Under-training is a very common fear, particularly in those that are unsure about how to train and / or are not following a programme. The consequence can often be over training. How do you know if you are training too hard? It is a fine line and quite hard to get right. But nailing it will help improve your performance and decrease your risk of overuse injuries. Sometimes an adjustment to training is needed, but other times improved sleep and / or nutrition, could be key. Here are five flags that could indicate you need to adjust your training regime.

1) A particular session just feels harder.

We all have the odd tired , or off day, when the stress from our day to day lives temporarily spills into our training plans. But when this is more than the occasional odd day, then there is a pretty good chance you are overtraining. But memory can be a funny thing and trying to spot trends by replying on our memory is pretty much doomed to fail before you start. Better is to record how hard you found a session straight after you complete it. You don’t need fancy software to do this (although there is lots including my own BitFitter.app)  you could just use a diary or calendar. Some software uses smiling or frowning faces, but you can equally well rate the “perceived difficulty” using a number from 1 to 10 (it’s actually a recognised way to record “Rate of Perceived Exertion – RPE and is called the adapted Borg scale). The key however is to make sure you are tracking like for like activities. That encompasses duration, location, time of day (you might be a morning person…) and so on. The closer you can match two activities the more accurate your findings and insights will be.Whilst this is a quantitive measure, it is of course subjective in that you are putting a number to your “feelings”.

2) Your metrics are declining

Similar to RPE, we are looking for trends here. You probably track your heart rate, so you will be able to see quite quickly if you are tending to actually work harder for the same performance. This also works with power on the bike. More subtly, you might want to start to become aware of your resting heart rate, and your recovery time within a session. Whilst we all have peaks and troughs these are generally relatively small, so a marked and sudden change should be a cause for further investigation. It might be that you are developing an illness or it might be related to over training. The better you know your numbers, and yourself, the more easily you will be able to dig into this.

As with RPE, there are a few caveats when using heart rate to monitor training. Firstly, chest strap monitors provide better accuracy than wrist-based monitors, so do consider the accuracy of consumer technology. Secondly, when comparing heart rates between sessions, this is best done for sessions that are the same in terms of content at a similar time of day and at the same target metrics. You also need to consider environmental conditions such as ambient temperature, wind speed, and humidity, all of which can influence heart rate. As a guide, research suggests a minimum change of five to ten beats per minute at a sub-threshold intensity would be considered significant.

3) Poor Performance

We all have key sessions in our training week and these are generally structured and have specific success markers. If you are runner for instance you may do an interval sessions once a week of perhaps 8 x 400m at 5 km race pace. You achieve the first three intervals at 5 km, but for repetitions 4 to 8, your pace drops to a 10km race pace even though you are trying as hard as you feel you can. In isolation, one session with poor performance, or indeed never having achieved success with a given session, is not a major cause for concern. What we are looking for is a change in performance for no easily explained reason. And as noted previously it is a negative change that becomes a trend rather than being an isolated example.

4) Injury

It is an inescapably reality of training and racing that we will get injured from time to time. Accidents happen. Sometimes we push too hard when we are not quite ready. At some point we all experience injury. (How we manage injury is of course a whole other topic!). But once we are into the realms of over training our propensity to injury increases. Our bodies are fatigued, we are not recovering adequately from high intensity training, and our form starts to fail. Poor form leads to reduced performance but also to an increased risk if injury.
Of course an injury does not need to be catastrophic or dramatic. It can be a niggle that becomes two niggles and so on. Know what is normal and what has caused a change. Being on top of this can give insight to your training status and be a possible red flag.

5) It’s just not FUN anymore!

For me this is the BIG one… And the biggest and most certain red flag to take note of. Unless you are a full time professional athlete (in which case it is your job and you are being paid to do it), then training and racing (or events) are what we do for FUN! It is supposed to bring us joy, relaxation, happiness… It’s our hobby and what we do to unwind. So when it ceases to be FUN then something has gone very wrong.
Now this could be a change of circumstance, it could be a lack of intent (have you mentally revised your personal goals and motives recently? You should). But much more likely you are over training and in so doing you have sucked the fun out of it… Or as a good friend of mine would say “…that’s taken the shine off going for a run”. How you fix this will depend on the individual, but often introducing variety can help, sometimes fixing our motivation can help, often just not getting into a flap over under training will be the solution to putting the fun back.

In Summary

As with many things in sports training, it is about understanding the bigger picture and not over fixating on individual data points. Try and understand the above five points and know what is normal for you… Then you can mentally visualise when you are starting to go a bit off the rails.

At some point we all “over train”. How we choose to respond will vary hugely. But we can’t respond if we are not aware of it… So step one is to be awake to the problem. Happy and Enjoyable training 🙂

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