It can be very hard to dig yourself out of the fatigue hole if you don’t pay heed to the warning signs and catch things early. First rule is always to listen to and respond to the body nudges about the quality of performance and your state of recovery.
Dont let your training spit you out…
Successful training not only must involve overload but also must avoid the combination of excessive overload plus inadequate recovery. In other words training must create fatigue but not too much, some weeks will feel hard but with adequate “recovery” the athlete will bounce back with improved fitness.
Knowing this fine line as an athlete often involves learning some lessons the hard way before you become hyper aware as to your own body feedback and resiliency, and from a coaching perspective knowing the perfect balance of volume and intensity to promote adaptations while also utilizing rest for optimal recovery is a fine art that will take a little time honing as every athlete is individual.
Athletes must be honest and patient with their coaches, and coaches observant and straight with their athletes.
The conversations between a coach and their athlete regarding training and recovery are key. There are times when the athlete must understand that a session will feel hard, and that the week ahead will result in fatigue.
There are also weeks when the athlete must pay heed to when the coach says take a day off, ease up, run off a low heart rate and also times when the coach must listen when the athlete says something feels wrong, I am off form. The athlete – coach relationship is a dynamic progressive entity which, all going well, is always moving forwards. Given I have a coach, I will end this paragraph with…
We have multiple tools and gadgets to collect and monitor data these days, for example TSS, training heart rate, finger prick lactate, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, training performance etc in addition to the things that we notice such as perceived effort, energy, motivation and desire to train, sleep quality, warning signs such as sore throats, dizzy head, feeling off. And then there are things like mood that are noticed by others!
Don’t let data tell you how you should feel; the numbers cannot tell you everything about your health and life stress.
It is important to have a STRUCTURED plan for your training. This will be directed by goals. Respect the training plan and the bigger picture. Too many athletes ignore the plan (?outsmart the plan), fail to take the rest week after build weeks, lose sight of the fact that they are training for something and end up doing ‘hero’ training and subsequently blowing up on their races. This is often where I hear the over-used excuse that “nutrition didn’t work on the day”. No, you were tired on the day…
Recovery weeks are important:
After a few weeks of building, most athletes fare best with a recovery week. A week of reduced volume, a lower TSS number, and some ‘easier’ sessions. Every athlete is different. I am not a coach so I will not prescribe anything here; but know that your recovery week may look different to someone else’s so don’t compare (keep your eye on the prize!).
Experienced athletes will have recovery weeks that look very different to the beginner athlete; but what happens in that recovery week is no less important. You are allowing your body to do many of the following things: replenish glycogen stores in the liver and muscle, restore balance to the nervous and endocrine systems, repair (whether this is on a cellular level or tissue level. Obvious places of repair are the muscles, tendons and ligaments. However, even essential processes such as digestion and endocrine organs are given more reserve to address healing). Your immune system will also have a chance to recover; training can suppress immune system function.
I am not sure if it is written about but less training volume, coupled with a sound diet will also allow us to recover antioxidant reserves, mineral levels, and important buffering capacity.
On ‘recovery week’ we rest our minds, we (should) allow ourselves more sleep, and most importantly we optimise adaptive responses such that when we pick the training volume and intensity back up we perform better.
Recovery week is the week that facilitates and optimizes our gains…..its the week we hand in the invoice for pay-day…
Follow the plan, use performance data as well as subjective ratings, i.e. how do you feel…(don’t be discouraged by the fact that training peaks is on a mission to crush us with its rapid fall in fitness number! TRUST the process….and rest/ recovery is part of the process)
Recovery weeks are not easy and they can tell us a lot about our personalities. Many athletes tend to have issues slowing down, being at ease in their ‘doing less’ skins; questions and doubts arise and for some psychological warning signs may be apparent that can shine an uncomfortable light on our relationship to over training and a constant need to run away from feeling emotions or facing life.
Embrace the lessons, use them. If your race season matters pay heed for it is worth your while learning about yourself. Not only this, these lessons grow us as a person.
Long-distance sports teach us to care for our bodies; it is a gift to be fit and well and to do what you do.
You can expect to feel some degree of fatigue and hunger on recovery week. Often it is only when you take a day or two off that you actually feel how your body actually is feeling (utter shite for many of us!). Most athletes are ramped up on adrenaline and this isn’t a sustainable thing in the long-term. Crash and burn sound familiar?!!
Recovery week is a time to eat well, listen to your body, get things done, and prepare plan for the coming weeks. You may be hungry for more fats and protein and carbohydrates depending on what the body is looking for to heal and re-balance – make good choices.
Recovery weeks are also crucial for mental well-being, never-mind reminding friends, family and pets that you exist. Go out and have some non-training related FUN.
Remember, most of us are not professional athletes; this is supposed to be fun and feel good. Don’t flog your body there is only so much that it has in reserve. Several build weeks should be followed by a recovery week. Watch your TSS but also listen to your body.
The FOR, NFOR, OTS spectrum.
In the literature (this is a particularly good ‘official’ article: Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome: Joint Consensus Statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine) we can learn more about the spectrum of functional over-reaching (FOR), into non-functional over-reaching (NFOR), into worse case scenario the over-training syndrome (OTS). Jekundrupp has a superb info-graphic here which explains them well:
Over-training syndrome is a word thrown about far too often by athletes and laypersons to describe fatigue. Technically it is the medical diagnosis given when all factors have been excluded (diagnosis by exclusion) and there is a persistent fatigue and long-term training performance decrements. There is no test for over-training syndrome and over-training syndrome is excluded if a cause is found such as anaemia, infections, etc.
In reality it is not a very helpful diagnosis, because it doesn’t tell us much about the why and the diagnosis is only given months later when problems persist. Problems that I feel can be resolved far more quickly with proper care and functional diagnostics.
For you, the athlete feeling tired, you want to address things far faster than waiting for things to fall apart and so when functional over-reaching (desired, sucks a little but you bounce back), extends into non-functional over-reaching (you suck, performance sucks, hormonally we start to see disturbance and the immune system may be under stress) this is where we want to catch things and bring you back to full health.
Depending on how fast you act, and how quickly you seek expert advice and how diligent you are to apply recommended strategies you could be back in weeks, to months, OR you could continue to pay no heed come back too soon, ease up on supportive strategies and put yourself on the back foot again. It’s a bit like that kid who kept getting glandular fever in school; or the perpetually injured athlete, you don’t want to be the person saying you feel tired all the time.
In my experience, specific support for the endocrine, gastrointestinal and immune system as well as exploring all trigger factors to do with your lifestyle, your training, and your emotional relationship to training, whilst nurturing the body with a whole food anti-inflammatory diet will see you bounce back quickly.
I am recommending that we turn our attention to fatigue in the athlete and unlike the papers on OTS explore more deeply all the factors that may be contributing to the problem and develop and plan a strategy to prevent them happening, limit them when they do, and fast-track a return to feeling normal again.
This model is more akin to how I use a functional (medicine) approach to treat chronic fatigue in non-athletes; to be honest, there is very little difference. Clients feel terrible, athletes feel terrible, and there are many similar dysfunctional body pathways; often there are many cross-overs in how you get there, with intensive training being only one of many factors. You cannot separate the athlete from the real world, nor buffer their bodies from the same environment, infections, and real world stresses that we are all exposed to. It makes sense that the approach that works with chronic fatigue will be similar, with a few twists.
Fatigue is something close to my heart, and is something that I would consider myself good at treating in the athlete.
Why? Firstly I have been there. Secondly the functional medicine approach to determining the causes of fatigue and under-performance coupled with a treatment plan containing several of diet, herbs, supplements, energy healing, aromatherapy, lifestyle changes and so on play an important role in fast-tracking return to full training. Finally I have successfully treated many patients and athletes. One of these is Gillian O’Sullivan who wrote about our work together. The others are trade secret 🙂
Things to watch:
- Daily fatigue, poor motivation, shitty mood, poor training performance, changes in resting and training heart rate, dizziness, sniffles and sore throats. I often see anxiety issues and sleep issues appear in athletes in relation to training and stress (there is a physiological reason for this). Catch these signposts early to prevent your health unraveling and your well-being and training fall into dark hole.
- Iron, B12, ferritin, Vitamin D, white blood cell differential. aberrations can be linked with fatigue so it is worth monitoring these at least every 6 months (see below). If anything frequent testing gives you a baseline. I ask all athletes to have a full blood profile done which I will then review on their behalf.
- Viral and bacterial infections. Pay heed, treat them with appropriate rest, herbs, medication when appropriate, and alterations to training to encourage a recovery to optimal immune system function. Viral infections, a history of Epstein Barr virus, and gastritis incidences are a red flag for me in the clinic; sometimes we delve a little deeper with functional diagnostic tests. Of late Lymes disease, gluten intolerance and multiple sensitivities are increasingly prevalent.
- Digestive issues (long conversation!) – you would be amazed how a gut issue in Thailand or a dodgy take out locally can lead to chronic problems further down the road.
- Menstrual cycle issues; notably amenorrhoea (lack of periods).
- Frequent dieting coupled with high training volume and rapid shifts in weight all increase stress on the body and may lead to illness or injury if not done properly (i.e. seek expert advice to ensure that your diet is meeting the needs of your body).
- Too many fasted training sessions or allowing your blood glucose levels to drop during long or hard training sessions. Tailor your carbohydrate availability to the training, the season, your goals and your metabolism/ fitness/ training experience.
- Altitude and extreme weather conditions (e.g. heat, humidity, cold) are more severe on the body; make adjustments.
- Shift work and poor sleep.
- Monotonous trainings , too many races, too many build weeks.
- Life stress, personal stress, work stress, trauma, injury.
- Travel; especially frequent long-haul travel with multiple time-zone changes.
- Extreme diets, omission or restriction of a food group (e.g. vegan, keto, low-fat).
- Personal psychology – many athletes are over-thinkers, perfectionists, and extremely hard on themselves; this only works to a point. Be mindful of self-sabotage.
- Disordered relationship with eating and body perception.
Keeping on top of recovery is important week on week. Training MORE means you must eat better (insert quality). Avoid making the error so many make in thinking that we have a free rein to gobble up extra treats and junk food.
Simple tips for bigger volume weeks:
(This relates to most iron-distance / ultra distance athletes later in their preparation season and into race season)
In a nutshell, when the training ramps up, everything else must ramp up: food quality, carbohydrate quantity and quality, vegetable intake, protein snacks, sleep and naps, hydration….self care.
- Consider supportive herbs for intensive training blocks: for example I often use several (not all) of the following mixed into individualized prescriptions for athletes: eleutherococcus, rhodiola, schisandra, ganoderma, glycyrrhiza, sambucus, echinacea, ashwagandha, astragalus, curcumin, zingiber.
- Eat more plant-based foods; i.e. eat the rainbow, choose mostly vegetables, some fruits and have beans, lentils and legumes on occasion. Bonus points for leafy greens and fresh herbs and spices.
- Phytonutrient rich plant extracts such as bitter cherry, turmeric, ginger, powdered greens and reds can be helpful and cell membrane supporting nutrients such as cod liver oil, omega 3 fish oils, phospholipids (alpha GPC, PS, PC), Co Q 10 as ubiquinol. Low dose creatine phosphate may also be beneficial and especially for vegetarians (e.g. 2-3g most days).
- Bone broth can support the joints and gastrointestinal tract through intensive phases of training.
- Probiotics may be helpful for the immune system and gastrointestinal health; highly recommended if travelling.
- Although I believe in the innate power of the immune system, don’t tempt it during high volume weeks: eat after training, wash your hands often, avoid sick or run down people, get enough sleep, keep hydrated during training sessions, and don’t do daft things.
- Limit processed foods, watch refined sugar intake and processed fats.
- Manage your energy intake relative to your training – higher volume and intensity weeks need more carbohydrates from nutritious sources. Aim to eat more carbs that actually provide you with important vitamins and minerals and not junk.
- Bigger volume weeks aren’t appropriate weeks to include fasted training sessions; they leave you on the back foot in terms of recovery especially if you have less than 8 hours recovery time before your next session.
- Longer sessions and more intense sessions are more carbohydrate dependent and so require better fuelling before and recovery after.
- Double training sessions days ask that you eat sooner rather than later after training and that the meal contains a complex carbohydrate like rice, oats, millet or sweet potato (preferably with protein and colourful veg/ fruit).
- Longer sessions need within training fuelling (e.g. carbohydrate +/- small amount of fats or protein).
- Optimise your protein timing in relation to training. When possible start the day with protein for example include eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, canned fish).
- Increase protein quantity moderately before and after training when you have intense/ strength/ power workouts.
- ? Consider cold exposure to assist recovery on high volume days (for some athletes this is stressful. Also mixed reports regarding adaptation; reserve for intense training days).
- ? Consider breath or meditation techniques for relaxation and recovery.
- ? Consider topical aromatherapy products and essential oils for recovery and inflammation management.
- Consider body work like acupuncture, energy healing or devices like PEMF to support training adaptations and recovery.
Precautions to limit incidence of long-term fatigue
Remember that 7 days (of less training) is not a long time to dig yourself out of a hole should you be suffering with fatigue and diminished performance. Don’t kid yourself! Sometimes the body needs longer, sometimes more tests are needed, and often strategies stronger than diligent nutrition need to be applied. Be a good care taker of your body.
- Have your bloods checked every 6 months to gain insight into white blood cell and red blood cell breakdown, electrolytes, hormones (e.g. free testosterone, oestradiol, progesterone), Vitamin D, B12, ferritin, inflammation markers such as CRP, ESR, and muscle damage markers such as aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alanine aminotransferase (ALT), lactate dehydrogenase (LD), gamma-glutamyl transferase (γGT), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), bilirubin, and creatine kinase (CK). It is also good to monitor cholesterol and triglycerides as these can drop during intensive phases of training (or cholesterol can elevate during a virus). Also morning cortisol, DHEAs, and sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) can be helpful.
- Manage your blood glucose levels.
- Manage sleep; consider including naps. Rejig your day should you need more Zzzs in the morning.
- Limit alcohol – this is an interesting debate as I know that for some of us a glass of wine can help the wind down.
- Limit night-time technology such as phones, ipads, computers.
- Energy management – manage your mind, be discerning with your focus & manage your life stress; learn skills.
When to worry:
Most athletes know when something feels off: if things don’t feel right, if your moods are off, if training performance continually sucks, if you keep getting ill or injured, then it is time to book in and explore what may be going on.
Can I help?
Yes, fatigue is my gig.
Thanks for reading,
PS the kids; Trinity and our newbie Blaze, a rescue who had a hard start in life and Georgie who visited today
Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome: Joint Consensus Statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine