Should I change my cycling training plan if I am tired?
It is common for people to get tired at this time of year when the better weather comes around. This can be for a number of reasons and I thought it would be useful to write an article describing why you might feel overtired and explain what you can do to get back on track.
So, should you change your training plan if you are tired?
To answer that question, you need to do the following:
Identify the most likely reason that you are feeling excessively tired. There are three main possibilities: you are under higher than usual life stresses such as work, family or something else; you are doing too much training, or you are doing too much high-intensity training (too much hard and not enough easy);
Decide whether you can make quick changes to mitigate the cause of your excessive fatigue;
Assess how tired you are and how quickly you will be able to recover your freshness. To do this you can take a few days rest or easy riding and if you feel recovered, you can start to get back on track. If you are still tired, you need to take more recovery time and change your plan accordingly;
If you can quickly remove external life stress and have recovered from the short break, you can make small changes to your plan to quickly get back on track;
If you are needing more time off or your fatigue is due to too much volume or too much intensity, you need to change your plan according to what you have learned.
Even mild overtraining is no joke and being chronically overtrained could mean you need months or even years to recover, so be careful.
Watch for the signs and take action as needed. I find that the best way to work through excessive fatigue and replan to build fitness is to take a step back, establish a sustainable level of training and then build incrementally from there.
I have described these steps in more detail in the main body of this article.
Why are you tired?
The main reasons for getting excessively tired during training are:
1. Life stresses being too much to handle alongside hard training
If you have been handing training well and it hasn’t changed but something else in your life has changed, your fatigue may be unrelated to your training and coming from other aspects of your life.
We only have a limited amount of energy to devote to our lives and if something external to our cycling is causing an additional drain, we will feel tired and not be able to cope with the same training load.
Spend some time thinking about whether there have been any changes that could be contributing to your fatigue and if so, whether you can change them to make things easier.
Irrespective of whether this is the primary cause of fatigue, it is a good idea to spend some time working through your life commitments as well as whether you could make changes to your daily routine and to provide less stress and look after yourself better.
To do this, make a list of what you do each day, week and month without assigning any importance or judgement to the items.
Once you have a list, visualise yourself doing each of the activities. Are you rushing, stressed, harassed or relaxed? Give each item a stress score for what it used to be like, a month or so back, at the moment and also have a think about how low you could get the stress for each activity if you organised your life perfectly.
A bit source of excessive stress can be not getting enough good quality sleep and this is something that I have identified as a potential contributor to chronic fatigue for one of the athletes I work with.
If you are doing everything you can to manage your life outside your cycling you will have to make changes to your training plan to reach a sustainable level, or risk making yourself ill.
2. Too much training
It is easy to do too much training by deciding that we should be able to do a certain amount without considering our recent background. It is no good deciding that you can ride for 10 hours a week if the most you have ever done before is 2 hours a week, or thinking that because you did 10 hours a week when you were younger, you should be able to jump back in at that level without taking the time to build up.
We can only work with our existing fitness and no matter how enthusiastic we are, we can’t think ourselves fitter and stronger without the risk of overdoing it.
Building up too fast is a common cause of overtraining and even if you get away with it, you are likely to gain fitness slower than if you had built up gradually and allowed the volume to develop with your fitness.
If you have built up your training quite quickly, this may be the cause of your fatigue and it would be a good idea to ease off a bit and reset.
3. Too much intensity
Working too hard without having developed an appropriate level of base fitness or taking enough recovery between hard workouts is a very common reason for excessive fatigue and will usually result in you having to back off and ride slower.
I have found that focusing on 2 or 3 hard workouts a week, combined with much easier riding and an easier week every few weeks is the most effective. This approach is also clearly supported by many experimental studies.
Even if you get away with working hard on more workouts, you will end up riding slower than you would have if you had been properly rested and just reach a much more mediocre level of fitness than if you have worked to focus your intensity on planned hard workouts and have the discipline to ride easier on your easier days.
If this is the cause of your fatigue, it may be that you can get back on track by just riding easier for a few days and then building back some intensity on 1 or 2 days each week.
This is particularly the case if you are riding your endurance rides too fast and making yourself more tired when you should be recovering. Reducing the pace of your general endurance rides to the recovery and endurance zones, which is where they should be, maybe enough to get everything back on track without changing your schedule at all.
The bulk of your riding should be below your aerobic threshold (AeT) to develop your power at AeT, which will result in big improvements to your performance if you are an endurance cyclist taking part in events of 2 to 3 hours or more.
What to do?
Whatever you have identified as the likely cause of your fatigue, you will need to reduce either the volume or the intensity of your training, or both volume and intensity. This will give your mind and body a chance to recover and reset so that you can start building back up and developing your fitness in a planned and systematic way.
Try 2 or 3 easy days first
The first thing to do is take a day off and then have a few easy days to see if you can recover quickly. If this is the case, you have only been mildly fatigued and may well be able to pick things back up as you were, or with some minor adjustments to avoid the problem recurring.
You should notice feeling stronger in the easier rides you are doing and at that point, you can start trying some harder rides and see what happens. Take your time because it is easy to get back to a tired condition if you overdo it.
If you are still tired after 2 or 3 easy weeks
If you are still feeling tired and lacking enthusiasm after a week or two, there is something more seriously wrong and you need to continue your easier training and investigate other areas where problems might be.
The first step would be to get a blood test to see if there is anything lacking, such as low iron levels, which can be a reasonably common problem.
Don’t be tempted to assume anything and start taking supplements before getting a proper check. For example, it is quite common to have excessively high iron levels and if you start taking iron supplements you could be on the start of a journey to severe illness that could take months or years to sort out.
See a qualified medical practitioner, get some tests and see if you can find anything wrong.
If you are given the all-clear, it then becomes a case of taking things easy combined with trial and error to see if you can identify what is wrong. This is unfortunate but with no objective evidence, there is no alternative to taking your time to recover and then build up gradually, finding a sustainable baseline to build from and making incremental changes to find what you can handle. If you are in this situation, I recommend that you work with someone who has experience of helping people with overtraining syndrome to help you along the way and provide objective and supportive guidance.
Building back up
Unless you have quickly identified the cause of your fatigue and made changes that allow you to get back on track as planned, you will need to make some changes, reset and build your training back up in a sustainable and incremental way.
This isn’t as bad as it may seem because unless you were chronically overtrained, the recovery process will have allowed your body to adapt to the training you were doing and you will be ready to get going quite quickly. However, this time you will do it gradually and consolidate your gains as you go along.
You will probably get tired at times but not the deep tiredness that requires you to reorganise your training. You will be creating fatigue in a planned way and recovering with planned easier days and easier weeks that allow your body to adapt and build fitness in the best way possible.
Start with a weekly routine
If you do similar things on similar days each week, it is much easier to track changes, see what workouts leave you tired and quickly make adjustments that improve your training.
A good routine is to split the week into weekdays and weekends with easier days on Mondays and Fridays to set you up for the 3 and 2-day training blocks respectively. If you want to do 4 workouts a week, you can also make Wednesday an easier day, which works well.
A good weekly routine would be:
Monday: Easier day - rest or some active recovery
Tuesday: High-intensity day, either a hard ride or an interval session
Wednesday: Easier day to recover from Tuesday but can be a long endurance ride
Thursday: Either high intensity/intervals or longer ride if time available
Friday: Easier day - rest or some active recovery
Saturday: Harder day doing something that simulates your goals
Sunday: Endurance day - long easy/endurance ride
Combining two or three relatively hard weeks with one easier week forms nice three or four-week cycles that you can form a strategic way to build your training over time towards your goal event(s).
You can have measurable goals for each three or four-week cycle to track your progress and use metrics such as HRV to keep an eye on your wellbeing to make sure you don’t get overtired.
Find a baseline to work from
Training effectively is all about taking steps of improving fitness. As you move to each new level of fitness you need to consolidate before moving forward to the next step.
If you have found yourself excessively tired, you are probably trying to sustain too high a workload before you are fit enough to do so and therefore you must establish your current level of fitness before moving forward from there.
Using the weekly routine that you have developed in the previous section and considering your recent training, you can make an estimate of what volume of training might be a good starting point.
It is a good idea to start from a little bit lower than you think might be your level because you don’t want to be getting too tired again as soon as you start training and you may have lost a little bit of fitness during your recovery. So if you think that 6 hours a week is a good starting point, try a couple of weeks at 4 hours and see how that goes. If it is really easy you can step up to 6 hours and you will be on track and feeling good.
If you have had a long time off with recovery, start with only training every other day and just do 20 to 30 minutes a day. If you have a strong background you will be able to build up quickly but if you are still suffering from your fatigue, you will not be risking a big setback by jumping in at a high level too quickly.
I have seen people rush back into hard training too quickly on several occasions and it always ends up slowing the return to full fitness.
Remember you aren’t as fit as you were and you need to slow things down.
Adjust your Training Zones to your current fitness
You will have lost some fitness when you had time off, or you may have been working at too high an intensity to get tired in the first place.
To get things on track it is useful to work with some form of objective intensity measurement such as heart rate, power or pace training zones.
As you are coming back and want to avoid working at high intensity straight away, it isn’t a good idea to do a test that pushes your limits. The best thing is to make an estimate of your zones and work with that for a few weeks until you are fit and ready to do a test.
If you work with heart rate, your zones won’t have changed much, so you can stick with your original zones and keep your training in the recovery and endurance zones for a few weeks to build a base. After that, you can introduce a bit of training at your tempo zone and build from there.
If you usually train with power or pace, it is a good idea to use heart rate at first and/or use your heart rate zones to estimate your power or pace zones by doing some steady-paced sections of 10 minutes at your zone 1 and zone 2 heart rates and taking the average powers to set your zones as an interim step.
Using heart rate to keep a check on your power and pace zones is very useful and gives a quick indication of whether anything is off.
I do this with all my athletes, doing spot checks of heart rate response during endurance sessions and looking at how heart rate responds during interval sessions to give additional information as to how the workout has gone with respect to the plan.
You are back on track
The next step is to work with your planned weekly routine, taking an easy week every 3 or 4 weeks and build in higher intensity sessions and volume gradually.
After a few weeks of this type of training, at a level that is right for you, you will probably start to feel fitter and with this comes the temptation to push harder on easier endurance rides or even to ride above target powers on interval sessions.
This is a dangerous time and if you get carried away and push too hard at this stage you can easily undo all your good work. Watch out for this phase and make sure you don’t overdo it when it comes. Being aware of a likely surging feeling of fitness will make you ready to be disciplined and stick to your plan. Just enjoy the feeling of fitness and power to enjoy the environment around you.
Keep your easy workouts easy and your hard workouts hard and avoid doing muddy/mediocre sessions where you slip into tempo training when you should be doing endurance. There is plenty of evidence to show that trying to add tempo rides in between higher intensity interval sessions is counterproductive, even if you have limited time so be disciplined and you will progress faster.
I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful. Please get in touch if you feel we can help further and check out our other articles and YouTube channels ‘JHCoaching Bike’ and ‘JHCoaching Run’. If there is something else you would like us to write about or discuss on YouTube, please let us know.
That’s it - get out and train, enjoy it and watch your fitness improve.
How do I know if I am overtraining? — You might find Clare’s recent article on this subject interesting, you can find it at this link.
Are there other things I could do to improve my recovery? Yes, there are many things you can do to improve your recovery. You can make sure you eat a healthy diet and have a recovery drink or snack after your workouts if you aren’t going to eat for a while afterwards. Build recovery into your day so that you have time to take care of yourself. Keep your mind as stress-free as possible by doing relaxation and mindfulness type sessions for a few minutes each day, and take care of your body with stretching and light strength work such as yoga.
Good luck and have fun!
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