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Over-Training: Dog Days of Summer
Hey, we may be a bit slow, but we do try our best to get to all our mail in the Toolbox! First up is a letter about whether intensity has any place for a recreational cyclist. Then there’s a letter from The Pez himself writing us about not having that “fresh” feeling. What the…?

As a recreational cyclist, age 55, riding 4 or 5 times weekly (about 150 miles total), does Zone 3 have any real benefit? I do frequently push myself at that level of exertion but often question whether it makes real sense? At this point in my athletic life, is there a balance point between “conditioning the machine vs. simply wearing it out?
Richard Dahlka

I’ve been building up my miles in anticipation of riding 60- 100 km each day at the Tour, over some big climbs on the routes, etc. My year started in January, with about 3-4 hours a week of 60 minutes per ride, low intensity base miles. This was about all I could do given my schedule. I’ve built up gradually over the months and am now at about 4 x 2 h rides each week, of about 60-70 km per ride. My pace is pretty steady, so no intervals. Problem is recovery, Although I usually take a rest day after each ride (just works out this way), I’m still not feeling as fresh as I want to be – in fact, instead of feeling better, I’m finding that I’m feeling more tired, and now watching out for “empty tanks”. I’ve also been going flat out getting ready for the Tour on PCN – so work is really busy and sort of relentless as well – fortunately I love my job! Any tips on how I can regain that “fresh” feeling?
The Pez

Stale Bread
Well, what a perfect set of questions as we approach the broiling hot (even here in Nova Scotia) dog days of summer. At a time when we’re psyched like crazy to go riding because of all the Tour coverage, we often paradoxically find ourselves physically tired and even dreading the thought of hopping on the bike. Then there’s the reverse situation where you are physically fine but just can’t find the motivation to ride.

What’s going on is a classic syndrome called over-reaching or over-training. It involves an overdose of “stress” of any kind, both physiological stress placed on the body and/or mental stress due to work and family. Not only does running down your body like this suppress your immune system and place you at greater risk of infections, the overdose of stress results in a cumulative downward spiral in your fitness that can take weeks to months to recover from. Recent research has demonstrated that just 7 days of increased training with inadequate recovery can bring about major reductions in maximal power output, maximal heart rate, and oxygen uptake, along with greatly increased time to completion of a time trial and mood disturbances (1).

You Da Man!
You may have heard of it happening to pros racking up the big miles and chasing the big wins, but it actually is more likely to happen to everyday riders like us. Think about it. The pros are loading up on lots of training, but that’s their primary job apart from their families. We put in long hours at work, take care of our families, AND try to cram in lots of high quality training. That’s a lot of physical and mental stress, and it doesn’t help that many of us are Type A personalities who demand high performance and push ourselves too hard in everything that we do. Therefore, our first instinct when work or family life gets busy is to squeeze in the same workout regardless, cutting down on proper nutrition and sleep. Then when we get tired or don’t perform to expectations, our immediate thought is that we need to train more and harder!

Keeping the Dogs at Bay
So what can you do to avoid falling into the pit of over-training? First off, recognize the signs of over-training! Elevated resting heart rates, lousy sleep, and your partner referring to you as “Oscar the Grouch” are all signs that you need to step back. Other early signs of impending over-reaching/training include that lack of “freshness” on the bike that The Pez was feeling. If you’re not physically or mentally enjoying the prospect of jumping on the bike, then there’s no surer sign that you need to TRAIN SMARTER NOT MORE!

If you do notice these signs or have fallen into The Princess Bride’s “Pit of Despair”, what can you do?

• The absolute only sure-fire cure for over-training is to take time, sometimes lots of time off the bike. Go lock that bike up and do something else, anything else. Throw your training diary away too. Don’t even touch the bike again until you feel red-hot ants in your pants.

• Spend some time with your family! Hey, not only will your body thank you, your spouse and kids might know you apart from that guy in the picture hanging up in the living room. How cool would that be?

• Take a break from racing or being so goal or performance-oriented. Ride the bike just for fun and just “do what you feel!” I just came back from a three-day tandem touring trip with my wife (my job at Pez doesn’t involve a free trip to cover the Tour, hint hint wink wink!) feeling physically fatigued but with a renewed appreciation and love for the bike that’s going to help me for the rest of the season.

• Vary your workouts! In response to both questions above, varying your training is critical to avoiding staleness and over-reaching. Your body and mind craves variety, and nothing beats you down like doing the same thing day after endless day. So even if you have absolutely no intention of racing, it never hurts (pun intended) to “release the hounds” and throw in small doses of high intensity or hard group rides to spice things up. You don’t need to plan them, just throw in the odd sprints or hard rides when the mood strikes.

• Last of all, plan your recovery! Read our article all about recovery and about the benefits of a day off and live by them!

Next up in our Toolbox mailbag in two weeks, I’ll go through the tons of letters I’ve received about hydration and drink composition. Keep the pedals turning and the questions coming!

1. Halson SL, Bridge MW, Meeusen R, Busschaert B, Gleeson M, Jones DA, and Jeukendrup AE. Time course of performance changes and fatigue markers during intensified training in trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol 93: 947-56., 2002.

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at


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