Health & Injuries, Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

Rune Kjøsen Talsnes, PhD | EP#427

 March 8, 2024

By  Bernardo Gonçalves

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:

Rune Talsnes - That Triathlon Show

Rune Kjøsen Talsnes, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. In this interview we discuss overtraining, training progression and periodisation, and some general topics withi endurance training and in particular, insights from the world of cross-country skiing.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Overtraining and non-functional overreaching: definitions and diagnosis
  • Prevention strategies and monitoring for overtraining and non-functional overreaching
  • Research on increasing training load via intensity and volume, and implications for short and medium-term performance and physiological markers
  • Training insights from the world of cross-country skiing
  • Listener questions
  • ...and more

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Shownotes

Rune's background

02:13 -

  • I am currently a researcher or postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and at the Center for Elite Sport Research in Trondheim. 
  • Additionally, I am employed as an exercise physiologist at the Top Sport Center in Trondheim, where I focus on conducting physiological testing for endurance athletes, primarily cross-country skiers.

Insights into Overtraining

03:34 -

  • My research has shifted from optimizing endurance training to delving into adverse training outcomes and non-functional athletes, particularly in endurance sports. 
  • The catalyst for this shift was a case study we published last year on a Norwegian world-class cross-country skier who experienced two seasons of unexpected underperformance, possibly due to overtraining or relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S).
  • This case study led to a collaborative project with an interdisciplinary team.
  • Working on this project sparked my interest in non-functional endurance athletes, overtraining, RED-S, and early identification and monitoring of these issues.
  • In my postdoctoral research, I'm delving deeper into these topics, focusing on understanding and addressing the factors contributing to non-functional endurance athletes and developing early identification and monitoring strategies. 

Common reasons for getting into overtraining

05:42 -

  • In both literature and sports practice, many terms are used to describe the state of athletes not functioning optimally. From overreaching to overtraining syndrome and underperformance, the terminology and scientific evidence surrounding these concepts can vary and sometimes be contentious.
  • The literature often frames these states within a fatigue adaptation continuum, starting with acute fatigue following training overload and progressing towards overreaching, where performance levels decrease compared to baseline. 
  • Functional overreaching describes a period of reduced performance followed by a recovery period where performance improves beyond baseline levels due to adaptation.
  • Conversely, non-functional overreaching involves decreased performance without subsequent improvement despite recovery. 
  • If this continues with insufficient recovery and a high training load, it can evolve into overtraining syndrome, a more severe condition requiring more extended recovery time.
  • Overtraining syndrome is often cited as a reason athletes may quit sports, as full recovery to pre-condition levels can be challenging. 
  • Alongside changes in performance, physiological signs and symptoms manifest in these states, potentially exacerbated by low energy availability, particularly in endurance athletes with high energy expenditures.
  • Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is increasingly recognized as a contributing factor, with low energy availability possibly masquerading as overtraining in some cases. 
  • RED-S can occur with or without an eating disorder diagnosis, further complicating the picture.
  • While overtraining or high training load is part of the equation, it's essential to recognize that other stressors beyond training can contribute to these states. 
  • Terms like unexplained underperformance syndrome might better capture the multifactorial nature of these conditions, acknowledging that overtraining alone may not be the sole cause.

Case study of overtraining

11:20 -

  • As the term suggests, the athlete experienced a period of under-performance characterized by fluctuations in performance levels both nationally and in international competitions. Initially, he didn't fully recognize the signs and symptoms of excessive training load compared to recovery. 
  • It took some time before he acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and made adjustments to training and recovery processes to restore my performance to a more functional level.
  • There isn't a single validated tool or test to diagnose overtraining or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). Still, the culmination of various signs, symptoms, and under-performance indicated that the athlete had reached such a state. 
  • Thus, the journey towards returning to a more functional state began.
  • It's essential to note that it took him some time to realize the decline in performance, which is common among athletes. When performance dips, there's often a tendency to push harder or train more, which can exacerbate the issue.
  • During recovery, he significantly reduced training volume and focused on rest and recovery. Simultaneously, an analysis was conducted to identify potential contributing factors, including medical reasons, training-related factors, recovery, and nutrition.
  • The intervention phase targeted these identified contributing factors through adjustments in training intensity, session control, and nutritional changes. For example, he discontinued specific high-intensity training sessions and modified his nutrition to exclude methods with low carbohydrate availability.
  • Additionally, improvements were made in monitoring and quality assurance systems to support returning to a more functional state. 
  • This included enhanced monitoring during daily training sessions with the assistance of a coach.
  • The process involved three steps: analysis of contributing factors, targeted interventions, and improved monitoring and support systems. 

The role of the assistant coach

17:58 -

  • The primary responsibility was to provide daily support and guidance to the athletes. 
  • This involved actively participating in training sessions to ensure they were of the highest quality. Tasks such as conducting blood lactate tests, filming sessions for analysis, and addressing technical issues were part of the role. 

Reducing training monotony

18:59 -

  • That was one of the changes in our training approach – introducing more periodization and week-to-week adjustments based on micro-periodizations. Typically, we followed a two-to-one periodization model. 
  • This meant two weeks with relatively high training loads followed by one week of reduced training load for recovery.
  • During the two high-load weeks, we structured them slightly differently. One week had a moderate training load (yellow week), while the second week had a higher training load (red week). 
  • This pattern was followed by a recovery week (green week) with a clear reduction in training load.
  • Initially, we started with around 15 hours per week during the moderate load week, increasing to 20 hours during the high load week, then dropping back to 10 hours during the recovery week. 
  • As we progressed, the hours varied between 20 and 25 in the moderate to high load weeks and then back to 15 during recovery.
  • In the periods with high training load, we ramped up to 25 and 30 hours during the intense weeks, followed by a reduction to 15 hours during recovery.

Monitoring strategies to avoid overtraining

21:15 -

  • I believe it's crucial to have robust control systems in place, both as an individual athlete and as part of a team or group. 
  • Successful athletes and teams often utilize these systems to make timely adjustments to training, maximizing performance development while minimizing the risk of overreaching or overtraining. 
  • These control systems can encompass a combination of subjective and objective tools.
  • Daily, monitoring factors like resting heart rate variability, perceived fatigue, muscle soreness, and readiness to train or compete through questionnaires such as the Profile of Mood State is beneficial. 
  • Additionally, recording all training data provides valuable insights over time. Periodic physiological profiling, such as blood lactate testing during standardized training sessions every few weeks, allows athletes and coaches to assess adaptation to training and make necessary adjustments early on.
  • In Norway, for example, many endurance athletes undergo blood lactate profiling during running or skiing sessions to gauge their physiological response to workload. 
  • Low blood lactate levels at maximal efforts, combined with increased perceived exhaustion, may indicate fatigue and signal a need for training adjustments.
  • However, while objective tests and data analysis are valuable, the presence of a knowledgeable coach in daily training sessions is equally important. 
  • A coach's ability to observe signs and symptoms of fatigue firsthand and maintain a solid coach-athlete relationship is invaluable. 
  • Often, subtle cues like changes in an athlete's demeanour during breakfast can provide early indications of fatigue or issues that require attention.
  • In my experience, the most successful coaches integrate information from objective monitoring tools and their relationship with athletes. 
  • While advanced monitoring systems can be helpful, they should complement rather than replace the insights from direct interaction and observation.
  • The submaximal test is a fantastic tool, especially when you have a fixed protocol and workload. Even if you don't use lactate measurements, you can still gather valuable data by monitoring heart rate and perceived exertion during specific test stages. 
  • For example, if your heart rate is unexpectedly low but your perceived exertion is high, it could indicate issues with performance readiness or fatigue levels. Many athletes don't have access to lactate measurement devices, and even if they do, it can be challenging to perform accurate measurements during a test. 
  • So, relying on heart rate and perceived exertion can provide valuable insights into your training progress and fatigue levels.

Listener questions

Blood markers for overtraining

28:45 -

  • I've delved into the literature regarding overreaching and overtraining, mainly focusing on the various blood markers or biomarkers used in research. 
  • However, my interpretation reveals a lack of consensus on this matter. 
  • There isn't a single validated test or blood marker definitively diagnoses overreaching or overtraining.
  • Nevertheless, I recognize the potential relevance of measuring certain markers, such as testosterone and cortisol, and their ratios, especially if resources allow. 
  • Their two-bout exercise protocol, involving maximal exercise tests with a four-hour recovery period in between, has shown altered responses in HPA axis-related hormones such as prolactin and ACTH in athletes experiencing overtraining.
  • While these studies have limitations, they offer valuable insights. However, implementing such protocols in practical settings may prove challenging due to logistical constraints.
  • In a monitoring context, early detection of overreaching may require more comprehensive tests focusing on underlying mechanisms. 
  • However, extensive blood marker testing may not be practical for regular month-to-month monitoring.
  • Beyond testosterone and cortisol, specific blood markers that indicate low energy availability and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) are pertinent. 
  • These may include markers like cholesterol, T3 hormones, leptin, and bone mineral density assessments using techniques like DXA scans. 
  • Incorporating these markers into monitoring protocols for elite endurance athletes could be beneficial if resources and expertise permit.

Trends with athletes on antidepressants

33:30 -

  • I don't have the expertise or education to provide insights on that topic. However, I've found literature discussing hypotheses about the potential benefits of specific approaches in addressing overtraining syndrome. 
  • Despite this, I haven't encountered any data that conclusively demonstrates the actual effects of these approaches.

Differences between overreaching and overtraining

34:30 -

  • It's a bit of a spectrum, ranging from overreaching to overtraining syndrome. Differentiating between them isn't always straightforward and often requires looking back. 
  • Typically, if it takes weeks to maybe a month or two to restore performance levels, it's likely overreaching. 
  • However, if it takes one to several years, it's more likely overtraining syndrome. This distinction is often based on the time needed for performance restoration.
  • A protocol developed involving HPA-related hormones can also help differentiate between non-functional overreaching and overtraining syndrome. 
  • This protocol provides another tool for understanding and diagnosing these conditions.

Periodisation studies

36:14 -

  • Before working more with non-functional athletes, my background was primarily in endurance training, particularly cross-country skiing. 
  • During my Ph.D., I conducted a training intervention study on junior cross-country skiers in mid-Norway. About 50 skiers underwent an eight-week baseline period with consistent training and intensity distribution. 
  • They were then randomly divided into two intervention groups.
  • One group increased the training load by augmenting the volume of low-intensity training, while the other group intensified training by increasing the volume of high-intensity training. 
  • Both groups experienced a proportional increase in training load, matched by trim score. This resulted in two distinct intensity distributions: one more paramidal and the other more polarized.
  • Throughout the eight-week intervention, we conducted tests before and after, measuring performance variables in running and roller skiing, physiological measurements during maximal intensity, and incremental tests to exhaustion. We also conducted a running time trial in the field.
  • After the intervention, both groups showed performance improvements compared to the baseline, with no significant differences. 
  • However, the high-intensity group exhibited a significant increase in VO2 peak, unlike the low-intensity group.
  • During the subsequent five-week standardized training period with consistent intensity distribution for both groups, there were no differences in performance improvements or VO2 peak changes. 
  • The physiological benefits observed in the high-intensity group during the intervention period were offset by similar training intensity in the subsequent period for the low-intensity group.

Takeaways from this study

42:03 -

  • Different models of training intensity distribution and periodization can be effective, highlighting the importance of finding the right balance between load and recovery. The quality of training sessions also plays a crucial role in driving adaptations and performance improvements.
  • One key takeaway is that while high-intensity training can rapidly increase VO2 peak, its effects may plateau over time, particularly as specific preparation and competition periods approach. 
  • This suggests that prolonged emphasis on high-intensity training may not be necessary to maximize adaptations for competition readiness.
  • Furthermore, many short-term training intervention studies favour high-intensity training but often fail to match it with low-intensity training in an ecologically valid manner. 
  • Comparatively, low-intensity training can achieve similar training goals with greater volume, but there is a lack of experimental studies demonstrating its effectiveness in improving performance.

Responders variability

45:34 -

  • When we analyze mean changes and the expected outcomes of specific training interventions, it's crucial to acknowledge the individual variations in adaptations. 
  • In our study, for instance, we observed that some participants in the low-intensity group improved their ability to peak after focusing on low-intensity training to a similar extent as those in the high-density group and vice versa.
  • Highlighting these individual variations in training intervention studies is essential. We attempted to classify these variations into slow, moderate, and high responders. 
  • Not everyone responds similarly to training, and this concept of responders and individual variations presents methodological complexities.
  • Factors such as training load, stress, and individual life circumstances may contribute to variations in responses to training. 
  • Additionally, replicating the study may yield different individual responses, further complicating the interpretation of results. 
  • To establish robust scientific evidence, it's necessary to replicate studies and observe consistent individual responses.
  • Each athlete is unique, and various factors in their training, recovery, and life experiences influence their adaptations to different training models. 
  • Understanding and accounting for these variations is essential for designing effective training programs tailored to individual needs.

Testing battery for elite cross-country skiers

49:31 -

  • In my experience, physiological testing in sports teams and groups can vary. Norway has a long tradition of conducting physiological testing, particularly in cross-country skiing and running. Over the past 15 years, more tests have been introduced, including roller-skiing on larger treadmills.
  • Ideally, athletes should undergo two to four annual tests, incorporating maximal stages, lactate profiles, incremental tests to exhaustion, and VO2 peak or max tests. 
  • These tests assess athletes' capacities and track changes within an annual cycle and between cycles to ensure quality training and performance development.
  • In addition to these comprehensive tests, more frequent assessments are conducted, such as low-lactate profiles in running or roller-skiing on large treadmills. 
  • These monthly tests are monitoring tools to gauge training response, assess adaptation to previous training periods, and determine readiness for new training phases.

Running as a method to get to VO2 peak in elite cross-country skiers

54:10 -

  • In my opinion, it could be advantageous to develop both general physiological capacities in running and specific physiological capacities in roller skiing. Skiers tend to achieve higher Vo2 max values in running and in certain sub-techniques of skiing, such as diagonal skiing and classical skiing uphill, where both the upper and lower body are engaged. 
  • On the other hand, Vo2 max values may be slightly lower in skating sub-techniques and bober-polling sub-techniques in classical skiing.
  • It is crucial to understand the relationship between the Vo2 max values obtained in different sub-techniques and the mode in which Vo2 max is reached, whether it's running or diagonal skiing. 
  • It highlights the need to bridge the gap between Vo2 max peaks in various sub-techniques and the mode where the highest Vo2 max is achieved, like running.
  • For instance, if an athlete only reaches 85% or 90% of their Vo2 max in a skating sub-technique, it may necessitate specific training in that mode to narrow the gap. However, individual differences exist, with some skiers reaching similar Vo2 values across different sub-techniques, while others excel in specific sub-techniques like double-polling.

Metrics to prescribe cross-country ski training

57:49 -

  • In cross-country skiing, one of the challenges we face is the lack of reliable external intensity measures. 
  • Unlike sports with consistent metrics like pace or distance, skiing intensity varies considerably based on course profile and weather conditions. This variability makes it crucial to rely on internal measures to control intensity during training.
  • Heart rate monitoring and perceived exertion are commonly used to gauge intensity levels. 
  • Additionally, there's a growing trend in cross-country skiing towards incorporating low-lactate measurements inspired by training methods from sports like running and triathlon.
  • The complexity of cross-country skiing lies in the need to adapt to these internal intensity measures. 
  • This highlights the importance of standardized testing, such as blood-lactate profiling in lab settings, to accurately assess an athlete's response to training. 
  • While field measurements are challenging to validate, standardized lab tests provide valuable insights into an athlete's adaptations and progress.

Elite cross-country skier training week

1:00:10 -

  • In cross-country skiing, a typical training week in Norway usually consists of 10 to 12 sessions, totalling 20 to 30 training hours. 
  • These sessions typically include 2 to 3 at moderate, threshold, or high intensity, depending on the athlete's training plan and the stage of the annual cycle. During strength training sessions, priorities may vary among skiers.
  • Speed sessions are often integrated into lower-intensity training sessions, with sections focused on speed. 
  • In general, there's an emphasis on volume, with low-intensity and threshold training being more prevalent during the spring and summer months. 
  • As the season approaches in the autumn, there's typically a shift towards higher intensity sessions, marking a transition to specific preparation.
  • In recent years, there has been a trend towards higher overall volumes, more low-intensity training, and increased moderate-intensity or controlled interval sessions. This reflects a shift towards optimizing training methods for improved performance.

Volume training distribution

1:03:05 -

  • In cross-country skiing, there's a tradition of incorporating long, low-intensity sessions lasting about three hours per week, sometimes even two or three for elite athletes. Some skiers prefer to combine high-intensity and strength training on the same days, leaving days between volume and low-intensity training. 
  • These longer sessions, typically lasting five hours in total, often involve a three-hour morning running followed by a two-hour double polling or similar upper body-focused exercises. This variation in exercise mode helps increase tolerance to higher training volumes.
  • Despite not being Norwegian, I've heard of athletes like Andrew Musgrave, who trains in Norway and extends these three-hour skiing sessions to four-hour runs in the summer. 
  • This approach may seem extreme to some, as most runners typically cap their long runs at two to two and a half hours, especially in marathon preparation. 
  • However, translating skiing training to running or roller skiing is common among cross-country skiers during the off-season.
  • In the summer, cross-country skiers often prioritize running, sometimes logging sessions lasting up to three hours or more. Some venture into four—or five-hour runs in mountainous or soft terrain. 
  • This tradition of running in natural landscapes like forests and marshlands has deep roots in Nordic countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland, where it's believed to build endurance and adaptability to different terrains.
  • These training practices reflect the diverse traditions and approaches across different endurance sports.

Particularities in cross-country ski

1:07:15 -

  • Cross-country skiing is a sport that's quite complex, unlike running or cycling. One of the major differences lies in the constant changes in intensity and speed due to the varying terrain. 
  • As you navigate through different inclines and terrains, you switch between various skiing techniques, such as the skating and classical styles. 
  • Each style has further cycle length and rate adjustments, adding to the intricacy.
  • These changes in terrain and techniques result in exercise intensity and energy turnover fluctuations. During uphill sections, the intensity spikes, often surpassing your maximum aerobic capacity. 
  • This leads to anaerobic energy contribution, which needs to be replenished during subsequent downhill sections to maintain performance.
  • The combination of skiing on snow further amplifies these demands, making cross-country skiing unique compared to other endurance sports like running. 
  • Cycling, especially road cycling, shares similarities with cross-country skiing. Like skiing, the layout of races in cycling varies significantly based on the course profile. Even in flat races, factors like crosswinds and tactical manoeuvres come into play, influencing the outcome. So, I see cycling as a sport that closely parallels the dynamics of cross-country skiing.

Three pieces of advice to amateur triathletes

1:10:34 -

  • Training should be kept simple. Despite the complexity of physiological mechanisms and training designs, simplicity is vital. Many successful endurance athletes have followed straightforward training methods. 
  • Recreational and amateur athletes often complicate their training unnecessarily. 
  • They train too hard, leading to fatigue without significant improvements. It's crucial to strike a balance between training load and recovery. Overtraining only makes you better at being fatigued, not at improving performance.
  • To optimize training, controlling intensity is essential. Many amateur athletes push too hard during high-intensity sessions, requiring longer recovery. 
  • Lowering intensity while increasing volume can yield better results with less recovery time. Additionally, pacing is critical, both in competitions and training. Many athletes start too fast, leading to fatigue later on. 
  • Consistent pacing throughout can lead to better overall performance.
  • In essence, simplicity is critical in training. Avoid training too hard and focus on pacing during competitions and training sessions.

Listener Questions

Differences in training for women and men

1:15:40 -

  • Regarding female-specific considerations in training for cross-country skiing, the current literature doesn't seem to indicate a clear consensus that would warrant distinct training prescriptions for male versus female athletes. 
  • As for the differences between Norwegian and Swedish skiers, particularly on the female side, I don't have all the insights to form definitive opinions, especially regarding Sweden. 
  • However, I'm interested in learning more about the training approaches of Swedish female skiers, particularly those focusing on sprinting.
  • In Norway, with more male skiers, the female side may face unique challenges. With some of the top Norwegian female skiers retiring in recent years, there appears to be a talent gap, although the past season showed promise for female skiers. 
  • Nevertheless, there have been reports of female athletes struggling with recovery and balance, as highlighted in the evaluation report of female cross-country skiing in Norway in 2022. 
  • The report suggested various actions to address these challenges, including developing training cultures in different regions, retaining female skiers for longer careers, and implementing better quality control systems for training and performance development.
  • While some of these actions may have been implemented in Norway, it will take time to see their effects. 
  • As for Sweden, I lack sufficient insight to comment, but similar challenges may exist there. On the male side, I'm also uncertain about any differences or challenges they may face.

Training methods for different sports

1:20:10 -

  • I believe that valuable training methods, philosophies, and principles can be applied to various sports. Drawing inspiration and learning from different sports can offer valuable insights and innovation. 
  • However, I also recognize the importance of tailoring training to the specific demands of my sport. Understanding my sport's unique requirements and limitations is crucial for optimizing performance. 
  • Therefore, while I am open to adopting methods from other sports, I prioritize maintaining a sport-specific focus in my training to effectively target the demands and limitations of my chosen discipline.

Rapid Fire Questions

1:21:21 -

What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?

I mostly adapt my knowledge from scientific articles and discussions with practitioners.

What's an important habit you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?

Consistency - showing up every day and doing the work is critical.

Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?

My supervisor, mentor, good friend, Oyvind Sandbakk, and many practitioners and colleagues have supported me.

Mikael final takeaways

1:27:01 -

  • Firstly, overtraining is not a clear-cut diagnosis. It exists on a spectrum, with overtraining syndrome being diagnosed after a prolonged period of decreased performance capacity. 
  • No definitive blood markers or diagnostic tests make it challenging to identify. However, whether it's an overtraining syndrome or non-functional overreaching, both indicate an imbalance in stress levels, including training load, life stress, sleep, and recovery.
  • The key takeaway is to avoid reaching a state of overtraining or overreaching altogether. Jim Vance's "two-day rule" suggests that you should be able to perform near your best after two light days of training or rest. 
  • While context matters, consistently needing more than a few days to recover indicates unsustainable training.
  • Monitoring external and internal markers of stress during exercise is crucial. Comparing metrics like power or pace with heart rate and perceived exertion (RPE) helps identify signs of overreaching. If your heart rate is lower but your RPE is higher, it suggests you're working harder for the same intensity, indicating a need for recovery or deloading.
  • My final personal takeaway is Rune's research on progressing intensity or volume. This is another excellent example of how many ways to approach training exist. 
  • The overall training load, as long as it's balanced and not leading to non-functional overreaching, is probably more important than the specific details of how that load is structured.
  • Of course, for individual athletes, there may be situations where one approach is more effective than the other, as we saw in some of the individual responses. 
  • This highlights the importance of being highly engaged in your training process and monitoring how your performance is trending. 
  • However, unless you're working with a coach who can help tailor your training to what works best for you, I recommend diversifying your training and not relying solely on one training methodology.
  • Even as a coach, I find myself diversifying training approaches because you can never be 100% sure what will work for an athlete.
  • Using various training blocks within periodization ensures that even if an athlete doesn't respond well to one approach, they may respond better to another.
  • As used in the research, imagine hypothetically using both intensifying and increasing volume blocks. If an athlete doesn't respond to one, they may still see improvement with the other, resulting in overall progress.
  • This philosophy is reflected in the ready-made training plans available on scientifictriathlon.com
  • By offering various training blocks, athletes have a better chance of finding what works best for them. 
  • It's about diversifying training to increase the likelihood of benefiting from different approaches.

LINKS AND RESOURCES:


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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