Avoiding Training Burnout
By Robert Annis
Cyclists are known for pushing boundaries – why pedal 25 miles, when you can go 50 instead? Why take an active recovery day when there are road signs to sprint for against three of your riding buddies? But the same tenacity with which most racers approach their training can often lead to problems later.
Most cyclists have experienced burnout at some point, whether they realize it or not. Would you recognize the warning signs? Have you stopped enjoying your training rides or have trouble finding motivation to ride? Have your sleep patterns changed? Do you have trouble maintaining your weight, either keeping it on or taking it off? Has your cadence changed from quick rotations to big gear mashing? Have you gone from the lead rider to barely holding onto wheels? If yes, you might want to consider taking some time off the bike.
The most common causes of burnout are overtraining, lack of proper rest and stress. Dean Peterson, head coach for the collegiate cycling juggernaut Marian College, schedules at least one rest day and one active recovery day in his young charges’ 10-day training schedules.
“If your recovery ride is more than an hour, it’s not a real recovery ride,” Peterson said. “Some of our more driven athletes might want to do a 45-minute run on their rest day; they’re so afraid of losing any bit of fitness. We try to teach them the importance of those training breaks.”
As the number of races increase, so do their rest days. Peterson typically prescribes at least a 7-10 day break from any type of riding each summer. Although many of his athletes are anxious to get back in the saddle by day five, Peterson is adamant they find other activities, such as yoga or fishing, to keep them occupied.
If you’re working with a coach, Peterson suggests being open about what you’re experiencing. Too many riders, especially younger ones, will downplay what they’re feeling because they’re afraid of being perceived as weak or they can’t handle the workload.
Unfortunately, when many riders begin to feel the symptoms of burnout, their natural inclination is to push through it, the absolute worst thing they could do. Tobias Holsman was primed for a strong crit season last year, but in June, he noticed his energy level on the bike was sagging.
“At first, I thought it was the heat, so I was drinking and eating more,” said Holsman, a CAT 3 road racer with a wife and two young children. “I started taking naps to get more rest, but it wasn’t working. I forced myself to keep riding and ended up phoning in the rest of my season.”
Holsman was averaging up to 12 hours of saddle time most weeks – not an unreasonable amount of training for most seasoned riders – but family and work obligations were stretching him thinner than he wanted to admit. Ironically, as his stress level rose about his training, his performance on the bike suffered even more.
“For racers like me, overtraining isn’t as big of an issue,” Holsman said. “There was a time I had to take a week off from riding because of work, and when I got back on the bike, instead of being refreshed, I still felt exhausted. But I pressed on, when instead I should have just cleaned out the garage.”
Holsman’s teammates noticed as well. As the summer dragged on, they were giving him confused looks as the former front-of-the-pack rider was barely holding onto people’s wheels. However, no one was willing to say anything to him, leaving him to figure out the problem on his own. By continuing to ride, Holsman dug himself a deep hole, and it took him a month completely off the bike to fully climb out.
If you start noticing the early signs of burnout and are getting enough rest and time off the bike, Holsman suggests altering your routine: stop by a coffee shop mid-ride, ride with a different group of people or if you’re a roadie, taking a day each week to do a fun mountain bike ride.
Holsman learned from last year’s debacle and plans to change the way he approaches his training and life.
“Whether it’s racing, working or spending time with my family, I’m going to give 100 percent of myself to each when I’m doing it,” Holsman said. “If something comes up or I’m stressed out about something and don’t feel like riding, then I won’t.”