Today’s athletes continually push their bodies harder and longer in an effort to become better on the field or court. There becomes a tendency, however, to push themselves even more when performance seems to come up short of expectations. Coaches and athletes alike, in an effort to achieve optimal performance, overlook the basic premise for training: to create an effective program there must be a harmonious relationship between work and rest. Recovery between training days becomes critical in determining whether performance will be improved or remain stagnant and eventually decrease.
For the purpose of this article the following definitions will be used (5):
Overload: a planned, systematic and progressive increase in training with the goal of improving performance.
Overreaching: unplanned, excessive overload with inadequate rest. Poor performance is observed in training and competition. Successful recovery should result from short-term (i.e., a few days up to one or two weeks) interventions.
Overtraining syndrome: untreated overreaching that results in chronic decreases in performance and the ability to train. Other problems may result and may require medical attention.
A sufficient amount of overload through training is necessary to lead to physical adaptations ultimately resulting in improved performance. However, inadequate rest between hard training sessions or during extended periods of increased volume (time spent training per day, week, or month) will lead some individuals into a state of overtraining. Studies have indicated that just 10 days of increased intensity is sufficient to cause a reduction in performance (1). Therefore, a properly designed training program providing adequate rest is required in order to prevent overtraining.
Causes of Overtraining
The most prevalent causes of overtraining are 1) inadequate rest or recovery and/or 2) a dramatic increase in either the time spent training (volume) or how hard the athlete trains (intensity). When an athlete trains too hard or too long before a solid foundation is established the body will not be able to recover which may lead to a gradual decrease in performance. Other conditions that may make an athlete more susceptible to overtraining are (5):
- Frequent competitions, especially high intensity quality efforts
- Monotonous training
- Pre-existing medical conditions (i.e. cold or illness)
- Poor nutrition, a reduced intake of carbohydrates or water
- Environmental conditions (i.e. altitude, humidity)
- Psychological stress at work, school, or home
Reducing the chance of overtraining, in light of these other factors, revolves around a well devised training schedule. The responsibility, therefore, to prevent overtraining rests with the strength and conditioning specialist. Nonetheless, even the most precise program needs to be continually monitored and adjusted according to the responses of the individual athlete. Since no two athletes will respond similarly to the same program much of the responsibility is placed on the strength and conditioning coach to know and understand the limitations of each athlete.
Signs of Overtraining
So, what signs can one look for to determine if an athlete is becoming overtrained? Unfortunately, there is no method that is 100% reliable. However, the following signs may help identify, as early as possible, an athlete in a state of overtraining (2-5).
- Unexpected drop in performance during practice or competition unexplained by illness or injury
- Mood disturbances
- General fatigue
- Significant changes in sleep patterns
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme muscular soreness following hard training session
- Weight loss (with no deliberate attempt)
- Increase in resting heart rate
- Lowered physical resistance as indicated by continuous cold, flu, headache, etc.
When signs of overtraining become evident the athlete must be rested for one or several days. At a minimum the training is to be decreased in intensity and/or duration. Several days of light activities may be a sufficient treatment for overreaching, however, longer durations of rest (i.e., several weeks) are required once an athlete has developed overtraining syndrome (6). Therefore, the best treatment for overtraining is prevention.
As mentioned already, a properly designed training program is an essential component for preventing overtraining. During the more intense periods of the training year or following hard sessions adequate rest is crucial. Some suggest a minimum of 24 hours recovery time between hard training days for any one particular type of overload (2). However, coaches may find it difficult to convince their athletes to completely rest for fear of becoming detrained. One suggestion is to mix easy, moderate, and hard training days to allow the body to rest. Therefore, the athlete continues to train while the body will be given sufficient time to recover before entering the next hard training session.
Education for coaches, strength and conditioning personnel, as well as all athletes is essential. Professionals in the field need to be observant of the signs mentioned and understand how to take appropriate action to prevent further decrements in performance. Individual athletes should become aware to the responses of their bodies. Keeping a log may help some to pinpoint trends which may exist in their training schedule that tend to cause a state of fatigue and staleness.
Strength and conditioning professionals need to be in tune to their athlete’s responses to various training stimulus performed. Prolonged periods of high intensity work without proper recovery will, sooner or later, create a decline in performance. By properly designing a training schedule overreaching may be kept to a minimum and overtraining syndrome will be kept at bay. However, constant monitoring is essential for even the most well devised programs.
Complete rest or reduced intensity and/or volume is required for athletes experiencing a sudden and unexpected drop in performance. Since other stresses, other than the training stimulus, may further compound the overtraining condition each case will need individual attention. By increasing our knowledge and understanding of overtraining coaches, parents, and athletes can become more aware of even the slightest sign of this complex condition and take the appropriate actions.
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