If you think you might be overtrained, or just want to know more about it, read the following chapter from “The Power To Perform” by Jon Ackland & Brett Reid.
Adaptation versus overload
Adaptation – your body’s ability to adjust to exercise stress placed on it and then improve – is a far better training strategy than overload. In overload, the body cannot tolerate the exercise stress being placed upon it and this leads to fatigue (exercise and general), loss of performance and training burn-out. All that adds up to one thing: overtraining. Overtraining is a state of prolonged fatigue and is caused by excessive training; it is characterised by decrements or plateaus in performance despite continued training.
In chronically overtrained athletes a decline of as much as 5-15% in performance is not uncommon. One study showed a drop of 11-15% in training pace and a 43-71% drop in training distance.
So, write this down now: training too much, too hard, or too quickly will not lead to long-term performance gains. But it will lead to injury, fatigue, illness and staleness.
In a study of elite runners, it was found that 60 percent overtrained at some point in their career. Too many athletes are lost to sport, especially young athletes, because they train too hard too soon, break down, and lost interest, or they are unable to train at the levels they once did because of continuing health or biomechanical problems.
Adaptation via a slow controlled increase in training volume and intensity is the aim of any good training programme. If given the chance, the body has an amazing ability to adapt and improve its performance through training. It will, however, only improve according to the type of training it is doing. Therefore, training needs to be as specific as possible.
While overtraining is a common problem in endurance athletes, particularly athletes training for ultra-distance races and those who race often, it also occurs in athletes who try to fit training in around work and social obligation and leave little time for recovery (physical and mental).
Overtraining can occur through heavy training mileages towards the end of base training, during intensive speed training or after a series of race within a short period of time.
The main causes of overtraining
- Inadequate recovery between training sessions.
- Excessive amounts of high-intensity (and sometimes high-volume) training.
- Sudden changes in training load (distance, duration or intensity).
Other training factors that contribute to overtraining
- Intense strength training.
- Frequent competition and travel.
- Monotony in training programme.
- No off-season.
Non-training factors that contribute to overtraining
- Inadequate nutrition.
- Insufficient sleep and rest.
- Anxiety about life events, e.g. exams, new job.
- Occupational stress.
- Mental conflict.
- Changes and irregularities in lifestyle.
- Successive failure to achieve goals.
Overtraining needs to be differentiated from the short-term tiredness that occurs whenever training load increases. Overtraining athletes may be doing no more training than their peers, but due to outside pressures, medical problems or even their personal tolerance to training, may be feeling fatigued.
Remember, to achieve performance improvement, the body must be allowed to adapt gradually to increased training mileages and intensities. But it is not absolute mileages and intensifies that matter, but rather the amount of mileage and speedwork you personally can recover from – no recovery, no inprovement!
Your ability to recover, of course, depends largely on your training history. The more years you have been in the sport, the bigger your base, the more training you can do and recover from.
Elite athletes are particularly susceptible to overtraining as double seasons (northern and southern hemispheres) can mean an inadequate off-season with too little time for recovery. Juniors and inexperienced athletes are also susceptible to overtraining because of their lower tolerance to training.
Common training errors that lead to overtraining are too long a season, high levels of competitive stress, frequent racing, intense training over an extended period of time, lack of effective recovery and lack of positive results/enjoyment.
Symptoms of overtraining
Emotional and behavioural changes
- Lethargy and excessive fatigue, especially at rest
- Loss of purpose, energy and competitive drive; poor attitude, confusion, loss of enthusiasm to train
- Feelings of helplessness and being trapped in routine
- Feeling emotionally unstable and excessive emotional display
- Loss of libido (loss of interest in sex)
- Increased anxiety and depressive feelings
- Increased irritability and anger (mood changes)
- Sleep problems (difficulty getting to sleep, nightmares, waking often during the night)
- Decreased self-confidence
- Poor concentration, inability to relax
- Weight loss, weight fluctuations and loss of appetite
- Heavy painful muscles, ‘weak-feeling’ muscles
- Excessive sweating
- Increased susceptibility to infections and illness (colds, rashes, fever)
- Increased number of persistent injuries
- Reduced performance in training and racing
- Above expected heart rate at rest, during and after exercise
- Drop in blood pressure on standing, elevated resting and post-exercise blood pressure
- Swelling of lymph glands (sore throats)
- Gastrointestinal disturbances (diarrhoea and nausea)
- Inability to maintain training load
- Chronic fatigue
- Hormonal changes, e.g. testosterone/cortisol levels in males
- Low serum ferritin levels
- Slower heart rate recovery
- Deterioration of sports skills
- Menstrual irregularities
Although there is no single physiological or psychological measure or symptom to identify overtraining, the symptoms when considered together give a strong indication that you are overtrained or approaching that state. These symptoms will vary across athletes and sports.
The difficulty is that overtraining comes on gradually, so you and your coach must be vigilant at all times. Using a log book to record thoughts, feelings, heart rates, medical tests, performances and so on can be a great help in picking up overtraining indicators before it is too late. If you exhibit several of these symptoms (you don’t have to have all of them) over a period of more than two weeks, you are probably overtrained and you should consult a doctor and see a respected coach. If overtraining is not picked up early, it can wipe out an entire year’s training! So watch for the signs.
The chronic fatigue experienced by overtrained athletes seems to be caused by too much stress being placed on the central nervous system. There appear to be two stages in the ‘Chronic Overtraining Syndrome’.
In the first stage, the athlete’s body goes into a kind of overdrive, enabling it to cope with the excess load being placed upon it. During overdrive, the body seems to draw on the physical, emotional and mental reserves normally kept for emergencies.
If overtraining is caught in this overdrive stage, damage can be kept to a minimum and recovery can be swift. However, if you carry on into the second stage of Chronic Overtraining Syndrome, the ‘depletion’ stage, then you are heading for big trouble and a long, slow recovery.
Indicators of central nervous system ‘overdrive’
- Reduced performance (training and racing)
- Higher than expected heart rate at rest and during exercise
- Sleep problems
- Emotional instability
- Elevated blood pressure
- Delayed recovery of heart rate after exercise
Indicators of central nervous system ‘depletion’
- Reduced performance (racing and training)
- Lower than expected heart rate at rest and during exercise
- Excessive sleeping
- Unstable behaviour, depressive feelings
- Low blood sugar response to exercise
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid recovery of heart rate after exercise
Chronic Overtraining Syndrome can lead to Addison’s disease. This is caused by the failure of the adrenal glands to secrete adequate amounts of certain hormones, in particular cortisol. The central nervous system’s reduced activation of hormone-producing glands means hormone depletion and corresponding severe fatigue.
It is important, of course, that overtraining is distinguished from normal fatigue and medical problems. Medical factors that may affect the body and contribute to overtraining symptoms include:
1 . Illness – colds, glandular fever, post-viral infections.
Be very careful when training after an illness as a relapse is normally far worse than the original problem. Recurrent illness should be checked. Do not train through an illness. Not only is it better to rest for two days now rather than ten days later, but you could do yourself long-term or permanent harm.
2. Inadequate nutrition.
Prolonged inadequate carbohydrate intake (chronic glycogen depletion) can cause continuing fatigue. Lack of adequate protein, lack of some minerals and trace elements, and low fluid intake can all affect energy levels. This is particularly so in hot climates.
Persistent or recurring infections (remember, intensive training weakens the immune system) and frequent training injuries suggest it’s time to look at your nutritional intake or see a doctor.
3. Anaemia – iron deficiency.
4. Exercise-induced asthma (EIA).
5. Physical changes due to ageing (you can’t do what you used to), not coping because present fitness level is not as high as previously.
6. Psychological factors.
- Non-physical stressors that can affect performance
- Schooling (all levels)
- Working environment
- Living conditions
- Training facilities
- Financial situation
- Social environment – sport administration
- Travel problems, disruption of circadian rhythms (e.g. jetlag)
If medical factors do not appear to be causing chronic fatigue, overtraining can be tested for by measuring its effect on androgenic hormones. The testosterone/cortisol ratio is measured; if you are overtrained, the testosterone is depleted and the cortisol is therefore proportionally higher than normal.
During the off-season, basic medical screening can be done to establish baseline levels and to ensure there are no underlying medical problems that may affect health and performance, or endanger your life.
The two big mistakes that can lead to overtraining are:
1. Increasing training load, volumes or intensity when you feel tired, or when you have had a steady decline in training performance (for over two weeks) because you mistakenly believe that if you train harder, you will get better.
Unfortunately, this situation is most likely to arise when you need it least – late in the competitive season. It is often caused by a mistake in the training programme, resulting in an early peak, or by trying to maintain a competitive peak for too long. If this happens to you, see a good coach or an experienced athlete.
2. The belief: ‘I’ve got to win everything all the time.’ You can’t peak for every race, all year round. Or in the case of some very competitive athletes, for every workout.
Athletes in the public eye often make the mistake of trying to win everything, and in so doing never learn how to peak for the big one.
Try to win or set personal bests in a few carefully selected races, and use the others as training (and be prepared to be beaten).
Prevention of overtraining
The best way to avoid overtraining is to listen to your body!
Athletes spend time listening to coaches, listening to their peers and keeping the numbers straight in their training log, but too little time listening to what their body is saying. And very often it is screaming, ‘Give me a day off’, or ‘Take it easy today, okay?’
If you hear your body telling you this, follow its advice – it knows what it’s talking about! Otherwise, YCPI you’ll be overtrained before you can say, don’t feel like training today.’
The main areas that should be monitored to prevent overtraining are:
- careful planning of training schedules and seasons (particularly during the competitive season)
- optimal training strategies and effective recovery techniques; effective nutrition
- attention to and control of study, work and relationships
Clinical testing for overtraining is ineffective as it can only detect overload once it has occurred. Prevention is a far better option. Recent research indicates that a downturn in psychological states is a good indicator of overtraining. These can be observed approximately one week before you begin to lose form. Symptoms include low motivation, confidence and satisfaction (sport and life). These seem to appear early in the overtraining state. Physical indicators that overtraining may be occurring are localised muscle and joint pain, and generalised fatigue.
This is where a good log book becomes invaluable. If you monitor and record your daily feelings (physical and psychological), you can begin to pick up on the warning signals early on.
If you notice your motivation, confidence and general satisfaction are low for days on end, and performances are poor, then it is time to reassess your training.
By reacting quickly and correctly to these signals (this usually means lowering training stress) you can prevent a disaster, or at least control the damage. Training stress should not be increased again until all the symptoms have gone.
It should be mentioned, however, that it seems that mild overtraining just before your taper or in the second and/or third week out from competition, followed by a taper, can produce a higher performance than that obtained through standard training schedules (for more on this see the section on ‘Superovercompensation’page 36).
Of course, overtraining can easily be avoided by undertraining. But this is not an option if you want to be a competitive endurance athlete striving to fulfil your potential. Besides, undertraining wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as ‘giving it heaps’ now and again, would it? Just don’t overdo it!
Minimising the risk of overtraining
1 . Avoid sudden increases in training load, both mileage/duration and speedwork (which needs to be gradually phased in). This is especially important at the beginning of build-up.
2. Avoid too much speedwork and frequent competition. The more stress, intensity and time involved in training, the less speedwork and racing that can be done.
3. Avoid monotonous training, particularly during the high mileage phase. If you can, train at a variety of venues.
4. Be aware of all the other physical and psychological stressors which may affect your training. If possible, try and arrange a stress-free life away from your sport! If this can’t be done, then at least be aware of your stress levels and train accordingly. Do not push on regardless.
5. Do not get caught up in the ‘train harder’ response to a performance plateau or drop. Training longer and harder will notget you out of a slump. On the contrary, you will just dig a bigger hole for yourself
In most cases, a performance plateau or drop (if you haven’t increased training and aren’t ill) is due to excessive fatigue or a natural performance drop following a peak. This means a recovery period is required. Once recovery is complete, training loads can increase again.
Remember, rest is as important as exercise no recovery, no improvement!
Use of heart rate monitors to avoid overtraining
Heart rate in an overtrained athlete will tend to be higher at rest (but not always) and during exercise, and it drop more slowly following exercise. Remember, though, that heart rates can be elevated if you are ill, under stress, in high temperatures, when you are dehydrated, after recent exercise or if you have eaten recently.
Tests to avoid overtraining
Easy tests of overtraining are:
- Morning heart rate
- Training heart rate/speed
- Exercise economy tests (see Appendix 4)
- Time trials (see Appendix 5)
- Perceived level of fatigue
Other tests include:
- Blood tests
- Physiological lab tests
Management of training if already overtrained
Okay, so you made a mistake, and you pushed on one week longer than you should have. Or you just tried to squeeze in one more week of high mileage when you shouldn’t have. Result? You’re over-trained (not tired, overtrained). What do you do now?
Well, first check for medical problems as mentioned above. If no medical factors are involved then you have two options:
Take three to five weeks off. Have a good time. Forget about training completely (but try not to put too much weight on). After this time, start training lightly again. Keep the number of sessions and mileage low, and do no speedwork! Over the next two to four months slowly increase your training, but don’t race. It is absolutely essential that you take this conservative approach, because if you relapse it will take even longer to recover. Do it once, do it right! And remember, sport is supposed to be fun, and the first part of health and fitness is health.
2. Use a gentle similar non-competitive exercise
Exercise at low intensity (L0), but only when you want to and only for as long as you want. Forget about the pressures of how far and how fast. If you’re an overtrained competitive cyclist, ride your mountain bike in the forest once a week, and do no other cycling! This type of training obviously won’t increase performance, but that doesn’t matter at all. All you are trying to do at this stage is aid recovery and maintain a little fitness.
Using a variety of regenerative techniques may also help. These include massage, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy (spas, flotation tanks), stress management techniques (relaxation exercises).
Length of recovery
Recovery from overtraining can take from three weeks to three months, depending on how severely overtrained you have been. Don’t forget, recovery consists of two types: physical recovery (cumulative fatigue has vanished) and psychological recovery (you are enthusiastic about training again).
You need to be careful, though, that once you start to feel good again (often around three months into recovery) you don’t pile on the training too fast. It is a good idea, therefore, in cases of chronic overtraining, to have four months of controlled reduced training with no speedwork and little, if any, competition. Only after that should a full training programme be recommenced.
Building back into training following injury or illness
Moving back into full training after injury or illness is a delicate operation for endurance athletes – too soon and you risk becoming sick or injured again; too late and you waste good training time (particularly close to competition).
If you are in any doubt about when to start full training again, consult qualified people (coach, doctor, physiotherapist, chiropractor, podiatrist), listen to your body, and err on the side of caution.
Never train through illness – it can be very dangerous. The best guides to whether you are over your illness are how much energy you have, your motivation, your doctor, and blood tests. Once fully recovered, build back into training gradually.
If you have been sick for a few days
Reduce mileage/duration and intensity based on the amount of time you have been sick. As a basic guide, if you have been sick for a few days start back gradually for the first one to three days with low mileage/duration and low intensity workouts. Only go back to a normal schedule the following week.
Of course, it really depends on what your body is tellng you. If it is tired, make the next session easy. If it is very tired, have a day off. If, however, you’re feeling good, continue to build up through the next workout.
Pay attention to your body both during and for the first few hours after the workout. If you have a general tiredness a few hours after your workout, you are probably not fully recovered from your illness. So back off a little.
If you have been sick for more than a week
Reduce training back to what you were doing two to three weeks before the illness. Again, build back into training gradually over one week. But only up to the level you were at two to three weeks prior to the illness.
If you have been ill for two weeks or more, consult your doctor and coach before resuming training, and listen to what they say! Common sense dictates that the longer you have been ill, the slower and more gradual the comeback needs to be.
If you are injured, that is, feel persistent pain during a workout and/or at rest, seek medical advice, preferably from a reputable sports doctor (if in doubt, check with your local sports medicine federation). When injured, you don’t necessarily have to stop training – what hurts running may not hurt cycling. Indeed, the injury may only affect one aspect of the sport, for example it may hurt running up hills, but not on the flat. The best practical guide is whether the pain is persistent and/or it increases during or after a workout.
A good sports doctor should be able to tell you how to manage your injury. Don’t try and train through an injury without expert guidance. If you do try and train through an injury, it may result in damage that cannot be repaired properly. Generally, however, you can still train when injured as long as the injury-management programme is properly set up. Such a programme might include:
- medical consultations
- chiropractic work
- rehabilitation work at home or in a gym massage
- talking to an experienced athlete or coach
- a properly constructed training programme that allows for training improvements without aggravating or compounding the injury. For example: exercise in water (aqua jogging); break your routine into two parts, morning and evening, to allow more recovery between sessions and give you time to assess what you can do in the evening; use an alternative ‘like’ sport to replace or bolster your specific training (runners may cycle, for instance).
Try to establish why you became injured – was it due to overtraining, too much intensity, too much speedwork, too much hill work? If you can discover the answer, you can set up your training programme so it doesn’t happen again.