Overtraining can have a detrimental effect on an athlete’s development and competitive performance
Overtraining, or unexplained under performance syndrome, are two terms which relate to a decrease in an athlete’s performance despite maintained, or even increased, training volumes and intensity. Overtraining syndrome is an exceptionally difficult period in an athlete’s development as their effort in training and competition appears to be going to waste due to lack of improved performance. If the goal that we seek places excessive demands on an athlete or the approach taken to achieve a goal creates too great a load, the goal may become unattainable. Excessive training or competition loads, increasing stressors impacting on the day-to-day stress level of an athlete, illness and training monotony can all contribute to overtraining being experienced by an athlete. To avoid overtraining it is important to monitor the condition of the athlete from both the physical, as well as a psychological, point of view on an ongoing basis.
The overtraining syndrome is characterised by a reduction in performance that is present despite the maintenance or increase in training volume. Overtraining syndrome can also be referred to as an ‘under recovery syndrome’, where training is initiated but expected recovery between scheduled activity does not occur. In most cases, the symptoms of the syndrome should show reduction in their effect after two weeks of relative rest. The athlete will also require ongoing monitoring as described below to ensure that they are not pushed towards overtraining after their rest. The diagnosis of underperformance syndrome can be quite difficult. A delay in achieving an accurate diagnosis can contribute to increasing the severity of the symptoms, as well as increasing the countermeasures needed to reverse the overtrained/under-recovered condition of the athlete. Therefore, being informed of the causes, signs and treatments is essential for athletes and coaches.
Within the overtraining syndrome there may be a number of symptoms that are present including:
- Loss of body weight
- Irritability or symptoms of depression
- Loss of energy
- Loss of competitive drive
- Loss of appetite
- Increased perception of effort for the same level of performance
- Increased infection rate (colds, respiratory illness, flu-like symptoms)
- Elevated morning/resting heart rate
- Sudden inability to complete workouts
- Insomnia/sleep disturbance
Some or all of the above symptoms may be persistently evident in an athlete who is approaching overtraining. The use of daily monitoring tools can be helpful in assessing changes in the affective mood state of athletes. Simple questionnaires assessing the perceived presence of factors on the above list can be an effective way to monitor the affective state of the athlete. This should be coupled with an assessment of the training periodisation (planned increases in training variables) prescribed by the coach.
To avoid the onset of underperformance syndrome, it is important to understand the potential causes. As the syndrome can be referred to as an under recovery syndrome, the onset of the condition may be preceded by a number of changes in training events that can impact upon an athlete’s ability to recover from the training;
- Rapid increase in training volume
- Rapid increase in training intensity
- Athlete illness
- Perception of training monotony (chronic boredom)
- Emotional / personal problems
- Occupational stress
Again, monitoring the changes in these variables will help to assist in avoiding and detecting overtraining. This should be monitored closely by the coaches so that the effect of the athlete’s training load can be assessed.
f you feel you may be at risk of overtraining, you can use a simple heart rate test to assess your risk of being overtrained. The orthostatic heart rate test is very simple to administer and easily repeated to aid ongoing monitoring of recovery status.
- Upon waking remain lying and rest comfortably for 10 minutes, this can be done later during the day at the same time each day but morning is best.
- At the end of 10 minutes, record your heart rate in beats per minute, record for a full 60 sec to get an accurate measure.
- Heart rate can be recorded using a simple heart rate monitor.
- Where heart rate monitors are unavailable a carotid or radial pulse can be used.
- Then stand up
- After 15 seconds, take a second heart rate as the number of beats per minute.
- After 90 seconds, take a third heart rate as the number of beats per 30 seconds, and multiply this by two to obtain a measure in beats per minute.
- After 120 seconds, take a fourth heart rate in beats per minute, record for a full 60 sec to get an accurate measure.
Athletes who are well recovered from training will show consistent heart rate measurements on the four measurements. An elevation in heart rate by more than 10 beats per minute may indicate an athlete who is at risk of being overtrained. While this test will give an indication of recovery status, used in isolation it is of little use. It should be viewed as an addition to the monitoring processes mentioned previously.
Treatment for overtraining syndrome requires a marked reduction in training intensity, and in some cases, complete rest. This period of reduced activity may last for weeks or months depending on the severity of the syndrome. In cases where additional stresses are contributing to the syndrome, counseling may be needed to assist the athlete in coping with all the factors contributing to their condition. Additionally, appropriate nutrition strategies will play a major role in ensuring that the fatigue effects of training are not being exacerbated by continual nutrition deficit, and in ensuring that post-exercise recovery is optimized.
Prevention is better than cure!
There are a number of actions that can be taken to avoid a training environment which may lead to underperformance syndrome:
- Increasing the number of scheduled rest days taken during training
- Periodising the intensity and volume of training
- Varying the type of training used
- Avoiding prolonged high intensity training
- Monitoring the mood and energy of the athlete
- Adding rest days in response to lowered mood and energy states
- Ensuring that training and recovery are enhanced by appropriate nutrition
Overtraining can have a detrimental effect on an athlete’s development and competitive performance. By having the necessary information to evaluate if an athlete is overtrained, coaches can ensure an athlete is making the best progress possible by helping to detect and prevent this condition. The role of monitoring systems cannot be understated in prevention and treatment of overtraining. The athlete’s psychological, physiological, and nutritional state, along with current periodisation of training, must be regularly reviewed to protect the athlete. The use of questionnaires is a simple and effective method of assessing the factors that contribute to overtraining, and can contribute to corrective and preventative measures being put in place.