The Dangers of Overtraining

My North Channel Swim is getting increasingly closer and I am starting to get a little bit stressed out about it! Have I trained hard enough? Probably not. Have I partied too much? Probably so. I am however confident that I have done enough to get me across and I am now starting to up my training intensity and duration to cement that. This has lead me back into very dangerous territory which I remember encountering in my English Channel training days and that is the problematic zone of over training.
Getting the correct balance with training and rest is very important. Too little training time and the body will simply not adapt to the stresses needed on the day. Too much training and the body will crash, not perform at full potential and be prone to illness. I have experienced both of these extremes and the one I have encountered most recently is overtraining.

Recently I over trained to the extent where I pushed myself too hard for my current level on too many consecutive days and because I would not stop, my body forced me to do so by crashing and becoming unwell. I was so focussed on ramping up the work level in the final months that I pushed my body outside of its capabilities at the time. I was doing double sessions, six days a week all at a high intensity rather than planning in some easy sessions, some technique sessions and extra rest to enable my body to recover.
As a result I got flu for a week, followed by a virus the week after and a sickness bug the week after taking me out of action for a grand total of 3 weeks at a very critical time in my training! To say I was worried was an understatement. It did however teach me a very valuable lesson and that is the importance of allowing the body ample time to recover in between sessions. As a coach this is of course something I fully understand so why on earth was I not practicing what I preach?

I had fallen into a trap that many an athlete finds themselves and that is trying to do too much too soon. By ending up out of action for 3 weeks what I had done was in affect set myself back more than I had progressed and that is why balancing training effectively is such a tricky thing to do!

What really surprised me though was after having 3 weeks of illness I expected to have lost massive amounts of fitness and work by the time I returned. This however did not seem the case! In fact I got straight back into the lead of lane 1 feeling completely refreshed and revitalised though granted a little bit stiff and unaccustomed to the water for the first session. I can only assume my body desperately needed that time to repair itself and in fact it helped me become stronger and back to full strength within a few days.

Feeling strong and fit again was wonderful. So wonderful that I celebrated by making the exact same mistakes again, overtraining! I was back into a routine of high intensity double sessions 6 days a week BUT this time I recognised what I was doing wrong so as soon as I felt my body starting to buckle under the stress I would adapt a session to make it easier or focus on a different element. Several days recently I have missed training all together and slept in until mid day, something I would never normally even comprehend being a 6am natural riser but by allowing myself this odd change of plan and extra rest my body is fitter and stronger than it has ever been and is coping better than ever with higher intensity work loads.

Planning in good quality down time has allowed me to do much more when I do train and enjoy the process a lot more. I still train 6 days a week and I still do double sessions where possible (sometimes back to back now) but I plan my training schedule much more methodically than I was doing a couple of months ago and this has paid huge dividends to my performance and results. I will now alternate high intensity sessions with slow 5 – 10k plods and technique sessions so I am still getting quality water time but without damaging my body. What is even more interesting is that this seems to be making me more effective at home and work as I am happier and fresher. I feel my life balance is much more on track now and not over run by training and that means I am in a more relaxed state of mind. This is vital for a successful Channel swim crossing as these extreme challenges take huge amounts of mental strength as we will discuss next time.

As Alison Streeter (Queen of the English Channel with 43 successful crossings once said) “Swimming the English Channel is 25% physical and 75% the rest.” I can certainly relate to this so although it is vitally important to train physically it is also important to train mentally.

My physical training is now perfectly balanced and I feel ready to take on the extreme challenges of the North Channel in August.