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Are You Training Too Much?

Am I over-training? Variations of this question come up time to time for athletes but often it takes injury or illness to get to these questions. What if we could train less (or back off sooner) and avoid the injury/illness?

For coaches, the question is (or should be) how much volume/intensity and frequency can I give an athlete, especially if that athlete is a masters-aged athlete with life, work, family to balance with training. This question can not be answered by looking only at Bike Power or Run Pace. We need to know more about how the person is adapting to the training and life stressors they are under.

The concept of ‘total training load’ is one that is becoming more commonly discussed. While TSS (Training Stress Score) helps quantify the work we do, it is more difficult to determine both how much total stress the athlete is taking on from life+training and also how much they can actually recover from.

Molly wrote about a Cup Analogy, that we learned from Greg Lehman who uses it to describe how we end up in pain. From a training standpoint, we each have a cup we can fill up with training, taking the kids to hockey and eating at McDonalds while reading the news. At some poitn that cup overflows and this, in training, would be too much.

The issue is not simply how many watts can you push on your bike but what is the strain in your body when you do those watts and can your body adapt to that strain today. Can it get back on top of it before the next suffer-festival? This will change depending on the time of year as your fitness (and life) changes!

A progressive training prescription and progression helps to ensure that the loading (from training) is not so much that your risk of injury and illness is elevated. Taking off days (or two) a week and varying your volume and intensity across the week and programming regular off-weeks to allow your body, and mind, recover.

So How do you tell how you are coping?

While this progressive and variable training with regular off days/weeks reduces your chances of over-doing it there will be individual variation, often due to the stuff you do when you aren’t pedaling, running, or doing whatever awesome thing you do.

The best signs of ‘over-training’ or signs that you are training too hard/too much for YOU at THIS TIME are your subjective measures of well being. Your motivation, soreness, fatigue, irritability and so on. How to assess these regularly in an actionable way is tough.

How Do You Feel?

This is an important question but also a nebulous one. Some of us are very quick to say we are tired, whereas others will never say they are tired/stressed/hungry. Neither of these dispositions is without issue as some of us are very resistant to feeling tired/sore or pushing into fatigue to add fitness whereas others will repeatedly push themselves into injury, illness or burnout.

There is also an issue with tracking these subjective measures. How do you tell when you are out of your normal and where do you put all this information? I used to keep a paper note pad beside my bed and add up 5 subjective measures for a score of 25. This was ok but relied on me admitting I was significantly tired or grumpy before I get so deep that I needed to take a bunch of time off due to illness/injury/fatigue.

HRV & HR + Easy Tracking of Subjective Measures

I use HRV4Training, an app for smartphones, personally and with my coaching clients. This app lets athletes do a quick test by putting their finger over their phone camera (yes this does work and is validated!) and asks a series of quick questions about soreness, motivation etc. In about 2 minutes each morning, the athlete can take resting HR/HRV and record subjective metrics. Then it provides a recommendation based on HRV and subjective measures compared to your normal!

Bonus for Coaches

I really like that the Hrv4Training app syncs for free and automatically to Training Peaks to easily augment Coach-Athlete communication and ‘total load’ (vs. just TSS). The screenshot below shows the metrics window in training peaks that receives information automatically from the athlete’s HRV4Training App each morning after their measurement. They can even add some notes/annotations that will appear in this window. (*I have gotten a few athletes to use voice dictation here to get some idea of what is going on with life and the workouts the day prior … can work really well)

Examples from My Clients



This Athlete is a busy parent + work. So travel, illness, work stress all contribute but we had a really good Jan/Feb that led to nice high confidence, recovery and form for a ski race. HRV supported bike power and ski numbers (and race performance). Life/travel work happened after the race, which then guides how much training we do (less)!

#2 Athlete – This athlete is less consistent in taking measurements but you can see the effect of a big training camp with the string of yellows and decreased HRV baseline on the right of the graph. The far right is after recovery days and returns to the routine.

You can watch motivation, soreness, irritability, sleep and other metrics for a trend back to normal after intensified blocks like this to support HRV and training data. The Hrv4Training App will also factor in these inputs in its recomendation.


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