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Why am I getting slower?

Michael Donlevy
3 Mar 2021

Loss of performance when you up your hours on the bike could be the result of overtraining, or it could be something else…

It’s probably over-training, but there are other potential reasons and we’ll come to those. Firstly we need to look at the symptoms, which could include nagging fatigue, lack of motivation, multiple upper respiratory infections, injuries that don’t heal, irritability, loss of appetite, dramatic weight loss or weight gain, personality changes and poor or interrupted sleep.

Usually over-training is more a case of ‘over-living’. So while intensity, volume and recovery all play a part, your training might not be the root issue. When training is the issue, intensity is almost certainly the culprit – intensity has a far deeper fatigue effect than volume and most people ride too hard, too often.

Ideally 90% of training should be easier than you think it should be and 10% should be harder than most people do in their hardest session.

Our modern world is a reductionist place. We tend to put everything in boxes and forget that what we do in one area affects every other area. So if you’re having a hard time at work it will affect your training. Likewise if you’re finding lockdown hard or your partner complains about the amount of time you spend on the bike.

Stress is stress and we all have a limit on how much we can absorb. As much as people like to believe training is a stress release, other than at very low intensity training is a significant stressor. You also need to consider the fact that you may be unwell.

Illustration: Clear as Mud

How much training you need to do to be at risk of overtraining isn’t quantifiable. It depends on how much training you can absorb and what other stress you’re dealing with. And fitness won’t necessarily proof you against overtraining. We’ve all heard the old one about how it doesn’t get easier, you just go faster for the same pain.

In physiological terms every system in your body gets tired to the point that it no longer functions properly. In performance terms your central nervous system downgrades what it will allow you to do to protect those systems from the threat it perceives.

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At the most basic level you’re designed to survive at all costs, no matter what your conscious mind wants to do.

Our conscious mind is our biggest friend in terms of becoming what we are, but is also our worst enemy because strong motivation can allow us to push a little beyond our protective mechanism.

Overtraining symptoms are our bodies shouting ‘Stop!’ When we don’t listen we risk significant damage of the nature of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The solution is relative rest. This doesn’t mean you have to stop training, but rather scale it back significantly to allow the body and nervous system to absorb the work you’ve done. Also prioritise lifestyle aspects that will make a positive difference, such as sleep, low-level activity such as walking, nutrition – for most cyclists that means more protein, more fat, a lot less sugar – and meditation.

Will you lose fitness? Quite possibly. But performance is always a balance of ‘fitness’ and ‘freshness’. It doesn’t matter how ‘fit’ you are if you’re exhausted. The best performers on race day are those who manage this balancing act the best.

The key to avoiding this trap is a good balance of intensity, volume and density in your training, while taking into account what else is happening in your life. My best tip is to find someone you trust and ask them to tell you, honestly, when you start to show signs of overtraining.

Other than seeing performance decline – which many people deny anyway – it’s hard to spot these things in yourself. Often those performance declines are only obvious when it’s too late.

The expert: Will Newton is a former Ironman triathlete who is now a cycling, triathlon and endurance coach. He spent eight years as British Cycling’s regional director for the southwest of England. For more info visit limitlessfitness.com

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