Is Your Athlete Approaching Their Athletic Potential?

There's a fine line separating performance and athletic potential—and ambition can easily blur an athlete's judgment and decision-making. This case study highlights an athlete hoping to qualify to compete in triathlon's debut at the Olympic Games. It illustrates the real consequences of overtraining, the road back to racing, and how training load can be better managed to avoid the high-stakes gamble altogether.
Julie Debits coaching an athlete
Coach Julie Dibens with one of her professional athletes, Ironman champion Matt Hanson. Photo courtesy of Kenny Withrow.

A pro triathlete contacted me to talk about training—that wasn’t so uncommon. I certainly knew of him as he was one of the top U.S. triathletes at the time (late 1997), with dozens of wins, including a World Cup race victory. Additionally, he had been ranked fourth in the world and had recently been named Triathlete of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee. 

I knew that he faced a big challenge in the coming season. The International Triathlon Union (ITU), the sport’s governing body, had recently announced that drafting on the bike would be allowed in Olympic-distance triathlons at the pro level. This decision would have a big impact on the sport, effectively making the run the key to winning. A good runner who swam well could now “sit in” with the peloton and come off the bike fresh and ready to run fast.  

This was sure to be a challenge for the pro who contacted me because his strength was the bike. He typically ran the 10km leg of the race in the 33-minute range. The best runners were around 2 minutes faster. Because drafting was not allowed prior to this, he was strong enough on the bike to gap his competition by more than 2 minutes. I knew that the new rule would have a devastating effect for him. Making matters worse, it had been announced that at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia (the first-time triathlon would be contested in the Olympics) drafting would be legal. I was sure this pro was taking aim at Sydney in a couple of years and that he was well aware of all of the consequences of draft-legal racing. Was this the reason he was reaching out to me? Yes, I discovered, but only indirectly.  

From down-and-out to the sidelines

When we met for coffee a couple of days later I could tell he wasn’t his normal upbeat self. He got right to the point with me. His training had gone terribly that winter, he was losing motivation, and he was tired and grumpy all the time. I knew where this conversation was going. He asked me if I would coach him through this challenging time. Of course, I said I would coach him, knowing this would be a very interesting challenge.  

We talked about his health and whether there were any other symptoms aside from constant and extreme fatigue and low motivation. There weren’t, he assured me.  

Knowing he would not like what I was about to say, I laid the bad news on him: He would need to take three weeks off from training as I was fairly certain he was experiencing overtraining syndrome. Laser-focused on becoming a faster runner, he had pushed himself to his physical limits in recent months. He had also made the decision to skip recovery days and periodic extended rest and recovery periods. With three weeks of recuperation, I was hoping he’d find some relief and bounce back. But I knew there were other possibilities. 

How to identify overtraining syndrome

The myriad symptoms of the overtraining syndrome are difficult to pin down because they are seldom the same in any two overtrained athletes. Physiologically, poor performance and fatigue are common. But because these symptoms can occur even when an athlete is not overtrained, overtraining remains hard to pin down in sports science. The level of fatigue that an athlete feels may be the better indicator of overtraining.  

Every athlete experiences fatigue, which comes as no surprise because physical stress is necessary to produce improved fitness. This is referred to as overreaching and it is a necessary part of any training program. When an athlete ignores the fatigue of overreaching and continues to train with high stress and inadequate rest and recovery, the possibility of overtraining is greatly increased. This is exactly where my new client found himself.  

For young athletes, an excess of six weeks of such dedicated and exhaustive training has been shown to result in overtraining. Older athletes and athletes who are relatively new to the sport may experience overtraining in fewer than six weeks.  

With “overreaching,” an athlete can shed excess fatigue and remain healthy with extended rest and recovery every few weeks, but even then a couple of sdays of easy workouts will be needed on a weekly basis. Following such frequent rest and recovery breaks, the athlete can return to normal training.  

Unfortunately, once the overtraining syndrome has set in, fatigue will not go away easily. The athlete can become listless, moody, and unmotivated. The common psychological symptoms of overtraining are usually best identified by spouses and close friends. The overtrained athlete may continue in this state for weeks or even months. The real villain—fatigue—is a constant companion. The symptoms of overtraining are much like chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, or mononucleosis. (In fact, an athlete who experiences such deep and lingering fatigue should see a physician to be tested for these and other similar medical conditions.) The best way to avoid overtraining is to monitor fatigue and rest frequently. The only “cure” is rest.  

For more on recovery and rest, take a look at our Recovery Pathway.

The path back to training and racing

Once the unrelenting fatigue is no longer a factor then the athlete can return to training, but it initially must be all low intensity. The workouts should also be short and followed by a day off or more when starting back. This reduced training may last for several weeks. Eventually the athlete can begin to incorporate some “normal” training within this period of extended rest, but the process must be very gradual, allowing more time (weeks) for healthy adaptation. It can’t be hurried. The body doesn’t operate on a goal-based timeline. Patience is the key. 

There should be no racing or training timelines set until the athlete is definitively healthy and feeling normal again. Along the way the coach must pay close attention to how the athlete is responding. Frequent days off are likely to be a necessity for some time. The athlete’s status must be carefully monitored on a daily basis with recovery metrics such as hours of sleep, quality of sleep, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, appetite, body weight, general health, menstrual cycle, irritability, and depression. An ever-growing number of apps and wearable devices help both coach and athlete track recovery.  

Manage training load to reduce the risk of overtraining 

If you use TrainingPeaks’ Performance Management Chart (PMC) described in Balancing an Athlete’s Training Load, you can closely track your athlete’s Chronic Training Load (CTL). It’s a rolling, daily average of how much training load (measured in daily workout Training Stress Scores—TSS) the athlete is managing. The more stress you can handle the greater your fitness is likely to be. If CTL is rising, then fitness is likely rising also. So, CTL is a good proxy for “fitness” in the PMC model.  

Coaches and athletes often ask me how rapidly the athlete’s CTL should rise over time. In other words, what is the optimal “ramp rate”? Obviously, if CTL doesn’t rise at all—if it flatlines—then fitness is probably stagnant. If training load is reduced, CTL will drop indicating a loss of fitness, or negative ramping. A lot of zeroes back-to-back, or missed workouts, quickly lowers CTL, clearly indicating a loss of fitness. On the other side of the coin, if the CTL rises too quickly, it’s a warning sign for increasing stress and fatigue. So, what is too quickly?  

Some athletes are able to manage a very high ramp rate, such as greater than a 10-point weekly increase in CTL. These athletes are truly unique, often competing at the elite level. They may even be able to sustain that high ramp rate for a fairly long period of time before they break down.  

It’s difficult to know an athlete’s limits, because we generally learn what they can manage through trial and error. If the error results in the athlete breaking down, it’s not a dangerous proposition. More typically, these limits come into view when an age-group athlete participates in a training camp with other highly motivated athletes and experiences an especially high training load. While it’s a little harder for athletes to drive as hard without training partners, it’s also possible to take on significantly higher loads while training solo.  

Regardless, as coaches we need to have an idea of what the client can safely handle if we are to prevent overtraining. I usually suggest a weekly ramp rate of 5 to 8 points, along with a few days of recovery or easier training every two or three weeks. This ramp rate is sure to be too great for some athletes. Be conservative and cautious. 

Don’t overlook the value of recovery

When you do have the athlete recover for a few days CTL will drop a bit since the training load is quite light as indicated by low TSS workouts relative to “normal” training. Don’t let the falling CTL scare you (or the athlete) away from recovery periods. They’re necessary if you are to reap the benefits of the recent training while avoiding overtraining. 

Of course, there are other things, such as lifestyle matters, that may add to the stress of training and reduce one’s capacity for even a moderately high CTL ramp rate. Some of the greatest stressors are interruptions to the athlete’s lifestyle, such as divorce, moving, financial difficulties, and changing jobs. These are the big ones, and one of these is a lot all by itself but having a lot of lesser ones in your life can be just as challenging. Any of these scenarios can reduce the athlete’s capacity for training. The athlete’s ramp rate must be adjusted or decreased to maintain health and well-being, regardless of how high it may be when life is going smoothly. 

Check out more about how to balance training and life in our Work-Life Balance podcast.

Staging a cautious comeback 

After three weeks of nothing but rest, my new client was beginning to feel better. We tried introducing some short, easy workouts on the bike. When his mood didn’t improve, we took another few days off. He slowly came around, but it took several weeks of mostly rest to get there. He lost a lot of fitness, but there was no other alternative. He had to let his body recover slowly. 

In a few months time, he felt ready to go full speed ahead, so we began to incorporate more typical triathlon training. Our emphasis for those next few weeks was on rebuilding his aerobic base. We waited to begin any high intensity training. In the meantime, we started planning a race schedule. By the end of the following summer, he was pretty close to where he had been before the overtraining. But he still wasn’t quite at the level he needed to be.  

We shifted our focus to the U.S. Olympic Trials, which would be held in May in Dallas, Texas. Along the way he won a couple of notable, non-drafting races. He still wasn’t ready to run sub-33 minutes, however. Unfortunately, he arrived at the Olympic Trials in 2000 as a very strong cyclist, but he was left lacking as a high-performance runner and the Trials were draft-legal. He finished as the fifth American. Because Team USA would have only three Olympians plus an alternate, he just missed his ticket to Sydney. In early 2001 he retired from professional triathlon racing.  

Could he have made the Olympic team if he had avoided overtraining? We’ll never know. But his chances would have been far greater.  

For more on this topic, check out Trevor Connor’s article on strategies for navigating training stress and athletic potential.