The Fatigue Conundrum

I was asked a great question recently by one of my athletes, it was regarding managing fatigue:

“How do I know when it’s ok to train with fatigue or when it’s a bad idea because fatigue is too high? It seems the frontier to bad fatigue is a narrow one so are there any indicators that I can use to know when to back off. And if so how do I back of and what exercise can be done ?”.

To give you some background this athlete is a Doctor, has 2 children (aged 3 & 5), he works 48 hours per week and trains 10-12 hours per week. His main goal is to improve his times over the half Ironman distance.

The reason he asked this question was because he had just experienced a very hard training week, this included some fitness testing midweek then bike racing on the weekend. He also had sore throat developing, felt very heavy during his training sessions and was lacking his usual high motivation. These are key indicators of high fatigue.

This is a common conundrum for most age group triathletes, when should you back off or when should you push on through? It’s a tricky question to answer and one that athletes frequently get wrong. The reason it’s such a difficult question to answer is because there are varying levels of fatigue from low to high, with most age group triathletes always carrying a certain level of fatigue into every training session. You are almost never fully ‘fresh’.

This is because age groupers cram so much into their lives; they long work hours, devote time to their family life and then add training for long distance events into the mix. It’s a recipe for disaster if the training balance is out of sync or your decision-making is poor.

The main factors that affect fatigue are: 

  1. Accumulated training load over an extended period of time (usually weeks/months)
  2. A sudden increase in training load / intensity (racing, training camp, big weekend of training )
  3. Day to day life ( long work hours, lack of sleep, travel etc)

Usually many of the above combine together to leave athletes feeling continually exhausted.

We first need to differentiate between levels of fatigue to know the course of action to take. Let’s first start with bad fatigue because this is the most dangerous and can lead to illness, injury and over training syndrome.

Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Loss of motivation, mood swings, change of character
  • You feel flat/heavy during training sessions
  • Your sleep quality is consistently poor
  • Unusual persistent muscle soreness & aches
  • You feel like you might be getting ill
  • You struggle to get your heart rate, power or effort up during sessions even though you feel like you are working hard
  • You still feel flat after a warm up
  • Loss of appetite

If you are  experiencing a number of these over an extended period of time then you need to take action.’Acceptable fatigue’ is non-overwhelming fatigue caused by everyday life combined with training, it’s kind of just there in the background. Motivation won’t be at it’s highest, you might feel tired going into a session but quickly feel better once warmed up.  If you still feel tired, unmotivated and exhausted after a 10-15mins then you need to take action and cut the session short. It would be far more beneficial to go home and get an early night.

So how can you manage your fatigue better ?

Let’s look at some examples below:

1: Fatigue caused by accumulated training load. 

This is fatigue that has built up over a number of weeks of training, this could be anything from 2-5 weeks depending on the athlete. Gradually over time it will be normal for an athlete to get tired, when this kicks in we factor in what in call the ‘3 day period of recovery’. This would look like this:

Day 1: Day off
Day 2: 30mins easy turbo spin
Day 3: 30 x 50m on 20ri super easy swim
Day 4: Resume normal training

The sessions are light and low impact, we only resume normal training if the athlete is feeling good at the end of the 3-day period. If not we might extend this to 4-5 days of easier/shorter aerobic training. This is usually more than enough to bring an athlete back to life, in my experience taking full recovery weeks is too long and eats into valuable training time.

2:  A sudden increase in training load / intensity  (racing, training camp, big weekend of training) 

Racing is a trickier one to deal with because it all depends on what type of race you have done and over what distance. The fatigue created from doing an Ironman (many weeks) is far higher than say a single sport event like a 5k run (a few days). In general the longer the event the longer the recovery period that needs to be factored in. The level of muscle soreness created by a particular event will also guide the recovery process so be prepared to listen to your body and let that guide your training decisions.

The most caution should be taken with running events, because running hard creates significant muscle soreness and you need to give the legs time to recover. During this time focussing more on swimming and biking is key because it will help your leg recovery. Then ease back in with very short light runs.

In Remi’s case he had just done the Tour of Flounders Classic sportive, the event was on a Saturday so his training plan looked this post race:

– Saturday: Race
– Sunday : Day off
– Monday: 30 x 50m on 20ri easy swim
– Tuesday : 30mins light spin
– Wed : 60min easy run

If the fatigue is still high at the end of this period keep taking easier aerobic days with single sports session of 30-60mins in duration until you start to feel better.

Training camps or training weekends are the perfect way to overload the body at times to help improve mental toughness and fitness. What’s even more important is to factor in recover time afterwards, this is the time when your body will absorb the work you have put in allowing fitness adaptations to occur. If you’ve been away on a one or two week training camp then you might need 4-7 days of lighter low volume, low impact training. If it’s just a heavier training weekend 1-2 days lighter training will suffice. The sessions will be similar to the ones above, usually 30mins of very easy light aerobic training during this period.

3:  Day to day life ( long work hours, lack of sleep, travel etc )

What I find most striking when talking to athletes is the way they completely underestimate the affects of total work hours and total sleep hours on their training each day. This usually has the greatest affect on mood, fatigue levels and training quality. If you are working long hours and not getting adequate sleep then quite simply your approach to training needs to change with the addition of easier training days or incorporating full rest days until normal balance is resumed. More sleep hours becomes an absolute priority during this time.

My athletes know fully well I will only praise them when they make smart decisions like doing easier sessions or taking rest days. It’s not a sign of weakness, far from it, it’s the smart athlete recognising that it’s all got a little bit too much for them and it’s time to make an intervention. Sometimes that’s all it needs is a day or two of lighter training to help reignite that spark back in you. If the spark doesn’t reignite you need more easier days, so just be patient.

The value of these shorter lighter 30min easy sessions should not be underestimated when fatigue strikes. Many athletes hate to take a day off and that’s absolutely fine, some of my athletes rarely do. What helps them mentally is to be able to do ‘something’, this makes them feel good and it impacts their mental state in a very positive way. It also adds very little stress to an already stressed body and can aid the recovery process if done at a low intensity.

I also really believe that most athletes looking to stay fit and healthy should be aiming to sleep a minimum of 45-50 hours a week. Ideally more, but definitely not less than 40 hours for an extended period. Drop below this then you will need to be even more cautious with the volume and intensity of your training, the balance has to be right.

Dealing with fatigue ultimately comes down to making smart training decisions at the right time. It’s also about being honest with yourself and how you are feeling. I really believe that most athletes natural instinct is usually correct right when it comes to making the right decisions. Unfortunately they frequently let the ever-powerful devil that sits on one shoulder, override ‘Captain Sensible’ who sits on the other. The devil will be telling you that you are being weak for backing off, he will also tell you that one more hard training session wont do any more harm, listen to him at your peril.