The Perils of Overtraining

What do you do when workouts work against your athletes?

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Florida., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. He can be reached through his Web site at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 10.2, March 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1002/overtraining.htm


In order to excel, athletes must push themselves. Sometimes, it is even necessary to push to the edge. But, where exactly is the edge? And how can athletes know when they are pushing themselves too far or too hard?
When an athlete pushes him- or herself too hard for too long, not only will his or her performance stop improving, it will very quickly start to deteriorate. Once an athlete has gone from training to overtraining, it’s not just performance that falters, his or her health suffers as well. And it’s a long, hard road back. In most cases, the athlete’s competitive season is lost. If a problem is not spotted quickly enough, the athlete can be at serious risk for significant emotional and physical damage. Thus, it is crucial that every athlete, coach, and athletic trainer be able to identify this overtrained state and the markers leading to it.
In many respects, however, this area of training is unexplored territory. Even as we better understand the body and its adaptive mechanisms, there remains much confusion regarding the signs of overtraining and what to do to reverse the progression. What most professionals in the field do agree on is that the best remedy for overtraining is prevention, and fortunately, there is a fair amount of consensus on how it can be prevented.

WHAT IS OVERTRAINING?
One of the biggest problems is defining exactly what overtraining is. It has also been referred to as burnout, and conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome may be related to overtraining. One thing we know for sure is that overtraining is more than normal fatigue or feeling tired. It first manifests as trouble with technique and performance errors and is followed by performance decline. Sometimes, the initial stage is so subtle as to be virtually unnoticeable. The next stage is a gradual onset of persistent joint and muscle soreness. Conditions such as swimmer’s shoulder, jumper’s knee, or Achilles tendinitis become nagging problems.
In the early stages of overtraining, there will also be a decrease in appetite, with an accompanying loss of body weight. In most cases, the overtrained athlete will be more susceptible to colds, fevers, sore throats, and possibly allergic reactions. Also, tenderness, soreness, and swelling of the lymph nodes often occurs. Lethargy away from workouts is quite common, as are excessive and profuse sweating with minimal exertion, and shortness of breath during the warmup or the feeling that the warmup takes as much effort as a workout. Irritability toward people and situations that do not normally cause agitation is another sign. Table One lists the major markers of overtraining.
Overtraining is caused by a series of problems—a chain reaction of scenarios that, if not stopped early enough, spirals out of control. While not caused by one milestone event, overtraining is characterized by a drastic, unexpected decline in the athlete’s capacity to train and compete.
Overtraining is different from plateauing, which we previously identified as a normal part of the training process (see Training & Conditioning 9.8, November 1999). It should also not be confused with “over-reaching,” is a term that has come into use the past 10 years to describe a slight decline in performance due to the normal stress of training. It is a normal part of the adaptive process. In fact, if adequate recovery is timed properly as part of a plan, over-reaching is followed by a super-compensation effect, which is a positive adaptation. In my opinion, over-reaching is a term that has no place in the lexicon of training.
Essentially, overtraining results from a failure to consider the processes of training and recovery as an inseparable, unified whole. As such, it is also important to consider the athlete’s life outside of his or her training—the 20 to 22 hours each day spent not training may be more important than what they do when training.
The developing athlete who is trying to balance school, relationships, work, family responsibilities, and training is very susceptible to overtraining. In looking back on athletes I have coached who were overtrained, it is clear that aspects of their lives outside of training probably were major contributing factors to them becoming overtrained. It was a failure on my part to recognize these factors and adjust training and competition accordingly that further contributed to the overtrained state. Table Two lists some of the common causes of overtraining.
Very often, overtraining is closely related to self-image and self-concept—a prime candidate is the insecure athlete with a poor self-image who wants to do that little extra and pushes him- or herself over the edge. The things that make an athlete successful are the same things that lead to overtraining—an insatiable desire to succeed. But, it is more than a willingness to work, it is actually an obsession with work. The most at-risk athletes tend to be wrestlers and distance runners, and women are at a higher risk than men. Not surprisingly, these are the same populations who are most at-risk for eating disorders.
Is overtraining different for the speed/power athlete than the endurance athlete? Generally, the endurance athlete is more susceptible to overtraining than the speed and power athlete, simply because of the emphasis on volume in the endurance athlete’s training. That is not to imply that the speed/power athlete does not get overtrained. More often than not, the speed/power athlete’s overtraining is the result of too great a volume of high-intensity work. When the speed/power athlete reaches an overtrained state, the effect is even more dramatic, because of the explosive nature of the events. The events are usually measured in very small increments; therefore, any overtraining will be dramatically magnified.
Also, it is less likely that a team-sport athlete will be overtrained when he or she is training with the team. It seems that if there is a positive group energy and environment, then overtraining is less likely to occur. I have seen several overtrained teams but most of it was related to a tyrannical or fanatic coach who did not understand the need for recovery and variability in training.

PREVENTION IS THE BEST MEDICINE
Current literature and my own experience substantiate that the best prescription for overtraining is prevention. Careful consideration needs to be given to training loads, recovery time, training modalities, and most importantly, the competitive schedule. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure could not be more true.
First and foremost, we must get past our incessant obsession with training volumes. More is not better. In many sports, especially the speed and power sports, volume is not the stimulus for specific adaptation, intensity is. In the same vein, it is imperative to remember that training is cumulative. No one session or week of training will make an athlete’s career, but it can break it.
Training expert Thomas Kurz, in his excellent book, Science and Sport of Training, states that overtraining has more to do with the sequence of work than the total training load. Improper sequence leads to excessive overload by not allowing the body to adequately recover. The best way to prevent overtraining, therefore, is to have a good plan. The following provides a good foundation:
- Never increase volume and intensity at the same time.
- Always allow adequate recovery time—both intra-workout (between bouts of exercise) and inter-workout (between workout sessions).
- Make sure that the diet is well-balanced and appropriate to the training and sport demands.
- Adapt the training to the environmental conditions.
- Where possible, control life-stress demands.
- Individualize the training—no two individuals will respond to the stress of training the same way.
- Closely monitor competitive stress.
It is impossible to improve as an athlete without a certain threshold of training stress. As the athlete begins to train harder (especially the younger, developing athlete), the improvement is usually commensurate with the increase in training. But eventually, there is a point of diminishing returns, where increasing the workload will not necessarily lead to further improvement. It is at this juncture that the components of the program must be balanced and rest and recovery must be carefully planned in order for the athlete to realize continued improvement. Generally, this will occur between the training ages of four and six years. (Training age, as opposed to chronological age, refers to the amount of time an athlete has been in a formal, systematic training program.)
At this stage, and thereafter, it is important to continue to carefully balance all the various elements of training. According to Brent Rushall, a professor in sports psychology at San Diego State University and renowned expert in conditioning, as well as other experts, one of the best ways to monitor and measure an athlete’s status when he or she may be on the brink of overtraining is to simply ask him or her for a subjective rating of how he or she feels. This, coupled with close observations by the coaches, will go a long way toward preventing overtraining. Remember that by the time the physiological indicators show up, the level of training is probably already approaching overtraining. Rushall also feels that the psychological factors better predict the onset of overtraining than do the physiological factors, because psychological disturbances occur prior to other overt indicators.
For all athletes—not just those on the brink of overtraining—it is very important for both athletes and their coaches to closely monitor athletes’ training and their responses to the training. There are subjective measures—in essence, a scan of the body—that each individual athlete has to monitor daily. Coaches should require each of their athletes to keep a detailed training diary for the athlete’s own personal use. I have also found it useful, especially with student-athletes, to give them a seven-day monitoring sheet that asks them to report hours of sleep, meals and meal times, resting heart rate, and quality of sleep. They were required to turn this in every Monday morning so that adjustments could be made in the subsequent week’s cycle of training.
Remember that overtraining does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process; therefore, if the early stages can be recognized, the causal factors can be eliminated and the overtraining prevented.

BREAKING THE CYCLE
To return to the analogy I opened with, in overtraining, the athlete has essentially gone over the edge—he or she has trained too hard for too long. Returning from overtraining is a major rescue operation. Reversing overtraining involves more than rest. It requires recognizing and changing the patterns of an addictive lifestyle. In this case, the addiction is training and competition.
Complete rest for a period of time based on the severity of the overtrained state is usually a starting point. There is no set formula for the length of time required for a recovery. It is very individual, based on the factors that made the athlete overtrained and the severity of the overtraining.
Note, however, that with the athlete who is accustomed to a high level of activity (as most overtrained athletes are), complete rest can be a negative shock to the system. Therefore, “active rest,” consisting of a low level of activity, would probably be a better alternative (see Training & Conditioning 8.6, December 1998). This should be a significant change from normal training activities and of very low intensity. It should be carefully designed to provide just enough stimulus for normal appetite and sleep.
Nutritional therapy is also advised. Generally, this simply involves adjusting the athlete’s protein or carbohydrate intake, depending on the type of overtraining. There are various schools of thought about mega-doses of vitamin therapy. Consultation with a nutritionist who has experience working with athletes is recommended. Medical intervention may also be warranted, especially if an iron deficiency is present or the athlete develops an illness, such as mononucleosis.
Psychological counseling may also be necessary, especially if the overtraining is part of an addictive pattern of behaviors. Intervention that is as simple as proper goal setting and relaxation training has proven useful.
It serves to be repeated that overtraining can be a very serious problem and should not be treated with a cavalier attitude. Spot the signs early and stop it before it claims the athlete’s competitive season and impairs his or her overall health.

Sidebar - TABLE ONE: WHAT ARE THE MARKERS OF OVERTRAINING?
Quality of sleep: Restless, interrupted sleep is a good indicator. Another sign is if the athlete wakes up tired.
Training attitude: If the athlete does not look forward to training.
Appetite: Generally, a loss of appetite is a sign. I have also found abnormal cravings for certain foods to be a sign.
Bodyweight: Has the athlete had unusual gains or losses, or wide fluctuations in weight?
Joint and muscle soreness: Muscle soreness that declines after a day or two is normal. Persistent soreness is not normal. Joint soreness, especially if it persists, is not good.
Training performances: Inability to complete workouts that formerly were done with ease.
Competition results: If there is a large drop-off in performance over several competitions, this is usually a powerful indicator.
Less-Reliable Markers
Pulse-rate: This is not as reliable a marker of overtraining as once thought. There are too many variables that can affect heart rate, even a.m. resting heart rate. Intra-workout heart rate can be useful to monitor recovery between work bouts. This can be a good yardstick in sports with a high cardiovascular demand, but is not particularly valuable for the speed/power athlete.
Blood measures: This invasive measure is expensive and not readily available to most coaches and athletes. Further, no consistent blood markers have been found to be good predictors.
Urinalysis: This also is not readily available in most situations; therefore, it is not practical.

Sidebar - TABLE TWO: WHAT CAUSES OVERTRAINING?
Many factors can cause overtraining. Following is a list of some of the major factors. It is important to consider the relationship among all of these variables. They are not independent—seldom is one in isolation the cause of the overtraining.
Abuse of toxic substances, especially alcohol: This is especially a problem in certain sports where post-game and post-practice alcohol consumption is part of the culture of the sport.
Loss of weight and extreme fluctuations in weight: For sports like wrestling, gymnastics, boxing, weightlifting, and even running, the effect of constantly having to make weight to stay in a weight class or to strive for a certain appearance to please the judges can exacerbate the process of overtraining.
Lifestyle coupled with hard training: This is especially true for the student who has to stay up late every night studying or who must work a part-time job. Repetitive travel, especially through multiple time zones, also can be especially detrimental.
Poor nutrition: Often, an inadequate or inappropriate diet for the type of training leads to overtraining. The diet might be too low or too high in carbohydrates, or lack enough protein or other essential nutrients. It could also be a badly designed vegetarian or fad diet. Iron deficiency as a result of an unbalanced diet is a common contributor. Intra-workout nutrition is often neglected, especially hydration.
Neglect of recovery: Both intra-workout and inter-workout recovery is essential. Different systems of the body recover and adapt at different rates—this must be taken into consideration.
Heavily biased workloads, especially a repetition of biased workouts: Workouts that continue to stress one component cause a stagnation, which results in overtraining.
Monotony in training: Doing the same thing every day at the same time in the same sequence will eventually take a severe mental toll.
Poor planning: This encompasses the whole gamut from planning workouts to competition to recovery.
Too much competition: Not having adequate recovery between competitions has deleterious effects, particularly in relation to the athlete’s level of development. For the mature, elite athlete, this is less of a problem than for the developing athlete. For example, it is not uncommon in youth sports to have three games during a week and a tournament on a weekend. That is too much—it does not allow for adequate recovery or time for training. Too fast a rise in intensity or volume of training is another common cause. Too much too soon does not allow the body to adapt to the stress of training.