I don't get very many comments on my blog, but I love it when I do. Back in March, Michael (a fellow RUSA member) commented on one of my posts on training. He mentioned that his training regimen involves a lot of riding; his training rides are sometimes 200 miles long! His comment raised an obvious question in my mind: "Could I be training harder? How do I decide?" In my youth, these would not have even been questions, it went without saying that I should train as hard as my schedule and enthusiasm allowed. Since age 55, however, I have found that sometimes, the harder I train, the worse I do, a phenomenon known as "overtraining".
Overtraining (which I post about a lot) is a widely recognized if somewhat controversial topic in both the fitness community in general and the cycling community in particular. The controversies include how it is defined, how frequently it occurs (e.g. is it a rare or a common disorder among athletes), how serious it is, and what the symptoms are. As regular readers of this blog know, the last has been particularly vexing for me. Of course, the core symptom of overtraining is fairly obvious; training more and performing less well. However, that is a fairly late symptom, one that could have causes other than overtraining (e.g. illness, loss of motivation), and one that can be difficult to measure and interpret (e.g. if the ride with the lower performance is on a more difficult course or with stronger companions, it may not be meaningful.) For all these reasons, I am always looking for additional symptoms that are more objective and which provide early warning signs of overtraining. As I have mentioned in previous posts, however, most if not all of the early warning signs for overtraining commonly suggested (e.g. increased resting heart rate) are not, for various reasons, useful to me. The symptoms I am left with, for now at least, are how I feel while riding (including tiredness or aching in my legs), how I feel generally (e.g. depression, lack of motivation, increase in the number or severity of illnesses), and MAF test results, described below.
MAF Test Definition
Very briefly, a MAF (Maximum Aerobic Fitness) test involves riding 45 minutes on a fixed course (the Rice Track) at a fixed heart rate (130 to 140 beats per minute) and recording my speed. According to dogma (see below), this speed should increase month to month during optimal training but should fall during overtraining. As compared to generally observing "performance getting worse", results in a MAF test should be less susceptible to variations such as those resulting from course variations (due to the fixed course) and motivation (due to the fixed heart rate). Unfortunately, there are still many factors other than training and overtraining that that can affect a MAF test score, such as wind, temperature, mild (subclinical) illness, short term tiredness, etc. To a significant extent, these factors can be dealt with by averaging the results of multiple MAF tests. The more serious question, however, concerns the basis for my belief in the validity of the MAF tests; what is the evidence that they are a good indicator of training and overtraining?
Validity of the MAF Test
I encountered the MAF test in Dr. Phillip Maffetone's book "Endurance Training and Racing". I recently re-read this book to refresh my understanding of the program and re-reading definitely changed my understanding.
- Dr. Maffetone is explicit and adamant that what he calls his "maximum aerobic heart rate" can only be determined by his formula of 180 beats per minute minus your age plus up to 5 beats per minute or minus up to 10 beats per minute depending on training history and health status; he specifically rejects the kind of personalization of heart rate that I have done.
- Dr. Maffetone does not believe in periodization. His ideal training program consists of training at maximum aerobic heart rate for three to four months and then adding racing to the mix through the racing season or until MAF test results start to decline.
- Except for recommending that all training be done at his "maximum aerobic heart rate", Dr. Maffetone does not provide any detailed training plans. For example, he does not recommend any specific length for training rides; I suppose that he would argue that the length of training rides should depend on the event for which you are training. In particular, Dr. Maffetone does not recommend that training rides be the same 45 minute length as MAF tests, and contrawise, he recommends only performing one MAF test a month.
- The claims made in "Endurance Training and Racing" for the MAF test are not accurate.
- I have modified how I use the MAF test to an extent that it no longer works.
If I assume that riding the brevet in March pushed me into overtraining (see below), the MAF test results would appear to support that; my MAF test speeds increased all through training and then fell after the brevet, perhaps leveling off the last week or so. I am very curious what the results will do moving forward. Right now, I am training at a fairly low level, doing daily 45 minute MAF tests and the occasional 30 to 40 mile longer ride. If my MAF test results continue to remain level and only increase when I resume longer rides (up to 90 or 100 miles), then I will assume that MAF test results are a measure of fitness and are not useful to measure overtraining. If the MAF test results start to increase again before I resume harder training, then I will conclude that the reason they fell after my last brevet was overtraining, not reduced fitness, giving me confidence that MAF test results are another useful indictator of overtraining. Stay tuned.
Other Symptoms of Overtraining
The day after my second (and most recent) brevet, I was tired but felt pretty good; I went on a 17 mile social ride with my wife. Over the next few days, I had trouble sleeping at night. Five days later, my MAF test results were almost as high as they had been before the ride but I was feeling tired so cut back on training. As the days went on, I felt more and more tired rather than recovering as evidenced both by general lethargy and a soreness in my legs that would not go away. Two and a half weeks after the brevet, I developed an acute illness that kept me in bed for two days and then settled into a chronic cold from which I am only now recovering, 8 weeks later. For some months, I have suffered from sciatica which is usually fairly well controlled. At about the same time I developed my cold, my sciatica became dramatically worse.
Are these symptoms diagnostic for overtraining? Are my illnesses a coincidence, bad luck, or the result of the stress of the brevet? Although I don't know for sure, most of the training books include advice to the effect that you should "listen to your body", and I feel like the message from my body is quite clear. Any one of the symptoms (illness, tiredness, sleep disorder) might be do to something other than overtraining, but when considered together, the aggregate of these symptoms convinces me that I am overtrained. When you put that together from the results of the MAF test which started declining at the same time, the picture is consistent, evidence that the MAF test is one more indicator of overtraining. Because the effects of overtraining appear to be delayed by at least a week or two from the event the caused them (e.g. the brevet), it is hard to be sure when they started, but the combination of all the data suggests to me that I did not develop overtraining from my training but only when I rode the brevet itself.
Plans for the Future
Last October I outlined a training plan for the years 2013 and 2014 (here and here). These plans involved training for a brevet in May, resting for the month of June, doing base training for the months of July, August, and September, build training in October, November and December, and then a 200K, 300K, 400K and 600K brevet series in January, February, March and April. Although I am on schedule to complete training plan, because my second brevet appears to have taken much more out of me than I had hoped, I no longer think it will work; I think any brevet longer 200K or 300K may be impossible. The unfortunate implication is that Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP, 1200K) would lie forever out of reach. On the one hand, I worry that, by being overcautious, I might miss the one opportunity I have left to participate in the event of a lifetime. On the other, I worry If a single 200K brevet leaves me this exhausted, how can I hope to go on from there to 300K, 400K and 600K brevets, much less the 1200K of PBP?
To both maximize the chance of being able to ride PBP (as small as that might be) and to minimize the chance of overtraining, I am revising my training plan based on what I learned from this latest brevet. I am hypothesizing that the training in preparation for my last brevet did not result in overtraining. Thus, the experiment I am considering is to increase training before my next brevet so that the brevet is less of a "shock". Looking at a calendar and at how I am feeling today, I am considering attempting another 200K brevet on November 9. Previously, I have worked up to a long training ride of 90 miles to prepare for a 200k (124 mile) brevet, training to 73% of the distance of the brevet. This time, I am planning to work up to a long training ride of 110 miles, almost 90% of a 200K brevet, making the brevet more like one more long training ride than a challenge. My hope is that as a result, I will not be so exhausted after the brevet. Assuming I feel OK after the November brevet, I would ride a 200K permanent in December to maintain my conditioning for the brevet series starting in January. My further hope is that by doing more training for the November 200K and a second 200K in December, the first ride of the brevet series, a 200K in January, will not be exhausting and that, on the other hand, by doing three 200K brevets, I will be maximally prepared to attempt a 300K brevet in February. I think it would be premature to make any predictions about what comes after that.
The other possibility, of course, is that all this training will leave me totally exhausted, unable to even attempt a brevet series in 2014. The reason I am willing to make this gamble is that I am pretty sure what I am doing now will not work and so there is little to loose. In any case, I am likely to learn something about my capabilities from this experiment that might allow me to either complete longer rides or at least come to peace with my limitations.
What Others are Posting
The RadioShack professional cycling team posted an interesting article on the Science of Recovery.
Joe Friel has an excellent post on the increased difficulty older riders have recovering from hard training.