Overtraining Part 3: How not to overtrain

Ok, we’ve looked at what happens with overtraining and at how it comes about. How do we prevent it?

The foundation of approaching this is to plan your training regime properly. If you’re really serious about training, i.e. hard enough to risk overtraining, you need to plan thoroughly. In medicine we have been swamped with management speak in recent years but some principles are actually quite useful. We’ll look at goal setting and root cause analysis.

First of all, set your goals- what do you want to achieve? How long do you have to achieve this? Is this timeframe realistic? What milestones (intermediate goals) will you set along the way? When setting these goals and milestones you have to remember that they must be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time bound. A vague goal will not allow you to focus your training- be specific. It must be measurable so you know when you’ve done it. If it isn’t attainable (e.g. climbing f9b+ next week when you can’t climb f7a now) your plans will be based in fantasy. The goal must be relevant, and in training for climbing this is best thought of as is it important to you. If it isn’t, you won’t be motivated enough to put the graft in. And finally it needs a timespan. If you build goals around this structure they can become useful tools to map out a path to achieving them.

Next, work out what you need to do to achieve these goals and don’t be afraid to really drill down to get to root causes, several steps if necessary. What factors prevent you from doing it right now? Are you not strong enough to do the crux moves on a project? Could you do these moves at ground level? If you could then stamina may be the issue. If not, then maybe it’s power or technique. If it looks like stamina then is this physical/fitness related or are you inefficient on the earlier part of the route and wasting energy? Would improved technique help? Write all these things down. You should get a number of goals and reasons why you can’t do them yet. The old phrase is “work your weaknesses”. You’ve just listed them. It might be worth getting a coach or climbing partner to help with this list and the reasoning process as it’s not easy to assess yourself.

Next step is to look at all the limiting factors and start listing what you could do in training to overcome them. Again a coach might be helpful in identifying solutions to the issues you have listed. I once had a day’s coaching with John Kettle which lifted me through 2-3 grades very quickly by identifying several issues I thought were due to fitness as technique issues making my climbing far more inefficient than it needed to be. You should now have a list of things to work on- maybe improve finger strength on pinches, get over fear of falling, improve stamina and practice climbing on limestone. It might be quite a short list or quite long, dependant on how big a stretch your goal is. Now we start getting to the trickier bit and to the decisions that will either set you up for success or overtraining, injury and failure. You need to tie this together into a plan.

There are a multitude of training books, blogs and webpages available explaining different ways of building a training program to achieve your goals. Most use periodisation as a basic structure; this is where you can maximise your gains in a given timeframe by training specific qualities in a certain order, aiming to hit peak fitness for a brief target period. This is borrowed from other sports and is a solid theory. It works but it requires discipline; you must accept that during your training regime you will not be climbing your best until you peak. My favourite books for explaining this concept are “Performance Rock Climbing” and “The Self Coached Climber”. All periodised training plans start with a foundation stage. Almost all books skip over this saying you need to be fit and need to optimise your body composition. But it is this phase that builds the foundation that everything else rests on. It is this phase that makes you less likely to get injured and less likely to develop overtraining. The only book I’ve found that really covers this and places the correct emphasis on it is“Training for the New Alpinism” by Steve House. I’ve written a review here, on this blog. It covers the physiology behind energy systems and recovery in great depth and gives some useful benchmarks for fitness.

The aim of this foundation stage is to ensure that your body (and mind) can cope with he repeated stresses you are going to put yourself under when you come to do specific training for your goals. If you have old injuries or an imbalanced/unstable joint this is the time to put in some work to get it functioning properly. This is the stage where you should build your core strength so you have a stable physical platform. Mentally, you should get used to trying hard. And also learn to read your own body and understand the subtle signs that warn you to back off. It is really worth spending as much time on this stage as you can. If you have had an injury issue previously it may be worth seeing a physiotherapist to get the function and stability of your joints assessed. “Prehab” is better than rehab. If you envisage training on the wall for 2 hours 4 times a week you need to know that you can handle exercising at that frequency and duration without overloading your system. In earlier parts of this series I discussed looking at all your stress; physical, emotional and mental as contributors to overtraining. Now is the time to address any issues you can to minimise your background stress, although the real world often has other plans! By preparing yourself physically and mentally in this period you can increase your capacity for dealing with stress and maybe even reduce the background issues. The difference between these two is your capacity for training.

Another key area in this preparation is nutrition. Just as the training regime will alter with time, so indeed does the nutrition you need to fuel your body and achieve your aims. If you are looking to reduce body fat, you need to create a calorific deficit to do so. In fact it is more complex than this as not all calories are created equal, but that is another series of articles in itself. Before we go any further I will warn you that trying to lose weight and train at the same time places you on a tightrope where overtraining is a high risk- not only are you stressing your body through training but you’re not giving it the resources to recover between workouts. Injury usually follows. If you are looking to increase strength you need adequate protein in your diet to allow muscle repair and you may need protein supplements to do this, especially if you have a typically hectic lifestyle (see here for a brief article about protein supplements). If you’re pushing yourself hard you can reduce the activity of your body’s immune system (you’re putting a lot of stress on the physiological system, after all) so vitamins and minerals might need a boost to reduce the likelihood of infection. If you do get ill or feeling excessively tired DO NOT TRAIN. Your body is under enough stress, don’t add to it. Let it recover. Any time you lose is less than what you would lose through illness and injury. Get enough sleep so your body’s soft tissues and homeostatic balance can recover and adapt to the previous training stimulus. Serious overtraining takes months to recover from, rushing may sabotage your schedule completely. Don’t be afraid to adapt your plan as you progress; as the situation and the knowledge you possess changes, so should the plan.

If this seems a bit vague and repetitive that’s because I’m trying to illustrate a few simple ideas that manifest in multiple ways. Reduce your stresses and maximise your ability to recover with strong foundation. Maximise your injury resistance by strengthening problem joints to make them stable. Give your body the resources it needs (sleep and nutrition) to recover and adapt. If extra stresses occur (illness, life events etc) reduce your training volume to avoid exceeding your capacity to recover. Every individual will have a different capacity for stress and react to circumstances uniquely. You will learn by trial and error. If you read around some of the resources I’ve mentioned in these articles and hopefully you’ll be learning from somebody else’s errors. It hurts less. Good luck!!

Next time we’ll look a little at the mental and emotional aspect to overtraining.

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