Overtraining in Endurance Athletes
(I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel like crap!)
I’m not hitting the repeats like I did last fall. I haven’t really on “autopilot” during a run in weeks or months. I’ve got no power. I’ve come down with a cold and just, well, feel like crap!
That’s me; does it sound like you?
If so, you probably are trying to pinpoint the one cause for why you are feeling like this. That’s human nature. Well, it’s not one reason, it’s likely an all-encompassing term called overtraining. Endurance athletes are constantly walking the balance beam, with the dark pit of overtraining on one side and the pansy place of undertraining on the other.
What is it?
The net effects of exercise and training are generally extremely positive. Practically, exercise can be thought of on a continuum from not enough to too much exercise. Too much exercise can result in a reduction in the effectiveness of the immune system to fight disease and increase negative mood behaviors. This is the paradox of overtraining – it is when the many benefits of exercise are reversed with too much training stress. As stated above, athletes are constantly walking the tight rope of too much and too little exercise, since high levels of training are required for success in sport. To give one example, Kuipers (1996) stated that when total duration of training for elite distance runners exceeds 15 hours per week, a performance decrease usually occurs. To go even further, burnout occurs with too much training and little intervention to mitigate overtraining’s effects. This is the most serious case, because it generally results in the athlete withdrawing from participation in sport.
What causes it?
An athlete graduates from recreational to competitive when training is imposed to improve performance and prepare for competitions. For runners, this means running more miles; for swimmers, it means practicing swimming more laps each day, etc. The goal in practice is to make training gains. However, the opposite can sometimes occur. This is, simply put, a failure to make training gains, or staleness.
What happens when an athlete experiences staleness? Generally, the runner decides to run more or the swim coach has his / her athlete swim more. If the athlete is unable to move through staleness, overtraining occurs. Note that overtraining is ultimately a malfunction – the inability of an athlete to adjust to the demands of the training stress.
It is extremely important to intervene in an overtraining case before the athlete experiences an overall mental, physical, social, and spiritual exhaustion caused by training stress know as burnout. Burnout is almost synonymous with withdrawal, as one generally follows the other.
Overtraining manifests itself in many different forms. The first can be physical, including damage to the connective tissue, cartilage, and bone. It can also include metabolic overload (inadequate glycogen levels), and psychological overload (mood disturbance). Symptoms include: fatigue during performance, decreased motivation, a decline in performance, mood disturbance, emotional instability, and a reduction in immune function which sets the athlete up for infection (Kuiper, 1996). For example, a study was conducted by Berglung and Safstrom in 1994 that measured mood disturbance in Swedish athletes leading up to the Barcelona Olympics. Mood disturbance was repeatedly observed in swimmers and runners, although it was also seen on rarer occasions in basketball players and in other non-endurance sports. The result of this study and others is that mood changes should be monitored and interventions should occur when mood changes vary more than a pre-determined level.
Burnout can be identified through the administration of various burnout inventories including the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) or the Eades Athletic Burnout Inventory (EABI) including others. In summary, physiological symptoms include:
- Increased resting and exercise heart rate
- Increased resting systolic blood pressure
- Increased muscle soreness and chronic muscle fatigue
- Increased presence of biochemical indicators of stress in the blood
- Increased sleep loss
- Increased colds and respiratory infections
- Decreased body weight
- Decreased maximal aerobic power
- Decreased muscle glycogen
- Decreased libido and appetite
Additionally, psychological symptoms include:
- Increased mood disturbances
- Increased perception of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion
- Decreased self-esteem
- Negative change in the quality of personal interaction with others
cumulative reaction to chronic everyday stress as opposed to acute dosages of
(Sport Psychology, Concepts and Applications, 4th Edition, pg. 370)
Interventions & Recommendations
Gould, Udry, Tuffey, and
Loehr (1996) conducted an investigation involving the study of burnout on
junior tennis players, and I will use their recommendations in this article.
There are few empirical studies on burnout and positive interventions, so your
challenge is to apply these recommendations to your athletic self.
- Play for your own reasons.
- Balance sport with other things in your life.
- Don’t play if it isn’t fun.
- Make practice and competition fun.
- Relax and take time off occasionally.
- Cultivate personal involvement with the player.
- Establish two-way communication with the athlete.
- Solicit and use player input.
- Keep trying to understand player feelings and perspective.
Parent / Family / Support System
- Recognize the optimal amount of “pushing” needed.
- Back off!
- Reduce the importance of winning.
- Show support and empathy for efforts.
- Don’t coach if you aren’t the coach. Separate roles are necessary.
- Solicit the athlete’s input.
(Sport Psychology, Concepts and Applications, 4th Edition, pg. 372)
In summary, if you don’t remember anything from this article, remember this quote from Dr. Scott Murr at the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training in Greenville, SC:
“It’s better to be 10% undertrained than 1% over-trained going into an endurance event.”
See you on the roads…
Cox, Richard H. (1998). Sport Psychology, Concepts and Applications, 4th Edition. Staleness, Overtraining, and Burnout in Athletes, 362-372.
Brown, J.D. (1991). Staying
fit and staying well: Physical fitness as a moderator of life stress. Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 555-661
Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S., & Loehr, J. (1996a). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: I. A quantitative psychological assessment. The Sport Psychologist 10, 322-340.
Kuipers, H. (1996). How much is too much? Performance aspects of overtraining. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sports, 67, Supplement to No. 3, 65-69.
Silva, J. M., III (1990). An analysis of the training stress syndrome in competitive athletics. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 5-20.