Matt Long and David Lowes highlight the dangers of overtraining and how to recognise the symptoms
Overtraining is a common trait among athletes as everyone is trying to get an edge on their rivals in the hope that it will pay dividends in competition.
Although overtraining is much talked about in relation to youngsters, it is just as prevalent, if not more so, in adults. It is not, however, the result of any one training session, but is an accumulation of continual hard workouts over a prolonged period of time without suitable recovery phases factored in. Indeed, one of the biggest failures among athletes is sticking resolutely to their training plan when perhaps more recovery or rest is needed to rejuvenate the body and mind back to the status quo.
Learning to push yourself hard and then perhaps harder still is something you will all be familiar with as endurance, speed-based or power-based athletes. Implementing “overload training” from time to time (giving the body slightly more work than it is used to) should be effected systematically and progressively in order that physiological adaptation (specific improvements) to your sessions can occur during the rest period following your workouts.
Physiological adaptation occurs in response to the maximal loading of the cardiovascular and muscular systems. During recovery periods these systems build to greater levels to compensate for the stress that your body has been under (Wilborn 2008). When things are going well, upon returning to training, the principle of supercompensation (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer, 2006) and involution (see diagram below) means that you should find that you are now able to perform more effectively.
Inappropriate increases in the frequency of training or indeed the extent or density of loading can effectively mean training demands are increased too quickly. If there is insufficient rest in a training programme, physiological regeneration cannot occur and two things then tend to happen.
Firstly, it’s more than likely your performance will plateau. Secondly, over a period of time, your performance will inevitably decline.
A common problem is the overly rapid increase of loading after enforced injury or illness-induced lay-offs. Positively, as long as recovery is managed appropriately, over-reaching is not regarded as a serious problem for athletes, precisely because overreached states can be reversed and optimum performance restored.
This aspect is more serious than “over-reaching” and is more commonly referred to as “burnout” of the kind which occurs after weeks and sometimes months of overtraining. It is where tiredness tips towards exhaustion and is caused by the cumulative effects of continuous training. It is what Jenkins (1998) refers to as a “neuroendocrine disorder”.
According to Mackinnon (2000), at any given time, 7-20% of athletes across many sports, exhibit symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Depressingly, Meehan (2000) has reported cases whereby some athletes have either taken two years to fully recover from overtraining syndrome or in extreme circumstances have been forced to quit their sport.
A common cause of overtraining syndrome is that many athletes fear that rest will lead to reversibility of the physiological gains made by training and consequently lead to a detraining effect.
Signs of overtraining
Overtraining impacts on the physiology of the body, including haematological changes, one of which is low-serum ferritin levels. Physiological symptoms which you may have experienced yourself periodically include the reporting of “heavy legs”, which is associated with both reduced concentrations of muscle glycogen and maximal blood lactate levels.
It’s also common for overtrained athletes to have susceptibility to viruses, such as upper-respiratory tract infection, and the occurrence of injury. What are often overlooked are the psychological signs of overtraining, which may manifest as irritability, resulting in mood swings and disruption to well- established patterns of sleep. In severe cases, this can in turn lead to longer-term mental health problems such as depression.
Heart rate is a simple way to check for signs of overtraining. Measuring it at a specific speed and intensity and writing it down can begin to give some clues. If, for instance, you are an endurance runner and your pace slows and your heart rate increases more than is the norm at a certain level of intensity during a workout, then overtraining syndrome may be the cause. However, tracking your resting heart rate each morning can indicate whether you are fully recovered or not.
The “orthostatic heart rate test” developed by Heikki Rusko with cross-country skiers is a good way of finding out the mean readings. Simply lie down and rest for 10 minutes at the same time each day (morning is best). After 10 minutes record your rate in beats per minute and then gently stand up. After 15 seconds take a second heart rate and repeat after 90 seconds and then two minutes – well rested athletes will show a consistent reading. Rusko found an increase of 10 beats per minute or more after two minutes in athletes on the verge of overtraining – a sign that fatigue or stress is evident and that reduced training or rest is needed.
Although all athletes must train hard at specific times to achieve improvements, everyone should be able to run at steady state the following day without any undue stress. However, if you find it difficult to train at all due to fatigue and soreness, then the previous workout has indeed been too severe and probably of little use in terms of adaptation.
The traditional “train hard, train easy, train hard” pattern may need revisiting regularly if overtraining irregularities are to be overcome.
Checklist to avoid overtraining
» Is the training schedule I’m following set for my needs or the needs of a group?
An athlete-centred training schedule is about prioritising the needs of the individual before the needs of the group. It is the opposite of following a coach-driven schedule.
» Am I factoring in appropriate rest into my periodised programme of training?
It is not just about having rest days, but also about planning to have times of the year when you maybe choose not to compete or choose to lower the volume, intensity or both in your training to allow for recuperation.
» Is my diet appropriate and am I getting adequate sleep?
Usain Bolt has stated: “Sleep is extremely important to me – I need to rest and recover in order for the training I do to be absorbed by my body.”
» Keep a training diary to monitor athletic activity and be proactive when using it.
As Burfoot (2013) argued: “Unfortunately, as with stock market crashes, overtraining is easier to see through the rear view mirror than in advance.” A training diary, if used actively, can shift you from a reactive assessment of your workload to a proactive one.
» Have I considered using cross-training methods to facilitate my recovery?
Cycling and swimming are common examples for track and field athletes in terms of being able to rest certain muscle groups while utilising others.
» Matt Long is a British Athletics coach education tutor and editor of BMC News magazine. David Lowes is coaching editor of AW and a former international athlete