Preventing Overtraining – When Less Is More

Athletes often feel compelled to exercise longer and harder in order to improve. A problem arises, however, when you exercise beyond what your body tells you is acceptable, and you still feel as though you need to do more. Performance enhancement requires a balance between overload and recovery. Too much overload and/or too little rest results in overtraining. This causes a state of physical, chemical and mental imbalance.

Recognizing Potential Problems

The first sign of overtraining is a general feeling of staleness in the athlete, and includes:

  • decrease in training capacity / intensity
  • muscle pain / body aches
  • moody, easily irritated
  • decreased or disturbed sleep
  • depression
  • loss of competitive desire
  • loss of enthusiasm for the sport
  • decreased appetite
  • increased incidence of injuries

It is not easy to look at a training schedule and predict overtraining. One consideration is the length of the schedule and the variety of training. There are some successful programs that, if maintained too long, would end in overtraining. Another component of overtraining is a lack of variety in routines. Training must be altered at regular intervals, mainly because the body (and muscles) adapt to training, but also due to psychological boredom and staleness.

Are you overtraining?

If you are asking the question, it’s very possible you may be. To know for sure, you need to be completely objective in your assessment. Consider using a heart monitor to measure your progress. Evaluate your aerobic heart rate at a specific exercise intensity / speed throughout your training and write it down. If your pace starts to slow down, your resting heart rate starts to increase and you experience the above symptoms, it may be the first sign that you are heading into the downward spiral of overtraining.

Monitoring your morning heart rate is one of the best ways to determine your recovery. But beware. For some people, overtraining is accompanied by a lowering of the heart rate. Keep a training log, and include an assessment of how you feel while training. Pay attention to your body, as it can provide subtle clues indicating that you’re not resting enough: fatigue, aches and twinges, sleep irregularity, changes in appetite, especially cravings for sugar or caffeine. Make notes about any of these hints in your diary.

Get someone with an objective eye to assist you in your training or in evaluating your schedule. Or if you know someone you have confidence in, use him/her as a coach. Get input from your spouse or significant other. The best way to handle overtraining is to avoid it. Prevention is the ideal approach.

Treating Overtraining Syndrome

The treatment for the overtraining syndrome is rest. The longer the overtraining has occurred, the more rest is required. Therefore, early detection is very important. If the overtraining has only occurred for a short period (e.g., 3 – 4 weeks) then interrupting training for 3 – 5 days is usually sufficient rest. After this, workouts can be resumed on an alternate day basis. The intensity of the training can be maintained but the total volume must be lower. It is important that the factors that lead to overtraining be identified and corrected. Otherwise, the overtraining syndrome is likely to recur. The alternate day recovery period is continued for a few weeks and then an increase in volume is permitted. In more severe cases, the training program may have to be interrupted for weeks, and it may take months to recover. An alternate form of exercise can be substituted to help prevent the exercise withdrawal syndrome.

All of the medical studies and advice on overtraining have involved single sport athletes. For triathletes and other multi-sport athletes the recovery process may be different depending on the circumstances. If it can be identified that the overtraining has occurred in only one discipline, then resting that discipline along with significant decreases in the other sports can bring about full recovery. It is vitally important not to suddenly substitute more workouts in one sport in an attempt to compensate for rest in another.

Overtraining affects both peripheral and central mechanisms in the body. Resting from overtraining on the bicycle by swimming more will help a pair of fatigued quadriceps, but to the heart, pituitary, and adrenals, stress is stress.

Five weeks of rest have been shown to improve both performance and mood, but there is a growing body of evidence indicating that low levels of exercise during that period will speed the recovery process. Total recovery can take 6-12 weeks and should involve proper nutrition, removing as much stress as possible and active rest.

Overtraining syndrome is easily preventable. Unfortunately, athletes wait too long before realizing it’s time to do something. An important component of exercise is to objectively measure your training direction and modify it before damage is done.

About the Expert
Elizabeth Quinn, M.S., is an exercise physiologist and health information writer and researcher. She currently manages the clinical health information development for a NW health care organization.

Elizabeth has worked as an exercise physiologist in sports medicine clinics, corporate wellness facilities and rehabilitation clinics. A former national silver medallist in road and track cycling, Elizabeth continues to participate in recreational cycling, mountain biking, running, skiing and almost anything else that requires movement.

Elizabeth has a master’s in exercise science and bachelor’s in psychology. In addition, she has worked as an ACE certified Personal Trainer, and a professional member of ACSM.

From Elizabeth Quinn:
“Sports Medicine has a reputation of being reserved for professional athletes, but anyone who is active can benefit from understanding the basics of sports medicine.”