Updated: Jun 11, 2022
Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS
Nowadays, many coaches and athletes are constantly pushing the boundaries to maximize performance, especially at the elite level, where the difference between winning and losing is often decided by a small margin. As a result, athletes are training harder and more, believing that doing so will induce the greatest amount of gains in their performance. Just over the period of 1975 to 1980 alone, it was estimated that the average training volume had increased from 10 to 22% for many sports (1). For example, Mark Spitz, an Olympic swimmer, won 7 gold medals at the 1972 Olympics by training averagely 9,000 meters per day (4). However, 20 years on, Olympic swimmers were training in excess of 36,000 meters per day (11).
Following the principle of overloading, effective training loads are one of the important factors to improve performance. Insufficient training load can lead to undertraining, causing our body to decondition and eventually resulting in a dip in performance. To improve, we must challenge and push ourselves out of the comfort zone known as ‘overreaching’ (7). Overreaching is a deliberate phase in many training programs that requires careful planning. It has been shown that short-term overreaching prior to a period of tapering can result in considerable improvement in strength and power (8).
While overreaching is necessary for improvement to occur, pushing too much for too long can lead to overtraining, resulting in ‘overtraining syndrome’. Overtraining occurs when there is an imbalance between exercise and rest (unable to recover from strenuous workouts), resulting in maladaptation to the training stimulus. This can affect performance, causing it to plateau or decline. In some cases, overtraining can also cause injury or illness (7). Although overtraining happens mostly to elite athletes, anyone of all abilities, training experience, and training levels are at risk of it (9).
Recognizing when you are at risk of overtraining – The signs and symptoms
“I feel confident if I know that I have trained hard enough.”
“No pain, no gain.”
“Every minute if I’m not training, other competitors will get ahead of me.”
“I feel like I will lose my gains if I don’t train enough.”
Statements like these are very common in the world of sport. Due to the misconception and the wrong mindset about training, many tend to train harder than they should, by making the mistake of progressing high levels of intensity, volume, and/or frequency too quickly and without adequate recovery (2,3,6,9,10,12). Athletes tend to deviate from the training load prescribed by coaches. Often, they performed more (longer and/or intensive) on a training session that is meant to be ‘easy’, resulting in inappropriate recovery (5). Although you can easily recover from an overreaching state with a few days of proper rest, overtraining syndrome can take months to recover and in the worst-case scenario, it can ruin a sporting career (9).
There are 2 types of overtraining syndromes – sympathetic and parasympathetic. Each of these syndromes refers to and affects the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PSNS) nervous systems. The SNS and PSNS are branched out from the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which its function is to regulate our subconscious actions.
What the sympathetic system does is to prepare our body for intensive physical activity (increased heart rate, increased sweating, increased blood pressure, etc.) whereas the parasympathetic system manages our body at rest (decreased heart rate, decreased respiration, decreased blood pressure, etc.). Depending on the conditions, our body will respond accordingly to maintain its stability. If there were any changes to any of the systems, our body will not function properly and it can lead to some serious health issues.
Individuals who are suffering from overtraining syndromes would develop symptoms from both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (13). Sympathetic overtraining syndrome includes increased sympathetic activity at rest, causing insomnia, irritability, agitation, increased heart rate, hypertension, and restlessness. These symptoms are more common in people who are involved in aerobic sports. On the other hand, the symptoms from the parasympathetic overtraining syndrome, more common in people who are involved in anaerobic sports, includes increased parasympathetic activity at both resting and exercising states such as fatigue, depression, reduced heart rate (during exercise), and loss of motivation. Other symptoms include anorexia, weight loss, lack of mental concentration, heavy/tense muscles, anxiety, and poor sleep (not rested upon awakening).
(Source: Kreher & Schwartz, 2012)
Someone who is in the state of overreaching or suffering from overtraining syndrome would demonstrate a decline in sports performance. Therefore, it is vital to differentiate overreaching from overtraining syndrome and other potential causes (muscle damage, acute illness, and poor nutrition) of temporary poor performance. Take note that excessive training load, volume and frequency are not the only factors that resulted in the development of the overtraining syndrome. Psychological factors including training monotony, personality, stress from competition, school or work, high expectation from the coach, family or friends to perform and personal or emotional problems can contribute to the development of the overtraining syndrome.
What can we do to prevent overtraining?
Even though overtraining is not caused by workouts alone, we can reduce the risk of developing it with evidence-based programming and periodization. Monitor and manage your training loads to prevent sudden increments in training intensity, volume, and/or frequency. To prevent training monotony, vary your workout routines to stay physically challenged and mentally stimulated. Ensure you have adequate recovery between training sessions. Consider using tools and strategies to aid in your recovery processes, such as compression garments, massage, active recovery, and self-myofascial release (using a foam roller). To maximize recovery, do the basics right, have enough sleep (7-9 hours), keep yourself well-hydrated, and fuel your body with sufficient nutrition and energy.
It is important to educate athletes on the risk of overtraining and some of the management strategies to reduce it. Understanding why and how overtraining syndrome occurred allows coaches and medical health professionals to identify athletes who fail to cope with the training stress and/or at risk of developing it. This allows timely intervention which can help to prevent the development of overtraining syndrome. After all, prevention is better than cure!
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