Overtraining: Avoid the Dangers of Pushing Too Hard
If you are an endurance athlete, you’ve probably had days where your legs feel dead, your heart rate is stuck in low gear and you just can’t seem to break free of the constraints of fatigue. When these symptoms persist, athletes and coaches alike start to wonder if they’re overtraining.
Whether you’re a journeyman competitor striving for a personal best in your next marathon or triathlon, or an elite athlete gearing up for a shot at the Olympics or world championships, prolonged periods of persistent fatigue undermine your ability to train and compete. These symptoms are frustrating for any athlete. For the elite or professional athlete, the resulting inconsistent or poor performances can have dire, even career-threatening, consequences including loss of coveted sponsorships and failure to be selected for an important competition.
The Basics of Overtraining Syndrome
Overtraining syndrome is a condition that follows a sustained period of excessive exercise training. The most obvious symptoms are a persistent sense of fatigue that you just can’t shake and poor athletic performance despite the fact that you are continuing to train. Other noticeable physiological changes associated with the syndrome include difficulty performing high-intensity exercises and a drop in your maximum heart rate. Overtraining is also characterized by mood changes – you are more likely to feel irritable, depressed or lethargic. Your appetite may wane, your muscles seem like they are chronically sore and the quality of your sleep can decline. As if this isn’t enough, over-trained athletes experience more frequent illnesses, especially upper respiratory tract infections.
During a training cycle, athletes commonly intensify their training. This increase in training load provides the impetus to get stronger, faster or to improve endurance. A defined period of intense training combined with appropriate periods of recovery can produce a super compensation effect where athletic performance is enhanced.
Overtraining syndrome occurs when your body is no longer able to adjust to the cumulative fatigue, which results from day after day of intense exercise training without sufficient rest to balance it out. Not surprisingly, you won’t find a cure for the condition at the corner drugstore. Instead, recovery from the debilitating effects of overtraining syndrome can require months of complete rest or greatly reduced training.
Overreaching is a term sports medicine specialists use to describe a condition with similar, yet less severe symptoms. Researchers can induce a state of overreaching after 10 days to 4 weeks of intense training, and it can usually be resolved within days or weeks of instituting complete rest.
The precipitating factor for both overreaching and overtraining is a large and abrupt increase in training load. The change in load can be an increase in training volume and/or training intensity. For example, distance runners who suddenly doubled their training volume experienced muscle soreness, fatigue and a 7% decline in athletic performance. In the same study, runners who maintained their training volume but gradually increased intensity did not experience these symptoms. Among elite swimmers already training at a high intensity, progressively increasing training volume by 10% per week for 4 weeks produced sleep disturbances, fatigue and a fall-off in athletic performance in a third of the athletes.
Thus, it appears that athletes already training at high intensity can’t tolerate sudden increases in training volume for more than a few days without exhibiting signs of overreaching. For ethical reasons scientists aren’t able to extend these studies beyond a few weeks, but it is logical to assume that maintaining these types of arduous training regimens without adequate rest is likely to lead to the more serious overtraining syndrome.
Other precipitating factors include a heavy competition schedule, a monotonous training program and lack of periodization or planned recovery during training. Periodization is the process of varying a training program at regular time intervals to try to achieve optimal improvements in physical performance. An effective periodization program includes recovery periods to allow the body to recover from and adapt to the demands of training.
Interestingly, stress appears to be another important contributor to overtraining syndrome, and it isn’t necessarily stress related to training. Athletes experience stress from a number of sources including jobs, school, relationships, finances and time management. Regardless of the source of your stress, if you’re feeling it, it can be a contributor.
Are You at Risk?
Your risk of developing overtraining syndrome seems to vary based on the sport you are involved in. Sports like swimming, triathlon, road cycling and rowing have claimed their fair share of victims, but most “at-risk sports” are those endurance sports that involve frequent bouts of high-volume, intense training. If you are busting your tail for 4-6 hours every day, 6 days a week for months on end without appreciable time off, you are at risk. Also, overtraining and overreaching don’t seem to discriminate. Virtually any athlete exposed to an overly rigorous training regimen long enough can eventually exhibit symptoms. Distance runners are also susceptible, but they seem to be less affected. This may be because running is a full weight-bearing exercise and risk of musculoskeletal injury limits training volume and intensity.
How to Avoid Overtraining and Overreaching
Keep a daily training log and record the details of your training such as distance/duration, intensity and performance times. Just as important, also record your perceptions of how you are feeling and how you are adapting to training. Positive comments like ‘feeling strong’, or negative ones like ‘heavy legs’, or ‘feeling flat’ are important to record. Also, record your fatigue levels, how you are sleeping, your level of muscle soreness, and how stressed you’re feeling. Your log will serve as an ongoing record of key measures related to overtraining syndrome. Reviewing the daily logs regularly can help identify a brewing case of overreaching or overtraining before it takes hold.
Work with a qualified coach to develop a carefully planned training program and review your daily training logs with your coach. The goal here is to gauge how you are adapting to training over both the short and long term and to identify early on any indications of overtraining.
Utilize periodization training to program recovery days into your training cycles. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that in any seven-day training period, two days are rest days. Exactly when and how to rest is going to vary from one athlete to the next. Full recovery may require complete rest with little or no activity. Or, perhaps one of the rest days can involve riding a stationary bike at a low level of difficulty. Experiment with different recovery approaches to see what works best for you. A couple of other general resting rules to consider: follow a couple of days of vigorous training with a rest day, and vary the intensity or difficulty of your workouts. Instead of exhausting yourself every time you workout, follow a day or two of strenuous exercise with an easier workout day. Finally, avoid the obvious causes of overtraining such as sudden increases in training load or competitions that occur to frequently.
“Is It My Diet?”
Athletes often look to their diets as the cause of their fatigue or fall-off in athletic performance, and for good reason. What you eat and drink is extremely important for athletic performance. But if you are on track to develop overreaching or overtraining syndrome because of an imbalance between training load and recovery, sports nutrition won’t prevent the impending train wreck. Proper diet and balanced training go hand in hand.
You can make sure that your diet is working for you, instead of against you, by paying attention to what you eat and drink before, during and after training and competitions. Dehydration and suboptimal consumption of carbs can definitely compromise athletic performance. So don’t let these factors hold you back or increase your risk of overtraining syndrome.
For information on endurance sports nutrition, check out Optimal Strategies for the Three Phases of Endurance Training from PowerBar. The information covers what to do before, during and after exercise in terms of hydration, muscle fueling and recovery. The information is all based on recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine, and it’s very practical and easy to apply.
If you want to go to a level deeper, PowerBar has a powerful yet easy-to-use online tool to give athletes individualized sports nutrition information needed for endurance training and events. Check out PowerBar’s Event Nutrition Planner. The Planner will instruct you on a simple method for determining your own individual sweat rate. In addition, based on your specific event, you will instantly get an individualized nutrition and hydration plan for Daily Training and for your Event Day. Topics covered include everything needed before, during and after exercise to help you achieve your best, including:
- Pre-hydrating and checking urine color
- Pre-exercise meal and snack
- Individualized hydration plan based on your own sweat rate
- Target hydration zone
- Individualized performance-boosting fueling plan based on your own body weight
- PowerBar product combinations individualized to your own hydration and carbohydrate needs during exercise
- Muscle recovery strategy and rehydration plan after exercise.
Putting It All Together
Proper training, adequate rest and recovery, and a strategic approach to sports nutrition are all crucial to achieving your personal best. They work together. PowerBar provides the best of sports nutrition. You supply the sweat and hard work. Proper rest is the window of opportunity that enables these two ingredients to help you achieve your best..