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‘You see the scientist said the bumblebee couldn’t fly. She lacks the wing beats per minute or the necessary size. But the bumblebee in her ignorance proved him wrong. She knew that she could fly because she’d flown all along. Imagine if she had listened to that man she might have stoped. Given up on the spot, tucked her wings in and dropped. So don’t ever let someone tell you what you can’t do because just because its proven, doesn’t mean its true. BUZZZZZZZZZZ’ - Harry Baker. Poet.

You like what you do, so do what you like

Alongside triathlon and open water swimming training and coaching, to relax, I also love good poetry. I hope you like my above reference, its one of my favourites, it makes me smile. I hope it does you too.

I wanted to start with the Bumblebee because, living in the technological revolution that is now, sometimes, following your training app or watch and not listening to yourself or your close family and friends could be a mistake. Sometimes it is good to pay more attention to your breathing and whenever your mind wonders, bring it back again. Relax, and decide to do what you really like. Do the thing that makes you smile from within. Not necessarily train. There are many more things to life.

My aim with this, is to use my sports science and coaching knowledge, along with my experience in the sport, to motivate you to train smart, and help you to improve your approach to training so you get more enjoyment out of it. Here I will discuss some science, in a common sense way, to embrace a mistake I have made in the past, non-functional overtraining.

Defining overtraining

To overtrain, each time you do a session, it should be slightly tougher than the last. The basic effect of overtraining is fatigue. There are positives and negatives to the fatigue induced by overtraining. More specifically, functional overtraining and non-functional overtraining. Functional overtraining will cause acute training load (or fatigue) to increase, thus increasing physiological adaptation and performance. Functional overtraining is a step towards non-functional overtraining which will decrease performance and have other drastically debilitating effects (3).

In essence, to get better at the sport of open water swimming and triathlon you have to overtrain in one way or another. However, overtraining too much, causing a long period away from training, is not going to get you any further with your sport. Consistency is key. My training plans are built upon the FITT principle. That is Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. Changing any of these variables in your training plan to make it harder forms a way of overtraining.

Here is how to do it like a computer.

Raising the intensity of training increases the training stress load on your body (TSS). The outcome is, the body adapts to cope with the stress at a given pace, you have to go faster to get the same intensity. Or, another way of putting it, you will find it easier to hold the pace you did last time. The gains are significant and happen quickly (4). However, this is less enjoyable and not recomened as much to beginner athletes or those coming back after a while (5).

You could go further or for longer each session. Training for longer increases your ability to go on longer. Particularly low intensity endurance workouts, as these are generally in zone 2, below lactate threshold so your body adapts to work better at breaking down fat stores and delivering oxygen to the muscles. This sort of training has been found to not only help you go longer but faster for longer too (6).

Changing the type of training week on week makes your training harder and can stress the muscular system in new ways. For example, swapping your weekly flat tarmac 5km to a hilly Parkrun or a cross county would be changing the training type. This would be overtraining and doing it would make you stronger and fitter. Nevertheless you still need to be specific in your training to make big gains quickly but changing training type after enough specificity will give your triathlon and open water swim performance an extra boost (7).

Using the above variables it is usually possible to overtrain. Of course, setting out one morning and saying: ‘right, I'm doing triathlon, from now on I will train harder and harder and harder every week’. Reality check! It isn’t going to work. Too much strength training leads to injury. Too much cold water training leads to hypothermia. Too much endurance training leads to chronic fatigue. Too much heat training leads to heat exhaustion. Facts.

The science books recommend that overload of training each week should be 10%. However, a simple progressive overload model is, alone, not detailed enough. Athletes are not robots. Triathletes and open water swimmers are normal people with normal lives and all have the varying levels of stress that go with their normal life. Training load is stress. Just like stress from a hard day at work or because you are worrying about somthing, or you need to get an essay done on a deadline. Stress is stress. Too much stress is bad and will inhibit adaptations and growth (1)

You are only human after all

Non-functional overtraining is when you overtrain but don’t get faster. In fact, before you realise that, you will probably get ill or injured or just have to quit for a while to get deep rest and recover. Some of the signs and symptoms of non-functional over training are: finding it hard to concentrate, low feeling of vigour, high feeling of fatigue, reduced performance at work and training, feeling like everything is harder than usual (a rise in RPE), a rise in resting heart rate, a decline in training heart rate, a slower heart rate recovery from training, a decline in heart rate variation or bad sleep quality (1, 3).

If you are doing functional overtraining you will not have any of these symptoms, albeit within reason and not affecting your functionality for long. Sometimes though, it is your close friends and family that notice the symptoms because, on your overtraining quest, the ability to listen to your body and mind can inhibited by confusion and fatigue.

Don’t worry, be happy

Lets face it, to do a really hard high intensity training (HIIT) session or a super long endurance session, you have got to be ‘in the mood’. Feeling in your mind like you want a hard, gut turning, head testing, muscle burning training session is as important as feeling in your body that it is what you would like to do. It is rewarding to complete sessions properly.

Logging daily metrics online is a great way to measure how your body is doing over time (8). If you are feeling happy and will enjoy doing the training properly, do it. At the end of the day, most of us are in this game because we love the ‘doing it’. When you do it, do it with a smile. If you can’t be happy about training, or it feels like a chore do something else. There is no point in causing unnecessary stress because you won’t benefit (2).

Training peaks offers two great subjective feedback options. “How did you feel?” gives you a choice of five smiley or not smiley face icons representing a range from “strong” to “weak”. You can also record “perceived effort” which allows you to indicate how hard a workout seemed on a scale of 1-10. If your not smiling at the end of your sessions ask yourself why?

If you see someone without a smile, give them yours

Lastly I would like to ask that, In your quest to be better at triathlon and/or open water swimming, use it positively and involve others. Embrace any mistakes you make as you progress and learn from others to improve. Don’t be afraid to change the original training plan, be-it on your own or with a coach like myself.

Always search for feedback, first inside yourself by taking that important time out to pay attention to your breathing and whenever your mind wonders, bring it back again. But also recording and monitoring daily metrics. Also, ask your coach, family and friends what they think about your journey and the effect the overtraining is having. No doubt they will be happy to hear of your endeavours.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. To look back at how you felt during training is just as important as looking back at how much you did. Less is sometimes more. Use your data to adjust. Take the time it takes to recover fully, dust yourself off and try, try, try again. This is functional overtraining the smart way. This will make you be better at what you love.

Over training with a smile will make you faster. The smile is important. Others will see it and they will be happier for your smile.

I hope this was informative and helpful advice. At least, I hope I made you smile.

(1) Bishop, Phillip A., Eric Jones, and A. Krista Woods. "Recovery from training: a brief review: brief review." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 22.3 (2008): 1015-1024.

(2) Plews, Daniel J., et al. "Heart rate variability in elite triathletes, is variation in variability the key to effective training? A case comparison." European journal of applied physiology 112.11 (2012): 3729-3741.

(3) Birrer, Daniel, et al. "Prevalence of non-functional overreaching and the overtraining syndrome in Swiss elite athletes." Schweiz Z Sportmedizin Sporttraumatol 61 (2013): 23-29.

(4) Stöggl, Thomas, and Billy Sperlich. "Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training." Frontiers in physiology 5 (2014): 33.

(5) Foster, Carl, et al. "The effects of high intensity interval training vs steady state training on aerobic and anaerobic capacity." Journal of sports science & medicine 14.4 (2015): 747.

(6) Seiler, Stephen. "What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?." International journal of sports physiology and performance 5.3 (2010): 276-291.

(7) Foster, Carl, et al. "Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance." European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology 70.4 (1995): 367-372.

(8) Cunniffe, Brian, et al. "Illness monitoring in team sports using a Web-based training diary." Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 19.6 (2009): 476-481.


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