Understanding overtraining in athletics

Athletes push themselves to the limit to produce PBs, but it is possible to push too hard. John Shepherd talks to Scott Laidler about how to avoid overtraining

Athletes need to push through barriers in order to adapt and there is always going to be some degree of overtraining, in fact
it is needed. However, health and fitness expert Scott Laidler clarifies this by introducing the notion of overtraining versus overreaching: “Overtraining is a condition we might find ourselves in when our bodies become over-compromised …. from over-exercise or under recovery from exercise,” he says. “It’s actually a syndrome comprised of a series of symptoms. Over-training ostensibly is a negative.”

He then talks about the more positive other side of the coin – overreaching: “Whereas overreaching is actually a necessary element of progression in training – and can be considered stage one overtraining – or functional overreaching – it means taking your body to a point just past what you were previously capable of, creating an adaptive response, where this and adequate recovery are present we can expect performance gains.”

Signs of overtraining

Many athletes come to training tired or less motivated – are those red flags? “Overtraining feels like the flu,” says Laidler. “Symptoms include muscle aches, joint pain, fatigue, headaches, lack of energy, reduced sex drive and lowered immunity.”

Can this vary between the athletics events? “Some events are especially gruelling in their nature,” says Laidler, “heavy weight training often leads to over training because of the inherent micro damage to tissue, but any gruelling event can push an individual beyond their ability to recover from an instance of overreaching.”

I know that endurance athletes in particular are prone to overtraining and also to REDS (Relative Energy Deficiency – Sports). How so? “Endurance events are often gruelling and can push athletes into overtraining very easily,” says Laidler.

“Sprinting has the physical requirement to push an athlete into overtraining, the difference being that because of the obvious performance drop off in sprint training when fatigue sets in, athletes are less likely to push this activity alone beyond recovery, of course there are numerous other variables to consider.”

Should athletes train in an overtrained state? “Well, it’s a question of scale,” says Laidler. “Plenty of people train when moderately overtrained, which is why you need to keep a close eye on your performance, too many unexplained poor performances are a big warning sign.

“Also, you should keep an eye on your heart rate variability or at the very least your daily resting heart rate as a good indicator of how fatigued you are upon waking up. If you are too heavily overtrained you simply won’t be able to train.”

(To monitor resting heart rate (RHR) take it regularly a few minutes before rising and if it is increased by a couple of beats from your norm subsequently, then chances are you are overtrained.)

Are there stages of overtraining which athletes and coaches should look out for? “Yes,” replies Laidler. “Stage one is called ‘functional overreaching’ and it’s a necessary part of progress from working out.

“Stage two is ‘non-functional overreaching’, this is where you have pushed a little bit too far with minor symptoms like a drop in performance and fatigue, you can typically recover from this state within 2-4 weeks.

“The third stage is the actual ‘overtrained state’, and this is where fatigue and poor performance can last up to one month … prolonged overtraining can lead to long lasting inflammation and compromised immunity.”

If you do become overtrained, what are the ways to return to training safely? “Depending on how overtrained you are the length of time it will take to reach normality will vary,” answers Laidler. “It can take a month or more if you are severely compromised. Rest, adequate food intake and hyperthermic treatments, such as sauna use, are the best way to bring yourself back from a state of overtraining.”

Are the symptoms likely to be different between males and females? “The symptoms are likely to be the same between men and women mentally and performance-wise,” says Laidler. “However men will experience a decreased libido due to lowered testosterone and being in the state of over training can interfere with menstrual cycles in women, even causing a woman to temporarily halt the menstrual cycle.”

Nutrition

What role does nutrition play in terms of combatting overtraining – REDS is very much a consequence of under eating? “Well, you need to be bringing in adequate calories to fuel and recover from your workouts, too few calories for too long will lead to burnout and an inability to recover from your workouts,” says Laidler.

“You also need to have a good macronutrient balance, consume too few carbs for too long and you may borrow from muscles stores for glycogen, this can lead to overtraining. You also need to make sure that you have enough protein to maintain your muscle mass. Healthy fats are also important for maintaining energy and a healthy hormone balance.”

When athletes have reached close to ‘stage three overtraining’, there are big psychological factors at play. “It is all about bringing yourself back to equilibrium,” says Laidler. “Meditate, take time for active rest but not hard training.

“Do things that allow you to rest, recover and spark joy,” he continues. “You will know when your mind is not right in training and or competition.”

Hopefully the comments made in this article will assist both athletes and coaches when it comes to understanding and identifying the signs of overtraining.

Athletes need to push hard but knowing when to back-off and recover is crucial for long-term success.

» Scott Laidler is a fitness expert, writer and founder of the Healthy Ambition podcast. See scottlaidler.com

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