This article was provided by Training and Conditioning
Dr. Terry Favero
This article is the second part of the earlier post. Click here to see: Overtraining Part 1
Overtraining syndrome can derail athletes’ performance goals and put their physical and mental health in jeopardy. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid when training programs focus on gradual adaptation and common-sense monitoring strategies.
The best-case scenario isn’t to catch overtraining syndrome in its early stages, but to avoid it in the first place. Most instances of overtraining result from poorly conceived programs that can be corrected with forethought and attention to recovery needs.Perhaps the most common mistake that leads to overtraining is a lack of preparation, or an imbalance between training and the demands of competition.
Specifically, if a preseason program does not gradually increase intensity and performance demands, athletes won’t develop a sound training base before the start of their competitive season. They may “play their way” into game shape by mid-season, but the physical and mental stresses of pursuing optimal performance from an inadequate foundation will take their toll over time, increasing the risk for overtraining and most likely creating disappointing results late in the season.
Distance runners provide a clear illustration of this problem. If a runner takes the summer off from serious training and plans to compete in cross country competitions in the fall, he won’t be successful if he suddenly begins running long distances with no step-by-step, periodized plan to gradually increase his workload as his body adapts to the stresses of running. Slow, moderate increases in training volume and intensity are required for safe, optimal performance improvement.
Monotony is another factor that can lead to overtraining. While athletes need regular training schedules to organize their time and allow for progress, a training routine with no variety will reduce motivation and sometimes lead to incomplete or imbalanced physical development.
The risk of monotony is greatest in individual endurance athletes, such as runners, who often rely almost exclusively on their primary sport for training. But even teams in sports like football and basketball can develop a monotonous weightroom routine or practice drill schedule if coaches aren’t careful.
For athletes who play more than one sport, poor communication can lead to overtraining. If two demanding sport coaches or strength coaches don’t know what the other is doing and athletes are eager to impress both, they may push themselves too hard. These athletes must be encouraged to take greater ownership of their training regimen and provide feedback to both sets of coaches when they feel overworked. Often, an athlete can follow a hybrid strength and conditioning program that meets the training needs of both sports without creating overstress.
Interpersonal relationships are another source of stress that can’t be overlooked. One elite soccer player I have worked with fell into a severe state of overtraining due to an unworkable relationship with national team coaches. The coaches demanded a certain style of play, and this athlete’s skills and attributes didn’t fit well within their system. Rather than embrace her unique gifts, they continued asking her to fit their mold.
This created a lot of stress for her, and she reacted by pushing herself harder and harder in an attempt to please the coaches. The combination of mental and physical stress led her to overtraining and poor recovery habits, and she ended up leaving the sport entirely for more than a year before her motivation to train and compete returned.
A PRACTICAL APPROACH
To prevent scenarios like those described above, athletic trainers and coaches should focus on three basic strategies:
Plan to train, not strain. Planned periodization helps balance overload training with recovery and allows athletes to move safely through seasonal progressions. It’s unacceptable to set training loads arbitrarily. I’ve heard of coaches prescribing training at or beyond athletes’ capacity, then reducing the workload to more manageable levels once chronic fatigue and soreness set in. While it is easier to devise overly demanding programs, a more conservative approach will lead to consistent performance gains and reduce athletes’ injury risk.
For most developing athletes and teams, a good guideline for periodization is the three-week rule. Following a three-week overload cycle, athletes get a training break by changing some aspect of their workout dynamics, such as reducing total training volume to allow for recovery or modifying the intensity, frequency, venue, or type of work.
After three weeks of hard training, most athletes need a physiological and mental break. This can be flexibly implemented across an entire week by cutting workload by 25 percent each day, or by taking two days off during the week. And it’s important to note that the three-week figure is just a guideline–depending on training experience, age, and sport, some athletes do better with longer or shorter intervals. Often, the best guides when setting interval lengths are athletes’ own feedback about their training and the progress they make in performance.
Coaches should include fun in their planning, such as competitive games and creative activities. Preventing overtraining means implementing changes and breaks in a program, even when they don’t seem necessary. Early-season breaks, before the athletes feel that time off is truly needed, will pay off later in the season.
Yearly planning must also account for non-training stressors, such as travel and academic demands. Lighter workouts and built-in time off around long road trips, mid-terms, and final exams can do wonders for athletes’ overall health and performance.
Monitor progress and problems. Coaches should be on the lookout for physical and psychological symptoms of overtraining at all stages of the training process. Seeing one individual sign might be just a temporary “rut” or anomaly, but a pattern of multiple symptoms is cause for concern.
Endurance sport athletes and their coaches often keep extensive records of training times, distances, and recovery, but this is far less common in team sports. Keeping logbooks that document dietary intake, morning body weight, sleep quantity and quality, resting heart rate, physical and emotional well-being, and workout quality can provide valuable information for assessing periods of difficult training, preventing overtraining, and catching problems in their early stages.
Formal performance testing adds stress and takes considerable effort to implement, so other alternatives can be explored as well. With my college soccer players, I don’t conduct structured tests such as two-mile runs or fitness tests to exhaustion. Instead, I employ a variety of “signature” workouts throughout the season and monitor heart rate recovery following certain activities and stages to assess training response and fatigue.
For example, one of my signature workouts consists of three sets of four 300-meter runs. The athletes run at 75 to 80 percent of max effort with 30 seconds of active rest between each run. I measure heart rates after each set, and expect them to be at around 180 bpm. A two to three minute jog typically lowers the heart rate to around 135 bpm, which is the level of recovery necessary to begin the next set. If an athlete’s heart rate isn’t close to the target of 180 bpm following activity or 135 bpm after active rest, I adjust her work rate or recovery time between sets. As the season progresses, I expect everyone’s recovery time to decrease.
I also regularly assess the athletes’ perception of their workouts. I ask them to rate the difficulty using a one-to-10 scale, with one being “extremely easy” and 10 being “at my limit.” When individual and team workouts don’t match my expectations, I meet with the athletes and sport coaches to deconstruct the results and talk about possible explanations, including training fatigue, travel, school influences, team chemistry, and other factors. These discussions help the athletes connect performance with training quality and non-athletic stressors, and give them a greater sense of control over their training.
Communicate effectively. The best coaches I know are not only experts at planning training sessions, they’re also great at sharing their knowledge and listening to feedback. They embrace the power of their position and use it to frame positive, constructive messages. Inexperienced coaches may try to coax greater efforts from their athletes without asking for input on how the athletes are feeling or explaining a justification for everything they do. This often leads to chronic fatigue and overtraining in the long run.
Effective coaches get to know their athletes on a physical, emotional, social, and sometimes even spiritual level. This facilitates one-on-one communication and builds trust. If one of these coaches is concerned about an athlete’s training level, they’re comfortable asking the athlete about it directly. And the athlete, likewise, knows they can be honest about how they feel and how they’re handling the training and other demands in their life.
The more a coach is tuned in to athletes’ feedback, the easier it is to tailor a training program that gets results and protects well-being. Great coaches are also able to interpret non-verbal messages from athletes who may have trouble articulating the way they feel. This skill only comes through familiarity and experience.
Overtraining syndrome is easy to prevent when coaches use sound training principles to plan daily, weekly, and seasonal workouts, and when they’re not afraid to adjust those workouts in response to new information. Paying attention to athletes’ physical and psychological status and focusing on moderate, gradual training goals allows you to distinguish between an ordinary, healthy adaptive response and the potentially devastating effects of overtraining.