- Identify the signs and symptoms of overtraining.
- Determine ways to help your clients recover from overtraining.
- Understand the importance of training breaks in the prevention of overtraining.
You’ve seen it before, and you’ll see it again. That star athlete, who has been intensely training for months, but starts to mention that they haven’t slept well for weeks, and the stress is starting to get in the way of their performance. You may suspect they’re overtrained, which is quite common among competitive athletes. While overtraining can occur in a variety of different ways, it typically results from a combination of hormonal, neuroendocrine, and nutritional imbalances, secondary to heavy training (Kreher, 2012).
The Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining
Although it can produce positive outcomes, intense training completed too frequently without sufficient rest, can compromise an athlete’s muscular, endocrine, and immune systems, as well as psychological state. Signs and symptoms of overtraining can be (Kreher, 2012):
- Extreme muscle soreness or stiffness during and in-between training sessions
- Unintentional weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Sleep disturbances
Once you detect these signs and symptoms, you can work with your athlete to avoid overtraining. By monitoring performance, mood and physical changes, you’ll be able to quickly identify at-risk athletes, and swiftly offer practical interventions:
- Schedule training days complemented by rest and/or “off” days.
To maximize performance and gain a competitive advantage, athletes need a schedule that incorporates both training and rest days. In a recent study, researchers found that athletes who incorporated light, leisure activity into their weekly training regimens reported less exhaustion and fewer injuries. These findings support the practical recommendation that athletes should consider tapering, periodization, and rest to help avoid overuse and overtraining (Vetter, 2010).
- Promote a well-balanced, whole foods diet eaten at the right time.
During intense training, a well-balanced diet rich in whole foods should be encouraged, emphasizing the importance of nutrient timing. Research suggests that the scheduled timing of dietary consumption can be just as important as its composition, (Zoorab, 2013) and should complement heavy training to enhance performance (Zaryski, 2005). Ensure your athlete is adequately fueling their body before, during and after exercise.
- Encourage adequate sleep.
During intense training regimens, competitive athletes require adequate sleep to provide rest to the body and support mental calmness as well. To improve your athletes sleeping habits, suggest a variety of approaches—including scheduling in sleep, keeping their bedrooms free of electronics an hour before bed, and incorporating relaxing strategies such as deep breathing and meditation before bed.
When You Meet an Overtrained Athlete
If overtraining is suspected, a variety of therapies can help promote healing while minimizing additional stress. To assist in the recovery from overtraining, suggest a holistic approach that includes dietary modifications, support for the mental aspects of training and additional rest.
- Dietary Modifications
Focusing on nutrient dense foods is vital to recovery from heavy training. Some research supports that many of the effects and symptoms of overtraining is caused by inflammation and cytokine release, which has been associated with fatigue, mood changes and adverse adrenal changes (Kreher, 2012). Consuming a clean, well-balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory Omega-3s, and antioxidants like avocados can help support recovery. Encourage your athletes to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds to help manage inflammation.
- Support for the mental aspects of training
Complementary techniques that address the mental aspects of training, like counseling, should also be considered. Athletes who overtrain can experience a decrease in mood, especially over a loss at a recent match, or anxiety over an upcoming competition. To help improve mood and relaxation, set up an appointment with a trained healthcare professional to support emotional balance.
Five weeks of rest, which should include “off” and light training days, supports sustainable recovery (Vetter, 2010). Although athletes will recover at their own rate depending on the severity at which they’ve overtrained, steady and stable recovery should not be rushed.
At some point in your career, you will meet competitive athletes who are doing everything they can to gain an advantage over competition—at any cost. What they may not realize is that passion can both fuel their motivation and, unknowingly, increase their chances of overtraining. You can direct these athletes in the right direction by using a training schedule that includes rest days, promoting a well-balanced diet and encouraging adequate sleep. As fitness professionals, you are crucial to maximizing performance and minimizing the risk of overtraining for competitive athletes.
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Kreher J. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide. Sports Health. 4(2), 128-138.
Vetter R. (2010). Correlations Between Injury, Training Intensity, and Physical and Mental Exhaustion Among College Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(3), 587-96.
Zoorab R. (2013). Sports Nutrition Needs Before, During and After Exercise. Primary Care. 40(2), 475-86.
Zaryski C. (2005). Training Principles and Issues for Ultra-Endurance Athletes. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 4(3),165-70.