization model where I would put in a block of, for example, higher intensity work or it could be a volume block but, that’s how I would use the block approach. What I mean by that is a limited period, like a week, where you’re doing more high intensity sessions than you normally would. You’re over, you’re stacking the deck with high intensity sessions for a certain number of days, like a week. So if normal for me is to do two hard sessions, I might do five. You know, that would be a big surge for me, and I’m going to get really tired. But if I get it right, then I’m going to get a bounce 10 days later. So that’s, I think where we see block periodization being used in conjunction with a functional overreach process. It can be successful.
Trevor Connor 1:16:57
I think it is important here, you said this right at the beginning of the episode, but just to remind people, there’s a difference between fatigue and a functional overreach, you do need to stress yourself to improve. So, don’t think if you go out and do a hard weekend don’t go, oh, no, I’m functionally overreached. Most of the studies that look at functional overreach there protocols at least two weeks, generally four weeks, so this is an extended period of pushing intensity, pushing volume, and putting yourself in a fatigued state for an extended period of time.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:17:34
Right. I certainly wouldn’t do it unless I had a good base. I would start with a healthy athlete. You know, no injuries, no infections, good base, you know, and feeling good and then say, alright, you’re in a position where we can take this risk of initiating this two- or three-week period where we’re going to really go hard and then look for the bounce. Like you’re saying. So, I think you need to check off some boxes with your athlete before you agree to do this procedure. It’s like an elective surgery – this may go wrong, so you need to be aware of the risks. But if you’re going to do it, then you do it correctly. You do it according to the demands, which means you’re going to have to push, you’re going to let them get pretty tired for an extended number of days.
Payson McElveen’s experience with overreaching and overtraining as a mountain biker
Trevor Connor 1:18:35
Payson McElveen hosted the Adventure Stash has had a successful career as a professional mountain biker. So we asked him if he had experienced with overreaching or even overtraining.
Payson McElveen 1:18:45
I mean, from a burnout standpoint, not really, I mean, mostly, when I felt quote unquote, burned out it was when I was younger, and it was when I had preconceived notions about how a couple of races were going to go and I just really, what I thought, underperformed and questioned my place in the sport and decided I was going to quit for like, a day. Never lasted long. But that’s kind of the closest I’ve been to burning out. In regard to just totally overcooking myself physically; I have, I’d say there’s kind of only one time that’s happened, and I was able to sort of abort when I saw it coming. And that was when I tried to do the Leadville 100, and the Breck Epic Stage Race back-to-back a few years ago. I had, and I kind of should have known but, I had a career race at the Leadville 100, where I got in this kind of hilarious battle with the current world champion at the time Alvin Licata and because I was going, you know, to the line with the rainbow stripes I dug to a place that I haven’t really before. And then the very next day tried to start, one of the most brutal six-day stage races there is, and I think it might have worked, okay, except for the fact that they’re both so high. And so, you just don’t really recover hardly at all when you’re sleeping at almost 10,000 feet. So, I was just, I was digging into a hole, digging into a hole and it got to the point where not only, like muscularly was I kind of falling apart, but I just, I didn’t have it in me to keep trying. And then also, I started developing kind of a little bit of knee tendinitis, which I hadn’t had for years and years and years. And for all intents and purposes, my body was just completely falling apart. And so, on day three, at the end of day three, we pulled the plug on that, and it took me a while to come back around much longer than you’d expect for four days of work. And I think that was the closest I’ve gotten to really screwing up from a workload standpoint.
Payson McElveen 1:21:06
In terms of you know, functional overreaching? Absolutely. That’s such an interesting one because, you know, you wonder about events like Kansa, where you get so, so tired and still have four hours to go. And it’s like is that beneficial? Is that pushing you to a place where your body is forced to adapt and you kind of unlock something that you wouldn’t otherwise? And with Kansa I haven’t noticed that I haven’t noticed a massive rebound in fitness, you know, a couple weeks later. Maybe once I’m a little older, and I have more hours in my legs, maybe I will… but that’s a scenario where I don’t think that ginormous effort like that pays dividends necessarily. Personally, I think events in the five to six, maybe seven-hour range, I have noticed that. So, for example, last year, I really decided to commit myself to the gravel scene just because it’s a, you know, a world that’s exploding to a degree that’s hard to ignore. And so, all of a sudden, I had a whole lot of events that were six, six and a half hours, rather than the three to four hours that I’m used to. And we did this white rim project, which involved a five and a half all out time trial for all intents and purposes. So, I had maybe, I don’t know, seven or eight efforts like that. That previous years that would have been my single biggest effort of the year, and there’d only be one and we did quite a few of them. And this preseason, the degree to which my depth has improved is really amazing. Like the fatigue resistance, is definitely a step up. It’s not like, you know, year to year progress, there was absolutely a leap, where it just takes so much more for me to get tired. And I have to assume that it’s a lot of those bigger efforts and in the fact that we did, you know, six or seven of them.
Payson McElveen 1:23:20
In regards to more training camp stuff, I can’t think of a scenario where I’ve really like tested the border of just deep fatigue like that. Now, and then there’ll be some some stage races that kind of gets you there. I did the Mongolia Bike Challenge a handful of years ago, and that was six kind or six ish hour days in a row. But there was a lot of dirt road. So it was more of like a road race almost in some ways. And I think with those ebbs and flows, it was just the right amount of load. And I had a big leap in fitness after that. Beyond just like traditional big stacking weeks, I haven’t gotten too crazy with it I wouldn’t say.
Signs of overreaching
Chris Case 1:24:08
One thing that you mentioned early in your description here. Dr. Seiler was the fact that it takes critical oversight by the coach to get this right. But I’m curious to know, maybe this is more a question for Trevor, who I believe does use functional overreaching quite successfully I would say… It’s a partnership; the athlete has to be aware of things it can’t be that the coach is just monitoring things because there are – it’s hard to see it in the moment when you’re actually approaching this functional overreaching state. Is that correct? So is the athlete is an active willing participant in this procedure?
Trevor Connor 1:24:54
There are certain things that I look for. So again, they’re still struggling with the definition and how to measure these but, as a coach talking from experience, some of the things I look for are attitudinal changes. I think that drop in performance is a big one. So, if you want to differentiate, I’m just a little acutely fatigued from I am now functionally overreached – if you’re going out and doing intervals and you just can’t hit the same wattage that you’re used to hitting, you’re getting into that functional overreach. If I have an athlete say, I’ve done some hard work, I’m fatigued, but they can go out and still do the intervals with the same quality, that’s where I say no, we’re still relatively in the safe zone. And one in particular, there was actually even a study on this, is neuromuscular excitability. So, I know several coaches who they’ll look at that really short 10-20 second sprint and if you see a big drop in power there, that’s an early warning sign. And as I said before, one thing I asked athletes to keep an eye on is heart rate because when they start getting little deep that’s when you see that blunting of the heart rate. If they go, I went out for a ride and I just couldn’t seem to get my heart rate up, that’s where I go, okay, if we’re intentionally doing a functional overreach, okay, then we’re getting close to where we need the rest, but you’re now in that that overreach. If I’m doing normal training with them, I don’t want a functional overreach and they go, hey, my heart rate seems low, I can’t seem to get it out. That’s when I’m like off the bike. I don’t care what the plan, is we’re resting.
Chris Case 1:26:29
Yeah. I mean, it brings up so many questions. And I know this is where coaching becomes an art because there’s not so much science to give direction here. So, you’re talking about – you’re wanting functional overreach; one session, you go out, you’re hitting all your target numbers. Another week later, you do that same interval session, you see that the numbers are lower than you would expect them to be if everything were quote unquote normal. How much is too much? Do you do that session if you’re looking for the functional overreach? Or do you pull the plug on that session? Or do you do that one session and then pull the plug, I mean.
Trevor Connor 1:27:08
I would probably use the description I flirt, but I don’t push.
Chris Case 1:27:13
Trevor Connor 1:27:13
So again, if we’re in normal training mode, and I see drop in quality in their intervals, I see that drop in their heart rate it’s, okay, we’re adjusting the plan, you need rest, you’re not where we want you to be. If we’re intentionally doing that functional overreach, I want to see a little bit of that. I might push a day or two – and normally what I do is, if we’re doing a block, I’ll start with the intensity, when we start to see that fatigue, I might say, let’s do a day or two some volume without the intensity, and now we take a big rest. But I’m not going to push them when I start seeing those signs. I’m not going to push them for another week or two.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:27:53
If I chime in as a 55 year old, kind of, athlete-ish –
Chris Case 1:28:03
Such a flattering description of yourself Dr. Seiler don’t-
Trevor Connor 1:28:06
You sent your numbers, you have fantastic numbers. So, you should give yourself credit.
Chris Case 1:28:12
He works with Olympians so, you know, it’s all relative.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:28:16
Yeah, yeah, that’s the thing is man when I see their powers, I definitely get perspective on my abilities. Anyway, but at my age at 55, I’m training 10 hours a week on good weeks, maybe a really good week is 12-13, bad week is seven. So, I’m in that, you know, area. If I do three either like a Zwift race or a hard group ride, if I do three hard sessions in a row then I am, I’m experiencing that I can get my heart rate up by that third one. Now how much? Maybe five beats but, that’s my signal. That’s my limit in that ebb and flow of, you know, I’ll do these little occasional experiments on myself to see what I can handle and that’s – I can do two hard sessions in a row, two back to backs, but the third one already, then my body’s starting to put on the brakes a little bit at my age. Now I suspect of younger athletes that in general they may handle more before the breaks start to come on. If I were going to be trying to create a functional overreach, then I might push that four or five, but I don’t think I could handle much more than that and come back within a week. So that’s kind of my feeling just based on lots of time spent in a controlled setting, in a room in my loft 600 hours on Zwift, you know, I’ve measured myself quite a bit, and at my age, I can’t handle more than three days in a row of high intensity where I’m going above 90% of max heart rate.
Trevor Connor 1:30:11
I think another important thing to point out and this is more experiential. I’ve never seen this in a study. But certainly, they have shown in the research when you’re starting to push overreach, particularly nonfunctional overreach, you’re going to see hormonal effects – you’re going to see changes in your catatonia mean response, you’re going to see a whole variety of things happen in your body. Basically, it’s your body trying to deal with its tired and you’re still pushing it. And what I see in the early stages when somebody’s starting to push nonfunctional overreach, is variance. You’re going to have days where you go out, you can’t even do the interval work, but then two days later, you go out, the painkillers are flowing, and you all of a sudden hit your best five-minute waters that you’ve had in the last six months. I think that’s what confuses a lot of athletes because they’re actually starting to get quite tired. They’re pushing that nonfunctional overreach, but they have that one workout where they go, ‘But that was amazing. So, I can’t be fatigued” and they keep training.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:31:15
I think that’s an important thing the inconsistency is a sign that the body is struggling a bit. So, time to recovery is not as consistent as it should be, you don’t have a – your internal clock is starting to get messed up. So, I agree with that. And even high-performance athletes, you know, when they’ve had an injury, they’ve had changes in their training load then that’s one of the first things you see is the inconsistency of their performance. Typically, they’re very consistent, you know, it’s one or 1% plus or minus on their powers, and then suddenly, it’s not. Now they’re having these really bad days and then the occasional good days, just like you say, so I think that is kind of a good warning sign to look at.
Trevor Connor 1:32:03
Don’t latch on to that one good day and go, I’m still fine.
Chris Case 1:32:08
It’s going to be really hard to identify it as an inconsistent outlier day when you’re in the midst of things though, right?
Trevor Connor 1:32:17
It is hard. And also remember, even when you’re in normal training state when you’re not overreached at all, you’re going to have bad days. Exactly. So don’t worry too much about that, it’s the trends. If you’re going up and down a lot, bad sign, if it is always down, really bad sign. Periodic bad day don’t worry.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:32:38
What I always look for in the training process is I’m trying to help the athlete achieve low lows and high highs. What I mean by that is low intensity they should have nice easy technique, low lactate, low heart rate, but also still have that mobilization ability so at their peak lactates their max heart rate is still high. When the athlete is in a really ideal state, at least that’s what we’ve seen with different speed skaters, middle distance, and so forth, is they can go – they can have low lactate at low intensity and really high lactate at high intensity when they need it. That means their system, they have full mobilization. They’re well trained, they’re fit, but they’re also able to fully mobilize. The first thing that tends to disappear when they’re getting into this overreach state is that top end. Now, max lactate is going down, max heart rate is going down, the body is starting to get this kind of, what do you want to call it, a sympathetic insensitivity. You’re not able to access the upper end of your sympathetic mobilization capacity. Does that make sense?
Trevor Connor 1:34:12
Yep. So, I’ll just give a quick story as a bit of an example; 2010 I just come back from Canadian nationals, and I put myself in a bit of a, I’d like to say a functional overreach, but maybe was pushing the non-functional. And I went to Dr. Sam Milan to get a test. So, he was doing a ramp test taking my lactates and I’m looking at these lactates they’re like, 0.7, 0.6, like really low and I’m like, ‘oh, great. I’m doing fantastic.’ And he stops me really early on the test and he’s like your lactates are to the floor. You’re exhausted. Go home. Don’t touch your bike for a week and then come back.
Chris Case 1:34:53
Mm hmm. He could see it.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:34:56
Yeah, remember when glycolysis is accelerated 2ith a sympathetic signal. So, they that’s that connects them. If you’re not able to turn on the juice, you know, you get that sympathetic response, there is a reason why glycolysis is depressed lactates get lower. But it can trick you because we tend to think of low lactide as always good so, unless you have that differential diagnosis or what you might want to call it, where you also are looking for a bit or have an idea of what the upper end of the scale is, because it’s probably also depressed, then you’ve just got an athlete that can’t turn on the motor. They both look the same initially, an athlete that’s really fit that has a really good right shift of the lactate curve, versus an athlete that can’t mobilize, they also initially look like they have a right shift of their life to curve, but it just turns out there’s no, it doesn’t go up. So that’s why it looks like it’s right shifted, they can’t turn it on, they can’t mobilize. You end up needing this kind of differential diagnosis, if that makes sense? You need to see what the lactate looks like at two different intensities: one low and one high.
Is it necessary to “ride the razors” edge?
Chris Case 1:36:22
The question that comes to my mind, of course, and this was something you brought up earlier with one study in particular is: is it necessary to do this to yourself? To ride this razor’s edge, to stretch this rubber band as close to breaking as possible and then come back from it to reach peak levels? Is this something that people should not do unless they know it works for them or unless they’ve got correct supervision and there’s a team around them helping them understand where they’re at as much as possible?
Trevor Connor 1:37:04
This is advanced. When you are at a high level, you probably need this.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:37:10
It’s kind of hard for me to imagine but let’s say I was an Olympic caliber athlete top eight. And that means I’ve done some World Cups, I’ve had a sixth place a fifth place, a seventh place. I’ve never been on the podium. But my federation is sending me because of my top eight finishes I’m seen as a possible metal contender. Yeah, I’m going to take that shot. I’m going to say well, all right, the difference between me and a bronze medal or a medal contention is about 1%, consistently, one and a half of that. I’m not going to cheat, but I am willing to take a risk on a really tough super comp protocol. Because, you know, eight, this is wonderful, but I’m already in the Olympics, I’ve already made the team now I want to give myself a chance to do something extraordinary. So, I think those are the kinds of situations where the effect, the benefit is so meaningful, the one or 2% you achieve can create such a big difference. Yeah, then I’d go for that.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:38:24
Now, if I am an age grouper training for my first Iron Man, and I want to have a good experience, I want to finish, I want to get under 11 hours or whatever the goal is, then no, I’m not going to do something stupid like that. I’m not going to take that risk. I’m trying to I’m going to try to get on the storyline, healthy, and ready to give my best but, I don’t think I would put myself in that high-risk situation because there’s too many things that can go wrong and I want to get through that race with a good experience. So those are you know, if I just use two different scenarios, it will depend a bit on what is the risk to benefit…if it means a difference between eighth place and a bronze medal in the Olympics, yeah, probably I’m going to go for it. But if it if I’m an age group, or then I think I’m going to want to focus on being at the starting line healthy and ready to give a great effort.
Trevor Connor 1:39:26
The thing I’m going to quickly add to, is let’s put aside all this research that’s saying it might not actually be any more beneficial than just normal, good training. And let’s say yes, for everybody doing this functional overreach produces benefits, there’s still the execution and making sure you do it right. And you have the self-awareness to do this right. And the example I’ll give you, is I always have my athletes rate their races A, B, and C. So, C just being a typical race, B being a race that has some importance, and A race had like one or two a year, and that’s their focus race. And I would say of all the races where I’ve seen that my athletes have won or podiumed at, I would say 90% of them are C races. Because you see, when athletes start really focusing on a race, they get stressed. They start making different choices, they start doing different things that can lead to bad choices. And so, my concern with people employing a functional overreach is even if you did it perfectly, you’re going to get that performance gain. But I see too many athletes that do it wrong, that don’t see the signs, that don’t have the support and end up going to the race non functionally overreached and performing poorly.
Chris Case 1:40:47
Well, Trevor, you do this. You use functional overreaching to get to where you want to be, and you’ve done it for years. Are you going to change anything about that? Or do you think you know it so well and you know, it works for you, and you know how to do it, that it’s okay. Or what? How does this…
Trevor Connor 1:41:11
You mean personally?
Chris Case 1:41:12
Yeah, you personally.
Trevor Connor 1:41:15
I’m still going to do what I do. But what I realized reading a lot of this is I don’t use it that much, maybe once a year, twice a year. Mostly what I’m doing is just that acute fatigue.
Chris Case 1:41:28
This quote, unquote training camps that you do for four days, five days, not really enough to be considered functional overreaching.
Trevor Connor 1:41:35
They’re really just more acute fatigue. So, for example, when I build towards Tobago, I’ll do that three-week, big build, where as Dr. Seiler was saying, I’ll do three, four, even five days of intensity and really fatigue myself for a long time. But I know having done this for years, because I’ve done a wrong a lot, I’ve learned the science of when I’m off track. I feel somewhat comfortable be able to do it.
Trevor Connor 1:42:09
Neal Henderson, the head of sports science for Wahoo has had a lot of experience coaching athletes through some very fatiguing training, and even big races such as grand tours. So, he had a lot to offer on how to identify fatigue and how to prevent overreaching and overtraining.
Trevor Connor 1:42:27
What is your definition of overreaching versus overtraining? And do you use, or intentionally take your athletes into any sort of overreach or overtrained state?
Neal Henderson 1:42:41
Yeah. So, kind of a difference between an overreaching and overtraining is with a reasonable rest and recovery, with over that overreaching, you’re going to see an improvement. With overtraining with rest and recovery there is no improvement and you’re only going to see decreased performance. So, when we apply, you know, when we’re training, we actually get worse. That’s part of the things we have to disturb homeostasis, we have to stress our bodies, we initially get worse; it’s when you recover, that there’s adaptation and improvement. That’s what an overreaching or an overload achieves. Overtraining is such that you’ve done so much work that when you rest and recover, you do not get any better. And so that’s kind of the big differentiator as I see things in that realm.
Trevor Connor 1:43:27
So in that sense, there is a benefit to overreaching. As a matter of fact, it almost sounds like you’re saying it’s almost a necessity.
Neal Henderson 1:43:35
Yeah, it’s a component of things. Now, you don’t have to have, you know, overreaching consistently, always, all the time, but you have to have some level of that to improve. You know, it’s just part of the nature of the beast.
Trevor Connor 1:43:50
Now, when you’re working with your athletes, how often would you intentionally put them into an overreach state? And how do you know when to say yep, that’s enough, stop, go rest?
Neal Henderson 1:44:01
Yeah, so I would say that kind of overload or overreach state is a few days each month where they’re in that point of it. And it’s – you have to be careful of how long you stay in that state. And so, it’s literally only a few days out of a month or so. So, towards the end of a training block, or occasionally we’ll do a little bit of overreach on the front end of a block and then pull back a little and then kind of be at a more maintained level of stress that they can tolerate and adapt.
Trevor Connor 1:44:35
What do you look for to say, okay, you’ve been in that state for a couple days, are there numbers or is it just your athletes and yeah, I’m tired.
Neal Henderson 1:44:44
A couple things that we typically see is that depression in heart rate for high intensity efforts; when we see that dropping more than, you know, say six or eight beats per minute from normal for a given effort, that’s clearly an indication. That’s not going to be at like a steady state, it’s going to be more at a high intensity type of effort. And then actually comments in the training log; seeing, you know, three, four days of kind of those negative feelings and everything feels: bad legs, or heavy da da da da… That kind of stuff for a day or two, not a problem, but when it’s three, four days in a row, we’re pretty well into that point and it’s going to be time to pull out soon from that overload and recover. And honestly, not building rest into training schedules is honestly the biggest cause of getting there and staying there. So, I pulled back on training and recovery weeks, much more I think than others. I may push forward a little bit harder, so some of those hard sessions are maybe harder than I’ve seen some other folks do but, then the rest of recovery is going to be a little bit bigger.
Trevor Connor 1:45:56
So what do you mean by bigger?
Neal Henderson 1:46:00
Like two, three days completely off the bike and then another three to five days of relatively easy recovery rides would be kind of an offloading recovery week that’s fairly typical.
Trevor Connor 1:46:14
Love hearing you say that. And do you get the same thing I get from your athletes saying, ‘but I’ll D train that’s too long.’
Neal Henderson 1:46:21
Yep. And it takes till they go through a few cycles till they start to embrace it. But some, getting them to rest and recover is the hardest part of the training. You know, a lot of times, “I want to do the work, I want to work out, yeah, great, okay, then you’re going to have to also do the rest. And you have to do it well.’ If you don’t rest well, you can’t – you’re not going to adapt to this, you don’t get better.
Alternatives to overreaching protocols
Chris Case 1:46:47
We’ve had this long discussion, it’s been very interesting, but and I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it sounds like Dr. Seiler and for the most part, Trevor, you’re actually saying 99.9 percent of the listeners of this show should probably stay away from it. There are probably some pros out there listening that maybe, you know, Tour de France riders that are listening, hopefully there are, and they could do this and could reap the rewards but everyone else really should stay away from this. They should know what it is. They might try it, but for the most part, they should probably stay away from it. Is that what I’m hearing?
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:47:27
I mean, I don’t want to make it sound like the plague that you’re trying to avoid but, I just, I have such good faith in smart training in doing you know, in getting the intensity distribution right and that it solves so many problems that I first want my athletes to do that well before we add this icing on the cake. Maybe that’s the wrong metaphor because it is more risky. Like with my if I go back to my daughter, she’ got a series of races now coming up, Norwegian championship races in different events, a half marathon, and 10,000 meters on the track, and so forth… And, you know, for a lot of athletes, I think instead of talking about functional overreach protocols, it’s just about peaking. They want to peak for their A race. But the problem is, is that they may be, if they’re like my daughter, every race has the risk of becoming an A race in their head because they’ve always got something to prove either to themselves or others. And that’s where things get tough because you can’t – it’s very difficult to peak week after week. In fact, you basically, by definition, won’t be able to.
Chris Case 1:48:49
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:48:50
So then and I’ve had these conversations with her and have said look, I’m going to try to, what we’re going to do is we’re going to hold back on the throttle a little bit in training, because the races themselves are part of your training stimuli. And I’m going to put you on the starting line, in a good position to have a great day. But you’re probably not going to have a great day all of those races, but we’re going to try to put you on the storyline close to a peak, close enough that the normal variation will give you hopefully out of four races, two that are going to be really good. Does that make sense? So, I just try to kind of prepare her mentally for that reality. That that’s kind of where we’re at. And I think that’s an honest appraisal of how the body works. And instead of trying to think that you’re going to have such a perfect control over your peaking process that you’re going to be able to achieve this exact peak race after race. Now this is a It may sound like I’m going a little bit off topic, but I think they’re related. We try to peak, the overreach protocol can be part of the peaking process, but in my training prescription, I don’t want her to have any bad experiences during those hard interval sessions leading up to a big race, because I find them to be so important and telling her state of readiness that I wouldn’t want to use them in a negative way at this stage in her career, because I don’t think she could handle the psychology of having a bad interval session, ut then hoping that it’s she’s going to bounce back. Instead, I want her to have a good interval session that says, hey, you’re where you want to be. We’re there, we’re on track. Does that make sense? So maybe it has to do with where the athlete is in their physical and emotional development, their training, you know, because they’ve got to be able to deal with that mental frustration of not of their body not answering to their expectations when you do those overreaching situations like you do, Trevor. And my 22-year-old daughter is not that doesn’t work for her psyche. My that’s my experience, she needs to have a good interval session where the leg where the numbers look good.
Chris Case 1:51:38
You know, the flip side of this, the getting it correct is really what your focus has been. And that for those who don’t know our previous discussions, those three episodes, I think it’s been three at this point where we talked about polarized, we talked a little bit more about high intensity, we talked about some others nuanced topics within that realm, that’s really what you’re saying is go listen; if you don’t want to flirt with functional overreaching, if you want to, quote unquote train, right, get the distribution, right, go listen to those three episodes. And that’s what we’re talking about as an alternative here.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:52:21
Well, yeah, and I don’t want to sound I mean, yeah, I’m going to be honest, I think that’s true. And the other thing is, I would say before you can use a functional overreach, purposefully, you need to make sure you’re not in a chronic state of overreaching, non-purposefully. Does that make sense? I think we’ve got a lot of people, maybe hopefully not your listeners, but a lot of age group athletes are in a state of kind of stagnation, at least in overreaching, possibly as a default and they’re not even aware of it. So their bodies are not going to be responsive to a functional overreach protocol because they’re in a chronic state of not getting that distribution right. I’ve had athletes say, you know what, when I change my intensity distribution, my max heart rate went up 10 beats, I think I have been chronically overreached for years. They’ve literally said that. So, my point of all this is to say, well, let’s make sure you’re not doing the overreaching without knowing it before you try to do it on purpose.
Chris Case 1:53:39
Right, right. Absolutely. Just for listeners out there who may want to know the numbers on those Episode 51 polarizing your training with Dr. Steven Seiler. That was the episode that really kicked off our relationship, I would say. Episode 54 applying the polarized training model with Dr. Seiler. We also had high intensity training with Dr. Seiler Episode 75 and I think we talked sort of about the historical roots in the past present and future of polarized training episode and that was Episode 100 we save that for a big number.
Trevor Connor 1:54:17
Continuing with what you were saying, we got a fair amount of feedback on the interval episode we did with of you people saying I tried those intervals, for some reason people have really jumped on the four by eights, our listeners have, and keep getting this feedback of it didn’t feel all that hard. Am I doing this right? Yeah, I didn’t crawl off my bike is something wrong here? And I think that goes back to what you’re saying of people are, a lot of people are used to being in that chronically overreach state and sometimes it can be a struggle to think I’m going to do some intensity but I’m going to walk away from it and be okay.
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:54:58
Yeah, with my daughter sometimes I say, look, I want you to always have one more in the tank, another one more interval, well, you could have done one or two more. When we’re in the build phase, you know, we don’t want to hit that absolute redline too often, because it’s just a costly game. So, I have no problem with the athlete leaving the track or leaving the bike with just a little bit left in the tank, because I think again, it makes it a sustainable process of doing the work. And if they have that figured out, then everything we’ve been talking about with this overreaching, then there is the potential to use that tool in the toolbox. But it’s not going to be a useful tool if they’re not controlling themselves during the daily training. I think that’s what connects these two is this high-risk protocol is less risky if they’ve been doing things right and giving themselves some room, giving their bodies some room for a peaking process where their body is responsive to it.
Chris Case 1:56:14
I mean those are good closing statements in a way, but maybe it’s time for us to wrap up the episode with our take home messages. 60 seconds is what we normally give guests. Dr. Seiler, I’ll give you 65 today, if you want them, what’s the biggest take home message you’d like people to leave with today?
Dr. Steven Seiler 1:56:36
Overtraining, true, overtraining syndrome is a very rare but very serious condition. I hope none of you, none of our athletes, face it. And the way to avoid it is obviously with good intensity distribution and respect for the value of rest and recovery. And then we’ve talked a lot about this overreach as a potential tool, a weapon, or a method for trying to get a little bit out, more out of our bodies for a peak. I would say that that is one of those kind of top into the hierarchy things we try after we’ve got all the other, the basics right; the basics of training, intensity, distribution, the volume, all of those things – let’s do that first. And then with having a good conversation with coach and understanding the risks involved, then make an intelligent gamble on these peaking strategies or overreach, super comp strategies.
Chris Case 1:57:43
Trevor, what would you add here?
Trevor Connor 1:57:46
So, the motivator of this whole episode was defining the difference between these terms. And the more I’ve read about them, the more I really liked the terms because I think before there was this notion that there’s overreach and overtraining and overreach is good, overtraining is bad. We’ve definitely established overtraining is bad. But I like better this concept of functional versus nonfunctional overreach and the fact that it’s not that big a jump to go from one to the other. So, coaches have often referred to this as riding the razor’s edge. And that’s exactly what you’re doing. So going back to a Dr. Seiler was talking about, if you’re going to play with functional overreach, you are riding the edge, and it’s very easy to go over it. So do it sparingly. Be careful. And make sure you have the self-awareness to make sure that you don’t go over. Otherwise just good, solid, steady, consistent training is probably going to get you to the best place.
Chris Case 1:58:50
Yeah. I guess the one thing I would add here is the fact that, you know, we do toss these terms around somewhat interchange and incorrectly so, most people out there, it sounds to me after this whole discussion, that overreaching and doing it correctly is really hard to do. So, more than likely, most people who are attempting it might not be getting it right and a lot more people are probably doing it in a non-functional way or in a chronic way and they’ve stagnated. So, I think it’s good to, you know, all of this discussion helps people maybe step back and look at what they’ve done and try to assess where they’re at, in a broader sense, and maybe tweak some things to actually refine what they’re doing distribute things a little bit more positively, if you will. Hopefully, it’s been helpful discussion.
Trevor Connor 1:59:55
Dr. Seiler, thank you, as always, always great to have you on the show. This was a fascinating discussion. I was lik looking forward to this one.
Dr. Steven Seiler 2:00:01
Yeah, great to be here and I guess I was on the razor’s edge as well because this is tough there. It’s not as cut and dry as a physiologist like myself we’d like it to be.
Chris Case 2:00:13
That was another episode of Fast Talk. As always, we’d love your feedback text Fast Talk at fasttalk.com or record a voice memo on your phone and send those questions our way. Subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcast. Be sure to leave us a rating and review. Find us on social. We’re at real Fast Talk Labs, and we’re online at www.fasttalklabs.com. The thoughts and opinions expressed on past talk are those of the individual for Dr. Steven Seiler, Sebastian Weber, Jim Miller, Payson McElveen, Neal Henderson and Trevor Connor, I’m Chris Case. Thanks for listening.