How to Avoid Stagnation, Overreaching and Fatigue


“No pain no gain!”, “More is more!”, “I do 4 HIIT sessions per week, every week!”, “I’ve got to do more than my competitors!”, “I haven’t ridden my bike all year, I’ll just do intervals for the next month to get up to speed”.  These are all sure-fire ways to failure on the bike.  At best it could lead to tiredness, stagnation and below-par performance.  At worst could leave you with debilitating fatigue, injury and illness.

For those who race regularly or ride their bikes a lot, it can be a long and gruelling season.  Over the months we can start to feel jaded, and our performances will begin to plateau or even fade away.  This can be for a number of reasons.  The main ones being a lack of stimulus to improve (i.e. not increasing the training volume over time) and accumulation of fatigue  It is the latter that is the focus of this article.

Performance Plateau

As mentioned above, performance can stagnate if the stimulus for the body to improve is also stagnant. Our body adapts to the workload we give it, and if you do the same thing continually you will get very good at doing that one small thing.  To improve, you need to change it up and do something different.  Our minds also get bored with the same thing, and this can lead to lack of motivation to perform at our highest level.


A significant reason for stagnation is fatigue in one form or another.

There are many ways in which fatigue can creep up on us, but usually it is because we are doing too much high intensity training, not resting enough or after a sudden jump up in training duration or intensity, or both!

Stages of Fatigue

First you will be overreaching and feel a bit tired.  This is fairly normal in training, and a good coach is trained to utilise and manage this effectively.

The next stage is overtraining, this is a much deeper form of tiredness, that may need a few weeks without exercise to recover from.

If you do not heed this warning, then you will be risking the onset of chronic fatigue.  This can have all sorts of implications for health and mental wellbeing and can take a very long time to recover from with no exercise for months or years being the prescribed treatment.

Supercompensation – understanding fatigue

No, I’m not talking about litigation!

This is going to sound odd, but bear with me.  Doing any training that pushes beyond our current limit will make us less fit!

That is for a day or two, until we recover from the training.  It is after the period of recovery that our body will “super compensate”, that is, it will absorb the training and rebuild to eventually be able to perform at this “new normal” level of performance, as shown in the diagram below;

As you can see, immediately after training (the section in light red), our fitness will decline, but after a period of time, the recovery and supercompensation occurs (red, then yellow.)  However, you will notice that the fitness gains will start to decline after a period of time.


The optimal time to train again, to maintain an upward trajectory of fitness, is right at the very top of this supercompensation cycle where fitness is at its new peak.  This is usually, as shown in the middle chart in the diagram below, for most people around 2-3 days.  Generally lower end for younger athletes, and longer if you are older (35-40+!)

It should be apparent that in order to continue to accumulate fitness, you simply *must* allow your body to recover.  This means that you must rest

In general, it is ok within 24 hours of a high intensity session, to do a short (30-60 minutes) at very low intensity, easy pedalling ride in HR zone 1 (yes HR zone 1!) If fairly fresh, perhaps you can allow yourself to stray into HR zone 2!

For Triathletes, training a different muscle group, i.e. swimming is a possibility as you will still be resting the muscles used for cycling.

Deterioration of Fitness

What should be apparent by now is that, if you continue to train without adequate recovery, you will actually be doing the opposite of what you want.  You will be forcing your body to perform worse! 

Look at the diagram below.  The red line shows what happens if you continually stress your body with races or training like HIIT sessions (or too many long rides for that matter), you will be denying your body the time it needs to recover and improve, leading to a downward spiral of performance.  This is why the Grand tours have rest days – to dial out at least some of the fatigue the riders have accumulated.

Optimising Recovery

You can help your body to recover by;

  • Getting quality sleep – ideally 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
  • Eating quality protein and carbohydrates.
  • Getting necessary micronutrients from fruit and vegetables.
  • Keeping well hydrated.
  • Laying off the alcohol – sorry about that!
  • Reducing the amount of stress in your life.
  • Staying away from germs as much as possible.

Use of a recovery shake (I like Sis Rego) within 30-90 minutes of a hard ride/race/training can also help to speed recovery.  This is especially useful if you are doing a multi-day event like LEJOG for example.

Planning your Recovery

As part of my training to become a qualified coach, the planning of rest and recovery was emphasised more than anything else.  An athlete cannot perform well if they are fatigued, ill or injured.  All the training in the world won’t help if you are too exhausted for it to shine through into a stellar performance in your events.

It is therefore imperative that you plan your recovery.  When doing this in your training plan, you need to manage this at three levels;

Weekly – Every week, have at least one day off the bike.  You can (probably should) use this to work on your core strength and flexibility.

Monthly – Depending on how well you recover and tolerate training, I recommend that every 4th week be a rest week, with a reduced volume of training.  Some, especially older riders may need a recovery week every 3rd week.

Yearly – Spend a week or two off the bike.  For most people that will be in the “off season”, or it may be between stages of the year, e.g. for those that do CX racing as well as summer racing.  You can still maintain fitness by “cross training”.  In fact it is strongly advised to do this to address any muscle imbalances that will occur from only riding a bike.  Try gentle running, rowing, swimming, maybe cross-country skiing or roller blading – anything that will give you some aerobic training and give your mind a rest from cycling.

You should also add impromptu/additional rest and recovery if your body is telling you to do it outside of the planned periods.

Indicators of Overtraining

As well as planning your recovery, you should be listening to your body for signs you need to give it a rest.  No-one knows your body better than you do, and general rules for planning rest days, won’t always apply to everyone all the time.

  • You don’t’ feel motivated to do a ride/workout/race
  • Unexplained below par performances or failing to complete workouts (assuming it has been designed for you correctly.)
  • You feel tired or ill.
  • Scratchy/Sore throat.
  • Heavy or aching muscles.
  • Much Lower (or Higher) Heart Rate for a familiar ride/session than normal.
  • Perceived Exertion (scale 1-10) much higher than usual on a familiar ride/session with a normal or lower HR.
  • Resting HR is continuing to rise day to-day.
  • HRV (heart-rate variability) is continuing to fall day to day – lots of research is happening in this area at the moment.

Here are a couple of red flags to look out for.  Any one on its own may not be an indicator of fatigue, but if they continue, beware.

Concluding Remarks

Ignore rest and recovery at your peril.  Without adequate rest and recovery, you will start accumulating fatigue, which if not addressed can build to chronic fatigue and all the ill effects on your health and performance that comes with it.

Don’t get fixated on the current HIIT workout mindset.  Mix up the low and high intensity work.  HIIT will get you going fast in a short period of time, but after about 6-8 weeks you will hit the performance ceiling and limitations as there will be no more gains to be made and you won’t have the endurance and durability to support and maintain the performance for very long.  Fitness gains made this way can disappear as quickly as they come.

Think about, and plan (or have someone do it for you) your training on an annual, monthly and weekly basis giving full attention to rest and recovery as well as the training you need to do for your chosen cycling events.

Get in touch…

If you would like any help with planning your training, or if you have anything you’d like to discuss please do get in touch, I’d be delighted to help.

Thanks for reading,

Mark McGee

ABCC Qualified Coach – Level 3 – @Velo121HPC