Overtraining: Prevention and Awareness

May 20, 2015

by David Renne MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT

In order to improve performance, you have to challenge your body’s ability to tolerate an increase in physical, mental, and emotional stress. This is called overload and is defined as adding stress greater than your body is accustomed to.

Overtraining is a term that is used to describe both the process of excessive training and the resulting condition of “staleness” or “burnout.” Overtraining is a serious condition that results from repeated bouts of high volume or high intensity training without adequate preparation, recovery, and nutrition. Overtraining leads to excessive fatigue, performance decrements, insomnia, mental and emotional disturbances, and potentially the inability to train.

In order to fully recognize the symptoms of overtraining, you must be able to differentiate them from the short-term responses to a new training program. Overtraining is a very serious condition that takes time to manifest. As mentioned earlier, we have to add stress to our bodies if we want them to improve. Everyone will experience adaptations as a result of taking on a new fitness plan or changing the focus of training from lower intensity (i.e. base training) to higher intensity (i.e. speed work). Regardless of the type of athlete you are (beginner to elite), your body will go through the following stages when implementing a new training stimulus: shock, adaptation, and plateau and exhaustion.

The shock phase is a result of a new or more intense training stimulus that results in an acute increase in muscle soreness, stiffness, and potentially a short-term decrease in performance. A training program must take into consideration the shock phase by including a preparation phase that introduces the body to the new training stimulus by being conservative with the intensity, frequency, or volume for the first 1-3 weeks during the initial phases of a new training cycle.

The adaptation phase is what we all want to experience because it results in improvements in performance. This is also called the pay off phase. Basically, your body is able to handle the new stress and adapt by improving performance. This typically occurs between weeks 2-4 of a new training program and can last for several weeks (8-12). The key to maximizing improvements during training is to monitor your weekly performance by time, perceived exertion, or heart rate.

The plateau and exhaustion phase is one that you want to recognize early and avoid sustaining. This is where you do not see any additional improvements in performance. A plateau usually shows up in the latter weeks of a training program. The exhaustion phase is where you start to see performance going backwards and the symptoms of distress, staleness, burnout, and overtraining start to become evident. Distress is where you are able to still maintain adequate training and performance yet perceive it as being more difficult. Staleness is associated with negative training effects that include behavioral, emotional, and technical symptoms. The primary mental and emotional marker when experiencing staleness is depression caused by the increase in physical, mental, and emotional demands of training combined with under-recovery and under-nutrition. Performance during training and competition is poor and continues to add to the negative effects of staleness. Burnout includes all of the symptoms from distress and staleness plus loss of interest, motivation, and maybe even withdrawal from the sport. It is at this point where a program change and a rest or recovery week must be implemented in order to achieve your endurance goals. Recognizing the symptoms and implementing the solutions is key to avoiding overtraining and improving performance.

Overtraining can be placed in two general categories found below:

Monotonous program overtraining results in loss or plateauing of performance due to the consistent, unvarying use of the same type of exercise intensity, frequency, volume, and rest and recovery during training. It is the lack of overload or changing in training stimulus that results in overtraining. An example would be a marathoner who maintains his/her same running speed and primarily trains by volume (time/miles) without any tempo or speed work included in his/her training program. This type of overtraining can easily be avoided by utilizing periodization principles (RaceCenter Oct-Dec 2005: 54) when designing a training program to improve endurance performance.

Chronic overwork results in plateauing and/or loss of performance, similar to the monotonous program; however, it is a direct result of increased duration, frequency, or intensity without allowing the individual to prepare and adapt to the new training stimulus.

Several other factors have been associated with overtraining including length of season, training monotony, lack of positive reinforcement, boredom, and perceived low accomplishment.

ADDITIONAL KEY FACTORS

Your body is actually adapting during rest and recovery, not during the training itself. You must include days off during the week and recovery weeks in your training program in order to safely and effectively achieve your goals. Convincing athletes to take time off or train less is one of the biggest battles I have as a coach. More is not better; it is the quality of each training session that leads to improved performance as opposed to the quantity of training.

Under-nutrition is another key component that can lead to overtraining. Training puts our bodies in a negative caloric balance (i.e. depletion of carbohydrates and proteins) that must be replaced immediately following any type of training (within 10-15 minutes). If you neglect the nutrition component, you will severely limit your body’s ability to adapt and recover from training. For example, a 170lb male runner will expend ~1,000 calories during an hour long run at a moderate pace. Immediately following the run, this individual should consume a balanced meal (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) within 10-15min of about 300-500 calories, and then attempt to eat a similar meal 2-3 hours after the first meal. This will ensure adequate nutrition to replace the depleted nutrients and facilitate the adaptation process. Furthermore, longer or more intense training sessions result in longer nutrition recovery times. It can take up to 3-5 days to replenish the muscle glycogen lost following a long or intense training session, so do not assume that the one meal following the training session is enough to replace all nutrients lost during training.

CONSEQUENCES OF STALENESS DUE TO OVERTRAINING/UNDER-RECOVERY, AND UNDER-NUTRITION (TABLE 1)

MENTALLY TECHNICAL EXECUTION WORK RATE PHYSIOLOGY EMOTIONALITY
Mental Fatigue Monotonous Training Lack of work rate Weight Loss Irritability
Lack of Focus Monotonous Training Going through the motions Higher Resting Heart Rate Moodiness & Boredom
Lack of Motivation Lack of quality and execution Increase pain, soreness, and injury Impeded respiration & delayed recovery heart rate Sadness, anxiety, lack of enjoyment
Confused Thinking

Poor Problem solving skills

Negative thinking

Loss of Coordination

Poor communication with coach or family

Decreased power, strength, endurance, and overall performance Increased muscle fatigue

Depressed immune function

Negativism

Loss of self esteem

Withdrawal

Depression Confusion over role and purpose of training

 

In order to accomplish our endurance goals, we have to successfully complete various training programs. Most of my clients only consider physical stress as the only important stress to worry about. Physical, emotional, and mental stress all contribute to overtraining, which can lead to poor performance, injury, burnout, and maybe even withdrawal from the sport.

Stress is defined as any stimulus that disrupts the body’s ability to function normally. There are three types of training stress: physical stress (working cardiovascular, respiratory, and muscle), mental stress (thinking and focus), and emotional stress (anxiety and pressure). In order to improve your endurance performance, you must take into consideration the physical, emotional, and mental stresses that you encounter throughout your training programs. This also applies to the other significant points of good or bad stress in your life, like family, career, finances, health, etc. Everything must be taken into consideration during training and competition. Can you think of a time when your training has been perfect? Physically you were ready and dialed in, but mentally you lacked confidence, were anxious, and lacked the ability to focus to achieve your goals? Mental and emotional stress can add or take away from physical performance. Therefore, training needs to encompass all three. When all three stresses are dialed in, you can reach your peak performance and feel stronger mentally, emotionally, and physically than you ever have before.

Below are some intervention strategies that will help you prevent overtraining and accomplish your endurance goals.

PHYSICAL INTERVENTIONS

  • Organize and plan adequate rest and recovery after training and competition. The most critical aspect of any training program is rest and recovery.
  • Use appropriate nutrition and fluid intake with foods that are specifically designed to replenish the body’s energy reserves.
  • Utilize periodization when designing and implementing your training program. This will allow for the safe and effective manipulation of intensity, volume, frequency, rest, and recovery that ultimately leads to peak performance at the desired time.
  • Structure with variety. Each program must be structured to allow the body to adapt but also must include some variety to avoid monotonous program overtraining.
  • Research and hire an experienced and knowledgeable coach.
  • Get massages and take time to relax to help alleviate accumulated stress.
  • Taper your program by reducing training miles/time (volume) and days per week (frequency) prior to competition.
  • Communicate with your support system. Family, friends, and coaches are key to successful development and continued improvement to your training program.

MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL INTERVENTIONS

  • Set realistic and measurable short and long term training and performance goals.
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms (table one).
  • Take time everyday to recover from the physical, mental, and emotional stresses you experience throughout the day. Watch TV or a favorite movie; take time to listen to some music and let your mind wander while you relax.
  • Set daily challenges for yourself.
  • Make sure that each training session has a specific focus and purpose.
  • Think positive thoughts during training and performance.
  • Take time to learn new stress management skills like relaxation exercises.

When an individual is not able to improve from training or is noticing a decrease in performance, this can be an early sign of too much training stress and too little rest/recovery. In addition, an individual may start to perceive their efforts as more difficult, which can increase negative training experiences that begin to stress mental and emotional capabilities. Safe and effective training programs must alter the intensity, volume (time), frequency (days/week), and rest/recovery over a specific time period in order to accomplish endurance goals.

Training is very challenging; take time to reward you with adequate rest, recovery, and properly balanced nutrition.

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