Train Less, Improve Faster

Train Less, Improve FasterComing from the sporting field, I have always been thoroughly aware of the term overtraining. It’s something I thought might be a problem for elite athletes who were routinely training 2-3 times a day and not resting enough; whereas mere mortals like myself, who were only training 1-2 times per day, were pretty much exempt. When I moved to London in 2001 and my boss, also an exercise physiologist, told me I was overtraining, I thought he was crazy because I was only running 70-80km a week at the time. What he could see (and I couldn’t) were my flagging energy levels at work and my increasing irritability. I had failed to take into account my new London lifestyle, including a full-time job on my feet all day, one hour bike commute, 6am start times, no naps and more nights out. My running fitness didn’t seem to be progressing as quickly as previous years and I became injured almost before the season started.

Cyclists are even more endurance-oriented than runners and even since I moved to South Africa four years ago, I have noticed that you, the cycling fraternity, tend to get up early in the morning, clock up potentially big miles plus work a long day as well as attending to family and social life. What can then happen is that you become low on sleep hours, depleted in energy at certain times of the day, deprioritise the healthy food choices because you don’t have time and start to pick up more colds and infections than previously, especially when you are raising the pace towards big races such as the Cycle Tour, 94.7 or other endurance efforts. Now, don’t blame the kids or your work mates, it is your immune system that let the bugs in! After all, eminent scientists like Professor Tim Noakes and others have shown that competitive athletes are more likely to become ill than Lazy Joes – in simplistic terms, it appears that the immune system of somebody who exercises moderately is the strongest, followed by the sedentary population, followed by top endurance athletes. So, what can you do – give up your job so that you can ride full-time. It’s worth dreaming about (I had that dream too as a runner), but the point is that precious few cyclists, runners or multisporters have that luxury. You could bin the cycling and just head out on weekend family rides once the sun comes up, but that would be denying your passion. Or, you could aim to create more balance in your busy life and seek physiological support from good nutritional choices.

I am going to share my experiences with you through a relevant case study, which should be of more interest to you than just discussing scientific theory:

Lee was a 35-year old competitive cyclist who came to see me in April 2007 while I was working in London. He had a line-up of road races through the British summer season and his first significant event was the London-Brighton race in mid-June. The distance was 86km. Despite having a well-designed training programme (from the club coach) and being very dedicated to his sport, the previous two years had seen deterioration in performance. He had been putting the same effort into his training but gaining less of a training-effect than previous years and now found that he wasn’t as competitive as in his early 30s. He picked up frequent colds and stomach bugs, which were obviously highly disruptive. Additionally, he had now reached the part of the pre-season where his overall training intensity would be raised, putting more of a strain on his body.

He revealed an interesting group of signs and symptoms to me:

  • He seemed depressed at times, especially if he missed any training
  • Stresses in his life were plentiful: He was a banker in the City, worked 12-hour days, married and with two young children. He had a large mortgage and his income depended on the financial markets which were taking a turn for the worse. He faced a two-hour daily commute to work in heavy traffic or crowded trains
  • Recurrent colds and stomach bugs which were more frequent when training hard
  • Digestive upsets especially when immune compromised
  • Fluctuating mood and energy
  • Deep sleep and battled to get up in the morning
  • Occasional dizzy spells when getting up too quickly
  • The need to eat frequently

Lee trained for two hours before work three days a week (on the road at 5am); used his indoor bike for a one-hour interval session one day a week; cycled with his club three hours on a Saturday and four hours on a Sunday.

In terms of diet, he ate little and often in a very snacky pattern. With dietary analysis, I determined that Lee consumed about 2,500 calories per day (21% protein, 44% carbs, 35% fat), whereas I estimated that he would need over 3,500-4,000 calories per day to meet his training demands. This may seem like a strange observation in the world of ‘we are fat because we eat too much’, but I frequently find that endurance athletes eat less than they need – this has been supported in the scientific community.

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About Ian Craig

Ian Craig MSc, CSCS, INLPTA is an exercise physiologist, nutritional therapist, NLP practitioner and an endurance coach. He was a competitive middle-distance runner for 20 years and is now a more leisurely runner and cyclist. Ian specialises in Functional Sports Nutrition, a fast evolving discipline that considers both health and performance of an athlete from an integrative health perspective. Ian is the editor of the UK magazines, Functional Sports Nutrition and Total Sports Nutrition, leads the Middlesex University Personalised Sports Nutrition postgraduate course and the new Functional Sports Nutrition Academy. In South Africa, he is a consultant for genetics company DNAlysis Biotechnology and runs a private exercise and nutrition practice in Johannesburg.

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