Cyclists Who Ride Too Much: Exercise Addiction as a Cause of Overtraining
Most racers will say they train to improve performance, but many ride in ways that do not support that goal. Sometimes from ignorance and sometime for more insidious reasons, they undertake excessive volume or intensity for their current experience, fitness, or point in the annual training and racing cycle. Some ride in ways that prevent recovery from injuries or continue to increase volume or intensity even when it is clearly making them weaker. Most riders eventually learn enough from a book, buddy or coach to stop making these errors, or they quit in frustration. Some never figure it out. They repeatedly train themselves into deep fatigue, injury or illness despite having access to the same information as the riders who do finally learn to train and rest more effectively.
Overreaching versus Overtraining
Training enough to mildly decrease performance is called overreaching and is a normal and possibly necessary part of developing competitive fitness. The overreached athlete feels tired. With a few days recuperation, the overreached athlete recovers both vigor and performance. If periods of overreaching are interspersed with periods of recuperation, the rider continues to develop. The more quickly the athlete recognizes and corrects the overreaching, the more rapid the development.
Training hard for an extended period after one is already overreached leads to a decrease in performance that is not correctable by a few days of recovery. This is called overtraining. Overtraining is not brought on by a single excessively long or hard training session. Rather, it is brought on by repeatedly training when already tired or injured, making the fatigue or injury worse. It is brought on by failing to rest when the body needs rest. The continued training does not benefit performance because the training quality is low. A bad case of overtraining takes months to correct. For an athlete with a short competitive season, overtraining can mean missing the entire season. Riders who routinely overtrain sometimes plateau indefinitely at an impaired level of performance and never progress.
Symptoms and Causes of Overtraining
There have been numerous attempts to identify overtraining through blood tests, or inventories of symptoms such as muscle soreness, loss of appetite, loss of motivation for training, irritability and so on. These may have some validity, but there is one unarguable sign of overtraining: decreased performance over an extended period with maintained or increased training. One can think of over-training as under-resting. How can one rider be overtrained when doing less than another rider who is progressing well? The amount of training may not be excessive. Rather, the work-rest balance is off. A rider who is not getting enough stress-free recuperation time, good nutrition, or sleep may become overtrained while following an otherwise reasonable training plan. Building up volume or intensity too quickly either in a first time athlete or after a layoff can also bring on overtraining. Whatever the origin of the overreaching or overtraining, the only way to correct the situation is with a period of recuperation. The overtrained rider can continue to ride during recovery, but the rides need to be at low intensity and not overly long. If the rider can recuperate fully before losing significant fitness, he or she was overreached. If the rider must ride easily for so long that he or she loses fitness before fully recuperating, he or she was overtrained. Once recovered, the rider must correct the situation that led to the overtraining. Otherwise the rider will return to an overtrained state. Most riders will figure this out and avoid entering a cycle of alternately overtraining and resting, but some don’t.
When dealing with an overtrained athlete, a coach should determine what motivated the excessive training. Was the rider making a misguided effort to train as best he or she could, in which case simply guiding the rider to more appropriate training routines will correct the problem, or was the rider meeting some emotional need with riding, causing him or her to ignore signs of impending trouble?
Many riders become at least mildly overtrained at some point in their careers. Some recognize the problem and correct the situation by finding a better balance of work and rest. Others are forced to rest up when they get sick or injured. If they become overtrained again, most but not all intelligent riders will recognize the pattern and choose a less aggressive training plan, start working with a coach, start resting more or make some other change that they expect to help keep them healthy and uninjured. Some otherwise intelligent riders ride themselves into the ground again and again, or just keep themselves chronically tired, sick and slow.
One of the definitions of insanity is repeating a behavior and expecting a different outcome. What would make an otherwise sane and intelligent person train insanely? There are at least four common reasons for such behavior. Collectively they can be referred to as a negative addiction to exercise. Addictive behavior is behavior that continues even after it becomes clearly detrimental to an individual’s well being, whether social, physical or financial. Enthusiasm for training becomes exercise addiction if the exercise in maintained unmodified despite causing trouble with friends and family; an on-going injury or loss of performance; or financial problems such as job-loss, failure to advance at work, or excessive spending that imperils financial security. Why would a rider maintain training in such a situation?
Exercise as a coping mechanism
For many riders, exercise provides an escape from the grind of work, a troubled home life, or difficult relationships. Only when on the bike are these riders free to think their own thoughts, be their own boss, or choose their own direction. For them, cycling is a coping mechanism, making life tolerable. A danger of riding as a coping mechanism when one is also training to improve fitness is that the riding needed for coping and the riding needed for training are not necessarily the same.
High levels of stress prevent recovery. In stressful times riders need to cut back on exercise to avoid overtraining. The addicted rider may have a nasty argument with a spouse and need to get out of the house on a day that he or she also really needs a short recovery ride or a day off for optimal recovery. If the rider uses the bike for coping, especially if hard riding is used to vent frustration, overtraining can ensue.
A vicious circle can develop. A rider who is grumpy from overtraining fights with the spouse. The tired rider does a poor job at work and gets balled out by the boss. Then he or she feels the need for a ride to get a clear head. At a time when the rider really needs to rest to preserve health or improve fitness, the rider goes for a hard ride to feel okay. This is addiction.
Exercise as an Opportunity for Satisfaction
The satisfaction achieved when one masters a challenge or achieves a goal is a strong motivator, and there are nearly constant opportunities for such satisfaction in cycling. One can set new distance or speed records, execute difficult training plans or beat up on buddies. If a rider’s life is lacking in opportunities for off-bike satisfaction, the temptation to seek that satisfaction on the bike can be so strong that riders ride for the satisfaction, independent of the appropriateness of the type of ride at a particular time. Because exercise is serving two incompatible goals, training that does not support competitive goals is undertaken. Again, exercise addiction undermines training for competition.
Riders who are excessively aware of their own reflection in others’ eyes are particularly vulnerable to a feedback loop leading ultimately to overtraining. The rider who craves admiration but is not winning may seek admiration for records set during training. If the rider gets the feedback sought from others, he or she trains more. If the feedback does not come, the rider trains more to try to get it. The farther back such a rider finishes, the harder he or she has to train to be able to talk about it, even when the excessive training itself is the thing preventing racing success.
Exercise Masks Underlying Unhappiness
Exercise makes people happier. People who are not fundamentally happy can use exercise as a sort of healthy drug to positively influence mood. In general that’s a good thing. Riders exercise; they get healthy and strong and happy at the same time. The problem again is that if a rider needs daily exercise to maintain mood, but needs a rest day to ensure recovery from hard training or a mild injury, the rider may choose to exercise anyway to get the exercise high, especially if he or she is depressed by the injury or fatigue. The inappropriate training maintains the injury or fatigue that leads to the depression that motivates the inappropriate training.
Fear of Fitness Loss
Many riders have a morbid fear that they must train to avoid a drastic loss of fitness or sudden weight gain. These riders need a day off and a conversation with a good coach.
The Descending Spiral of Addiction
Exercise really is a coping mechanism, a source of satisfaction and way to improve mood for most people. For most people these effects occur on a subconscious level. When exercise interferes with other aspects of life, or actually leads to poor health or bad mood, it can increase the need for the very effects it provides. When exercise leads to the need for more exercise, you have addiction.
Avoiding Negative Addiction to Exercise
There is nothing wrong with using exercise as a coping mechanism, finding satisfaction in sticking to your training plan or setting new records for yourself, or letting exercise help you stay happy. Those are parts of a healthy lifestyle and normal for a successful racer. The danger comes when those things become the principal goals of exercise, even subconsciously. So long as you are able to honestly assess your fatigue state and back off as needed for recovery, you will not have a misguided temptation to bury yourself with excessive training. There is one very simple way to dependably avoid overtraining: Develop a training plan with a coach and honestly communicate regularly with your coach about your performance and your emotional and physical condition. Put your training in the coach’s hands and do what he or she suggests.
Here are a few tricks to help riders with a tendency to exercise addiction to maintain a healthier relationship with exercise and to avoid developing a need to train even when not training would be better for competitive development.
- Develop multiple coping mechanisms so that the need for an escape does not necessarily mean the need to train. Learn to paint, meditate, keep a diary, write poetry…
- Take care of issues with your spouse, parents, job or whatever else might bug you so much that you’d be tempted to go out and hammer even when your body needs rest. Confront issues before rather than after you ride.
- Find and develop sources of satisfaction and opportunities for mastery feelings that don’t require exercising. Derive satisfaction from being smart enough to take rest days when needed rather than just from riding farther and faster. I hate to recommend this really, but if nothing else, derive satisfaction from processing your heart rate and power files.
- Study the art of happiness, find things other than exercise that help you be happier, or just accept that you’ll have to be unhappy occasionally to win bike races.
A healthy balance of exercise and rest is essential for competitive cyclists. If you or someone you know repeatedly overtrains, get educated about how to achieve balance and also check motivations. If you think you have a tendency to exercise addiction, take advantage of the tips above or start working with a coach. At some point the exercise addicted rider needs to make a choice to either continue to undermine him or herself with addictive behavior, or to get the addiction under control and start training strictly to improve performance. Once the exercise addicted rider recognizes the addiction, he or she can still use the strong motivation to train as a competitive advantage, but not overdoing the training will greatly accelerate the rider’s development.
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching work with individual riders to help them maintain and build healthy relationships with exercise and to provide them with individually tailored training plans incorporating suitable amounts of hard work and rest to bring about sustained development. Check us out on the web at www.WenzelCoaching.com or call us at 503-233-4346.
(This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine)