Training, Overtraining, and Stress – Less Can Be More

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By Sarah Kaufmann — As a coach, I usually get requests from athletes from one of two groups. There are those who reach out looking for accountability to motivate them to train. And there are those who reach out for guidance and structure but who already innately possess the motivation to do the work. For the purpose of this article, I am writing about the latter group. For the vast majority in this group, they are overtrained, stressed and fatigued. Many have gotten quite fast on the bike, maybe peaked and can’t seem to find their form again. For this group, my biggest job as a coach is to get them to dial back the volume on the bike, remove some of the non-bike exercise and, as much as possible, mitigate the additional stress in their lives.

Cycling West - Cycling Utah Magazine logoMost people get fast on the bike by riding a lot. As the adage goes, ‘if some is good, more is better.’ But for this highly motivated group, this can be their biggest downfall. Riding a lot is a major physiological stress. That constant state of stress and fatigue means the athlete is never rested and fresh enough to dig really deep for especially hard workouts or race efforts. The biggest difference most people find when they go from training on their own to structured training with a coach is that the easy days get easier and the hard days get harder. The key here is that if you are fully rested for your hard training sessions and races, you will be able to dig that much deeper for a bigger training effect and physiological response – not to mention race results!

In preparation for my upcoming professional MTB racing season, I generally take two weeks off the bike. Once I am back on the bike, I only ride three to four days per week and utilize other types of exercise two to three days per week. This is especially nice during the Utah winter where riding outside creates its own set of challenges and riding indoors can be very mentally taxing. All of my athletes take this two week break once, usually twice throughout the season. Mindy McCutcheon, who I coached to a SS National CX Championship, a top 10 in the elite Championship race, several UCI podiums and wins followed a similar schedule, including a long break in the summer in preparation for cyclocross season.

Mindy shot up through the ranks of professional road and CX racing in the last couple of years, surprising many as a relative newcomer and 2016 as her first season on a UCI trade team. She is incredibly gifted and she is diligent in her training. But I believe that much of her success was also due to her commitment to balance and rest. A dedicated yogi, she complimented her riding and racing with strength, stretching, and meditation through yoga. Her volume on the bike was low compared to many of the women she raced against. As a result, she did not experience the slump so common among professional cyclists (especially women), who see massive improvement when they dedicate to training, but fade in the second or third professional year as the accumulated fatigue catches up. As an interesting aside, I also believe this was due in part to the fact that Mindy holds down a demanding full-time job. She simply does not have the hours available to toil away on the bike and burn herself out.

Many people fall into the overtraining cycle because they believe more training will always lead to more fitness. But many people overtrain for other reasons. Often, riding and exercise in general are coping mechanisms for stress. As a coach, this is a struggle; I understand that my athletes need the stress release but if it’s my job to make them faster, that often means directing them to cut back. Less can be more. I recommend other protocols to manage stress. Some great strategies include restorative yoga, stretching, meditation and walking. People also ride and exercise excessively as a result of body composition and/or issues with food. This is a separate issue that I am not going to delve into here but I feel it warrants mentioning.

As winter moves into spring, it is easy to get over excited and put in excessive hours on the bike. Enjoy the warmer weather but keep riding and exercise to a sustainable level. The goal is not to finish every training session feeling completely depleted. Finish training sessions with something left so you will be ready to tackle the next hard sessions. Get adequate recovery and save the efforts where you completely drain the tank for races or especially hard workouts. Utilize healthy stress management and take on the ebbs and flows of the season with a fresh and ambitious outlook.

Sarah Kaufmann is an elite level MTB racer for the DNA Pro Cycling Team. She is also a private coach based in Salt Lake City and can be reached at [email protected] or 413-522-3180

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