Q&A on Judging Fatigue, Overtraining in Triathletes, and the Crossover Effect, with Melanie McQuaid

Three-time XTERRA world champion and owner of MelRad Coaching, Melanie McQuaid, joins us to discuss how to judge fatigue, the effects of overtraining, and the "crossover effect."

Melanie McQuaid wins the 2014 Boise IronMan 70.3.
Melanie McQuaid wins the 2014 Boise IronMan 70.3.

Melanie McQuaid, a three-time XTERRA world champion and owner of MelRad Coaching, joins us to discuss how to judge fatigue, the effects of overtraining, and the so-called “crossover effect” between running and cycling.

Our first question comes from Matthew Eastwood.

He writes: “After years of road racing, where I would struggle with prolonged periods of fatigue in between periods of good form, I now compete in cyclocross and sprint triathlon events as a master’s racer. I’m 43 years old with a more relaxed attitude to competition and training, and just enjoy exercise and riding my bike in general. My main focus is enjoying myself and feeling like I have given my all; my actual result is secondary to this. My ‘training’ is based around how I feel on any given day: If I’m tired I exercise easy, or not at all. If I feel good I train hard; my definition of ‘hard’ is dependent on time available and weather. If I have all day on a sunny day and I feel like it, I might do three to five hours of hard riding in the hills. If it’s a rainy evening I might do some sweet spot or other intervals on the rollers, or do a 5k running race. My question is: How good a guide is feel (achy muscles, enthusiasm, mood, tiredness) and fatigue (mild or intense), in terms of avoiding overtraining, burnout, and illness?”

Our next question comes from Sophie, a 27-year-old age-group triathlete dealing with, as she puts it, “some form of non-functional overreaching.”

While the background information from Sophie is lengthy, it helps to reveal some of the thought-process that an athlete goes through when trying to understand his or her training status, whether it is leading to overreaching or overtraining, and the all-important coach/athlete relationship. She writes:

“I have a soccer background, playing professionally until 24 when I started my triathlon ‘career’. Since then I’ve had a couple small successes, winning overall women age-group categories and coming third in the 25-29 age group at the 70.3 Worlds Championship in 2018. My first three years in triathlon, starting in 2016, I trained under a coach who basically had me start from scratch and build up volume relatively quickly. I managed it quite well, however, it was certainly not 80/20, more like 100% in Zone 3. Considering that I lost my period, was probably in serious energy deficit, and also did a lot of competitions, I’m surprised I had such a stunning 2018.

After that, I was extremely motivated to continue improving and closing the gap to the pros even further. I put in huge winter training and ended up ‘peaking’ by around February 2019. By then I was probably still in a functional overreaching state. However, things went downhill from there. I had a crash with an open and infected wound. I rested two weeks after which my coach sent me straight into four weeks of 20+ hours a week followed by four weeks of competition. I performed reasonably well, but I was completely exhausted by the start of July when I should’ve started my prep for my A race. I decided to pull the plug and switch coaches, as he didn’t understand I needed some rest.

I found another coach who agreed to take me for my A race prep. However, he could also not magically unmake my previous months, so I ended up having a poor race. I took a break and switched coaches again to a regional coach here, who knows me well. I regained my period, I slowed down (through periodization), and everything became better. We then picked up the intensity again and when COVID-19 hit, the idea was to work on my weakness—the run. The weird thing was that, despite my overall recovery, the run performance kind of lacked behind and continued to do so. Maybe it became psychological at some point.

This summer I think I was doing too much intensity again. I tried the Rønnestad eight-week block. I could improve my 20-minute power on the bike to 257 Watts (as compared to 245 Watts before). However, after that I didn’t recover anymore. Now I’m scared I ended up being really overtrained. My performance went down, my resting heart rate was higher than normal, and sometimes I have this feeling of burning legs. However, my mood is fine, I’m sleeping eight hours a night, I have a regular period, my energy levels are fine, and (very important for me!) my motivation to train is high. So I don’t really know…I decided to cut back my intensity to no more than one hard-ish bike and one hard-ish run a week while all other sessions are at 60-65 percent of HRmax, except swimming which I do with maybe a little more intensity. My total hours per week are about 18 at the moment. I already feel better after 2.5 weeks like this but I’m scared I will do something wrong which could leave me in a really bad state. I also don’t know whether it is better to be self-coached until this is getting really better.

So finally to my questions. Do you think I eventually made the right call adapting my training like this? How would you explain that I could improve significantly in two disciplines (swimming and biking) whereas the run lags behind? Could it be a ‘leftover’ from 2019 where I dug too deep? And, finally, what would your step-by-step procedure be for someone who maybe was or is overtrained?”

Our final question comes from Mackenzie O’Donnell from Edmonton, Alberta. He writes:

“I’m a runner and a cyclist, but I’m not a triathlete. I tend to run more in the winter months and gradually transition more to cycling as the weather gets nicer. But I never stop running. So, my questions are, is the running helping or hurting my cycling, and vice versa? And, also, if it helps, how do I most effectively incorporate the two sports into one training plan?”

Episode Transcript

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