Matt over at Active.com just posted about what I call The Relative Benefits of Undertraining. He quotes an old running maxim on the topic:
"It is better to be 10 percent undertrained than 5 percent overtrained."
After watching Dathan Ritzenhein win the USATF Cross Country Championships last weekend--despite having spent a month running on an anti-gravity treadmill due to an IT band injury--Matt said he came to think a little differently about the relative benefits of different training approaches. For example, he writes:
"Training is a blind process, in the sense that you cannot discern a clear line marking the threshold between undertrained and overtrained...If you try to feel your way right up to this limit in training, you put yourself at great risk of crossing it, and I do believe that every step beyond the limit is equivalent to two steps behind it."
He also attributes--somewhat implicitly--American distance runners' early season successes and late season struggles to a notion of "freshness", that their bodies haven't yet broken down from the rigors of training. I think he's on the right path with the insights about risk in training, but I disagree with the idea that Americans are successful because they are "fresher" early in the season.
Defining Undertraining and Overtraining
I think I should be very clear about what I consider Undertraining and Overtraining. (Lest we talk right past each other.)
Undertraining: This is the idea that you are doing less than you are capable of sustaining in your training. It could be a case of cross-training due to an injury, insufficient speed work, or insufficient volume, relative to where you need to be in your ideal training program. Undertraining is not to be confused with being at an early stage in one's training cycle, or not having reached one's "peak".
Overtraining: This is the opposite of Undertraining. It is doing more than you are capable of sustaining during your training, relative to where you need to be in your ideal training program. Overtraining is not a case of having already passed your "peak".
These definitions beg one question: Can we identify our ideal training program? Honestly, no. But with experience and enough training history to rely on, many good coaches can get pretty close.
The Relative Benefits of Undertraining
The definition reads something like this: Runners training below their sustainable limits will benefit over those who are training over their limits. This benefit arises due to a decreased risk of injury, generally safer racing strategies, and the comparing of an individual's performance to lower standards of excellence or success.
Let's take a look at these in more detail:
Decreased risk of injury: We all know that people who chronically overtrain are at higher risk of injury. They simply don't recover enough. People who undertrain, however, stay well within their body's threshold. That means on any given day, the overtrained individual is likely to experience their inevitable breakdown. The undertrained individual may still get injured--hey, it happens--but it's less likely.
Generally safer racing strategies: If you feel you are undertrained, you will be less likely to attempt something outrageous. You will hold back, run conservatively, and then go for it when you are sure you can do it. This strategy won't get you a world record, but it will often eliminate the possibility of a complete and total rig. Athletes who feel they are at their peak--people never feel they are overtrained--are more likely to take a "go big or go home" approach because they feel they are ready. Many have to be scraped up off the course when "going big" turns into a "big rig".
Relative notions of excellence/success: When you believe you are undertrained, you lower your expectations. People pick goals and benchmarks based on what they think is realistic. The problem is, we rarely have that good an idea what we are capable of at any given time. As Matt said, "training is a blind process." Someone who has overtrained might expect to do something remarkable as a result of that training. And they might do it. But when they don't, it looks like disappointment. Undertrained individuals, on the other hand, either experience "expected struggles" or "unexpected triumphs".
What about the idea of "freshness"? I just don't think it holds up. Undertraining and overtraining occur over time. You can over-extend yourself in a workout, but that's not exactly overtraining. And even if an individual has overtrained for three months, they can make themselves feel pretty "fresh" by taking a few days of light training before a race. Similarly, someone who is technically undertrained may have been doing 100 miles per week on hills at altitude. His legs may not feel so "fresh".
Dathan and Americans' Successes and Failures
I want to take a quick look at Dathan's USATF Cross Country Championships victory and the larger body of American distance runners' work to dispel the notion that they are benefiting when they "undertrain" and struggle due to "overtraining".
First off, Dathan may have been undertrained. He certainly had to work out on the anti-gravity treadmill, so he wasn't running as much as he would have liked. But running on the anti-gravity treadmill is no guarantee of undertraining. You can work pretty darn hard on those things, at least aerobically. I once saw Meb work out in a pool for three weeks and then run 13:35 for 5k. It's not ideal, but cross-training doesn't have to hurt you.
I think the more likely explanation for Dathan's success is not his relative undertraining but the fact that the majority of his competition was in an early stage of their training cycles (as was he). At this point in the year, he's not going up against guys who are tuned up for the ideal race. So it was a "battle of bases," and Dathan's base is incredibly strong.
In short: he didn't win because he was undertrained, he won despite being undertrained.
As for American runners, I think there are two things that make their races seem better early in the season. The first is that most have somewhat early training cycles. They race to get in peak shape by June (for the US Nationals), but the biggest international races are in August and September. It's not that they aren't "fresh" come August and September. It's that they have often been unable to sustain their peaks.
Second, as I wrote above, they are being judged against lower expectations early in the season. They aren't expected to succeed or excel, so when they do the performance looks better than it is. On the international scene, they are often beating guys who are earlier in their training cycles than the Americans are. Later in the season, when the competition is reaching the "peak" phases of their training cycles, the roles get reversed but the expectations set early in the year make it look like a disappointment when the Americans struggle.
Does this explain it all? No. I'm sure plenty of runners overtrain and start breaking down. It's natural, since all elite runners are trying to find that magical "perfect training regimen". Did Alan Webb just misjudge his training cycle last year when he ran the fastest times in the world but struggled at the World Championships? Or did he overtrain and struggle because he wasn't "fresh"? Or can he just not perform on the biggest stage? I don't know. But I lean toward the first explanation.
How about you? What do you think about undertraining, overtraining, and/or American distance running?