On over-training

When I was younger, I swam in a near-constant state of over-training. To improve fitness, hard work is necessary but not sufficient. You also need rest – time for your body to recover and rebuild. Indeed, it’s during recovery that you get stronger. If you don’t rest enough, you don’t improve. If you’re over-trained – like I was for most of high school – increasing training load can ironically lead to decreased fitness.

My training load back then – 50K for an average week – wasn’t unusual for an elite age-group program.┬áThe problem was that I was only getting about 6-7 hours of sleep per night during the school year. (My natural sleep duration is 9 hours.) Over the course of a week, that produced a sleep debt that even a 14-hour “coma” on Saturday night couldn’t make up for.

I cut corners on my sleep because, well, I was busy. I don’t necessarily regret this choice… but I was naive about just how much it was affecting my swimming performance. When you’re that age, it easy to think you’re invincible. But over-training is very real – even for 16-year olds.

What are the symptoms of over-training? My intuitive sense is: If, for more than 30% of your training sessions, you feel crappy for most of the workout, you’re probably over-trained. For me, at times, that number was more like 60%. I didn’t understand how bad that was until years later, when I decided to respect my sleep needs and brought my “crappy workout ratio” down to 10-20%.

Dave Salo – legendary former coach of the Irvine Novaquatics and currently head coach at USC – is more scientific about it. To test for training adaptation (fitness improvements) vs. over-training, he recommends a set of 8×100 on a 4-minute interval. For the first 4, descending from 70-100% effort; for the second 4, ascending from 100-70% effort. After each swim, you take your pulse for 10 seconds, three times: immediately after finishing, then again after 30 seconds, then again after another 30 seconds.

Then, you take the sum of the three pulse measurements for each of the 8 swims, and make a chart like this:

From Salo & Riewald, Complete Conditioning for Swimming, pg. 16

The chart above shows three series of data, from three separate test sets. The circles show the baseline; the triangles show adaptation (improvement); and the squares show over-training.

I graduated college less than 10 years ago, but my sense is that even since then, swim coaches have become much more sophisticated about exercise physiology. One hopes these coaches are now more likely to recognize signs of over-training – leading to more athletes achieving their potential.

For more on this and other essential topics of swim training, I highly recommend Dave Salo’s book, Complete Conditioning for Swimming.

8 thoughts on “On over-training”

  1. Beautifully described Evan. Like you, it was many years after high school that I finally realized how destructive my elite swimming program was. I don’t regret it because it prepared me for future challenges, but sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue made life miserable.

  2. You might get a kick out of reading up on Andy Potts. He wears a HRM for every workout and does baseline physio tests EVERY day. Him as his coach pick workouts daily, based on his numbers. This way they always push right up, but not over, the over training limit.

    Also – I’ve found if I take my heart rate and temperature first thing when I wake up, I can tell if I am over trained. If you are constantly working on cardio, there is no reason your baseline heart rate should increase. If it does, you are either getting sick or over trained – both reasons to rest.

  3. I love Salo’s book. I still do their “basic warm-up” of 1 x 400, 4 x 100, 4 x 50, before every workout.

    I’d like to ask Sully, if I may, how Andy Potts wears the HRM? Does he wear a rash guard over it?

      1. The low-tech method (take carotid artery pulse for 10 sec, multiply by 6) is pretty easy, and a lot less hassle than a HR monitor w/ rash guard. Just my 2c.

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