Overreaching and Overtraining in Endurance Athletes
Whilst another triathlon season here in New Zealand is over, for many others in the northern hemisphere, it's just beginning. Although it may have been a great season and most of you would have noticed some improvements here and there, for some of you it was your first experience of having a less than satisfactory race because of your preparation.
I would like to reveal the issue of overreaching and overtraining in endurance sport.
First of all let's start by getting one thing straight - overtraining is a condition not an illness.
When the training load is too intense, or the volume of training exceeds the body's ability to recover and adapt, the body experiences more breakdown than build up. The symptoms of overtraining are highly individualized and cannot be universally applied. Sometimes, it can be very difficult for athletes, trainers and coaches to recognize the early symptoms of the condition. The underlying causes of overtraining syndrome are often a combination of emotional and physiological reasons.
I want to emphasize more about the emotional and physiological aspects of the syndrome. A person's stress tolerance can break down as often from a sudden increase in anxiety as from an increase in physical distress. The emotional demands of competition, the aim to win, the fear of failure and unrealistic goals, can be sources of intolerable emotional stress. Some studies have shown that overtraining is associated with alteration in the neurological (the autonomic nervous system), hormonal and immune systems.
In the autonomic nervous system, we are talking about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, to understand the process you would need to know the difference between the two nervous systems. The sympathetic nerves prepare the body for emergencies - the fight or flight response, whereas stimulation of the parasympathetic nerves generally slows the body down.
We have no control over the sympathetic system, so if you're experiencing symptoms such as, increased heart rate and blood pressure, no appetite, sleeping problems, emotional instability and decreased body mass, you can not make them "go away". You need to confer with your coach or trainer immediately and have some time off from your training.
You hear a lot about boosting up the immune system and how important it is to keep it strong. It will stay strong and healthy if you look after it, but if your training is excessive each time you go out, it will suppress your normal immune function and you become more susceptible to infections. Basically what happens is that your white blood cells and antibodies are decreasing and your body has no defence against invading bacteria, parasites, viruses and tumor cells. Also, intense exercise during illness decreases your ability to fight off the infection and increase your risk of even greater complications.
Coaches cannot overstress the importance of designing training programs to include both rest and variation in the training intensity and volume, in an effort to avoid overtraining or fatigue.
The best way to minimize the risk of overtraining is to follow cyclic training procedures, alternating easy, moderate and hard periods of training. As a rule, one or two days of intense training should be followed by an equal number of easy, aerobic training days. Or if you have a week or two of hard training should be followed by a week of reduced effort.
Everything I have mentioned in the above paragraph isn't rocket science!! If in doubt play it safe, ask your coach if you have one? Enjoy your training, check your program carefully, stick to the plan and remember "train hard but smart".