When it comes to training for peak performance, stress is good. To a certain extent. If you want to get better, faster, or stronger, you have to overreach (stress your body). But for too many athletes, there comes a point where your body’s response to the stress becomes a negative, not positive thing. That means you end up over-trained. Burned out. And with a bunch of bad training sessions, races, and even seasons.
So how do you get to the line without crossing it? Turn to Allen Lim, Ph.D. He’s the sports physiologist who was once director of sports science and training for Team RadioShack and is currently founder of Skratch Labs and co-author (with Biju Thomas) of the Feed Zone Cookbook. With a few words and a back-of-an-envelope sketch, he sums up how to maximize your training and what happens when you dip into the danger zone.
“The simplest analogy is that training is like trying to pop corn. If you don’t turn on the heat, we’re not going to pop a single one. If you apply the right amount of heat for the right amount of time, we’ll get some sort of optimum performance,” he says. But of course, not every athlete starts with the same number of kernels, and more heat—tempting as it is to apply--isn’t always better. “At a certain point, we’re going to burn those kernels. And it’s hard to rescue burnt corn. Once you’ve burnt those kernels, there’s a lot of damage that can be done, and people wonder why it takes them 6 months before they recover from that”
Too many athletes ignore the symptoms of overtraining, and neither your Garmin nor your power meter are going to be able to give you warning signals. “Despite all the biometrics we use to quantify stress and physical performance [determining whether you have the right training stress] still largely comes down to ‘am I feeling burnt right now?’” Trust yourself in how you’re feeling about what you’re doing. (Just be honest with yourself!) And remember that stress doesn’t only come from training. Another way to look at overtraining is that it’s “under-resting.” Sleep is an essential component to being able to absorb a lot of training. “Sometimes it’s better to have some un-popped kernels than it is to have a bag of burnt corn,” he says.