Many athletes train hard in order to succeed at their chosen sport. They log many miles, spend many hours at the gym, and work hard day after day, driven to achieve their athletic goals. However, too much training can actually lead to a decline in performance. This decline is due to a condition called overtraining.
What is overtraining?
Too much training is classified into two types: overreaching and overtraining (staleness). Overreaching is the first phase of overtraining and is more easily reversed. Overreaching is unusual muscle soreness that occurs when an athlete does not allow for a sufficient amount of recovery time between hard workouts. This usually occurs after several consecutive days of hard training.
Overtraining or staleness occurs when an athlete ignores the signs of overreaching and continues to train. Many athletes believe that weakness or poor performance signals the need for even harder training. So, they continue to push themselves. This only breaks down the body further. It is very difficult to recover from overtraining and can require weeks or months of time off. This can be challenging for someone whose life has revolved around training and competing. Identifying overreaching early is important.
Athletes are more susceptible to breakdown and overtraining if there are other stressors present in their lives: work, school, relationships, etc. An athlete should use "down time" from training to work on evaluating and balancing these other important aspects of life.
What are the major warning signs and symptoms of overtraining?
- Unusual muscle soreness after a workout, which persists with continued training
- Inability to train or compete at a previously manageable level
- "Heavy" leg muscles, even at light exercise intensities
- Delay in recovery from training
- Performance plateaus or even declines
- Thoughts of quitting or skipping training sessions
- Prolonged general fatigue
- Increase in tension, depression, anger or confusion
- Inability to relax or poor quality sleep
- No energy, decreased motivation, moodiness
- Things once enjoyable are no longer
- Increased occurrence of sickness
- Increased blood pressure and morning pulse
- Irregular menstrual cycle or loss of menstrual periods
- Weight loss, appetite loss
- Constipation, diarrhea
Once overtraining has been diagnosed, what can be done?
Once you recognize the signs and symptoms of overtraining, talk with your coach, athletic trainer and doctor. Working as a team, these sports medicine professionals can give you some guidelines for recovery, which will probably include the following:
- You may be instructed to temporarily STOP or reduce your training. You might also be asked to forego an upcoming competition. These are some of the most important steps to recovery.
- Examine your eating habits. Have you been depriving your body of the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals it needs for high quality and high-intensity training?
- Work with a nutritionist to provide your body with the energy and nutrients that it needs for healing.
- Your doctor and coach will help you determine when your body is ready to begin training again. Your signal to resume full training is renewed interest and the ability to train hard with normal responses.
- Start low and go slow. Your training volume may be reduced by 50-60%. Increase about 10% each week.
Even though it may be difficult, you must use the same discipline developed during training to comply with the recommendations of your sports medicine team. The more closely you follow their guidelines, the sooner you’ll be back in the gym, at the track, or on the field.
How can overtraining be prevented?
- Listen to your body. Work closely with your coach and let him/her know how you’re feeling.
- Keep a training log which records your feelings of well-being as well as the amount of exercise.
- Balance your training with recovery time for optimal performance. Adequate rest is not a sign of weakness. Give yourself at least one complete rest day each week. Alternate hard and easy training days for a specific activity. Utilize cross-training or other forms of "active rest." Gradually increase your training load.
- If you find yourself becoming obsessed with training, exercising when injured or in pain, or feeling guilty if you go a day without vigorous exercise, talk with someone about these feelings.
- Inadequate carbohydrate and protein intake can lead to decreased muscle glycogen stores, muscle fatigue and poor muscle repair. Work with a nutritionist to evaluate your food habits and make sure you’re getting enough of these important nutrients. Most athletes need at least 55% of their calories from carbohydrates, as well as 6-12 ounces of high quality protein every day (depending on activity level and weight).
- Make sure your calorie intake matches your body’s need for energy (for both training and muscle repair).
- Avoid nutrient deficiencies which can increase your susceptibility to infections.
- Dehydration contributes to muscle fatigue. Drink a minimum of 8 glasses of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages daily. Your urine should be plentiful and light in color.
- Remember that everyone has a different ability to cope with stress. When the stress in your life exceeds your personal ability to cope with it, your body will begin to break down.
- Seek help from a mental health professional to work through important emotional issues related to your training, job, family, social life, body image, finances, travel and time.
- Rearrange your priorities to reduce the effects of non-training-related stressors.