What is Overload Training?

Whether you are planning to implement a training camp or a stage race into your next training block, there are a few key pieces to consider when planning your build. We will dive into what makes up overload training, and how to safely implement these high-volume weeks into your own training plan. 

What is Overload Training?

Simply put: overload training is training much more than you are accustomed to doing. In order to increase fitness our system needs to be stressed, recover, and then build back stronger.

Overload training can be defined in a few different ways, but generally, it is viewed as a duration of time that challenges the body with an even greater training load than what we are used to. Many individuals will set this to a week of increased intensity or volume (or both!). The most common way of doing this for most athletes is through planned training camps. Increasing the volume and or intensity and reason for benefit: we can focus more on JUST the training alone and the counterbalance to all of this: rest and recovery. The other type of overload might be something like a multi-stage event, or a grand tour. 

Most training plans are built with progressive overload; each week we build into greater volume and intensity from the week before in a “training block.” A typical training block would generally see an increase of about 10-20% of load each week. If we are looking at running specifically, this increase may be lower (between 5-10%) as we need to factor in the potential impact on our musculoskeletal system. On the bike, however, we can increase safely between that 10-20% range. When it comes to overload training, we are seeing a 40,50, and maybe even 60% increase in training load for about a week period. Potentially, you may be able to tolerate more training stress, but in many cases, if we increase the load that drastically, it takes that much longer to recover. When we have to increase our recovery days, we do not get the net benefit that you built up with the overload. 

Managing the amount of overload is part of the equation. This includes looking at: how much have you done recently, how much have you historically, and having a good plan for how much you are doing.

If you are thinking of planning an overload week, below are a few points to consider:

1. Reason: Why are you planning this? 

Training plans are built with periodization, as most should be, but what if we are going to go to a camp? How do we prepare? Our general training may not have us training 7 days a week, and bumping it up to 7 days is a major change. One way to approach this week is the following mantra: what challenges you, changes you. This overload week is not just physically challenging but is mentally challenging too. Performing taxing sessions in training changes your physiological and psychological systems too. When we are able to push through our own mental barriers, a window of capacity to do even more opens up in the future! 

If you’re a coach prescribing an overload training period, you will want to ask yourself: why are you implementing this? Sometimes overload weeks can help people get out of “training plateaus.” If you find that things in your athlete’s training are getting stale or you stop seeing improvements, changing training up and help make a difference. This difference may not even be physical, but to help freshen up your athlete’s psychological state too. 

2. How to Prepare?

Whether you are planning a training camp with a group, or perhaps a cycling destination vacation like the Dolomites, preparation is important. You want to be fit enough so that you can go and do more than you normally would do. If you are planning on riding 100 miles a day for 7 days, but you have only been averaging 20-25 miles 3-4 days in a row, it might be a little too much. You will need an adequate build-up so that you are not entering the “overreach range” of your overload week. 

If you are preparing for a multi-stage event, know yourself and what you are capable of. Something to consider: implement a training overload prep week to replicate the demands of the race. You would not be training the exact layout of the race, but instead performing a week that simulates and then stimulates the demands you will face. 

For example: preparing an athlete for a Grand Tour. The riders do not practice a full grand tour prior, instead, they simulate the demands. For some they may have a two-week block where they perform a week of similar volume with lower intensity, followed by a second week where they do 5-6 days with intensity. Sometimes athletes will actually ride the same types of courses to gain familiarity with the efforts under accumulated fatigue.

3. How do we apply the overload?

Planning! Lots and lots of planning, as they say: failure to plan is a plan to fail. Plan what your training building up to the overload week looks like. It is as equally important to plan not only what your week of overload will look like, but planning what training occurs afterward. 

Do not expect to set personal records five days after the overload. This accumulated fatigue may take your body a week or two to have that evolution of fitness from that overload. You may begin to feel okay after 3-4 days, but to be truly capable of expressing that capacity, it often takes 7-10 days. 

4. How do we recover?

Plan your training week, but also plan for the required recovery afterward. It is also important to plan for recovery during the overload week. It becomes more important than ever to be diligent in your recovery and nutrition pre, during, and post-workout. 

Managing other life stressors is very important during a week of increased physical stress. While we are increasing our training load, we still have work, family, and additional life obligations to think of. If you’re worried about taking this all on with work, consider taking half days at work if it is possible. To reduce stress and demand, schedule bodywork or additional ways to accelerate recovery like napping. All of these things will help your body adapt to the extra stress of training. Your body does not differentiate where stress comes from whether mental or physical stress, we need to pull back one if we are going to increase another. 

Key points:

  • Have a plan for your overload week: going into the week you are ready to build and challenge yourself. 
  • Balance stress 
  • Pay additional attention to nutrition and hydration. 
  • Take adequate rest and recovery to get the most out of what you’ve done. 
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