Overtraining comes in two main forms, chronic and acute. Chronic overtraining is fairly rare and traumatic, but acute overtraining has broader symptoms and affects many athletes. Acute overtraining can be caused by training with too high frequency, intensity, and/or volume, or by failing to recover sufficiently from training via sleep, diet, and lifestyle. Overtraining is not to be feared, but recognizing overtraining symptoms is key to better managing your training, recovery, performance, and mental state.
The Internet pendulum swings rapidly on the subject of overtraining, and a brief survey on the topic will reveal attitudes both of constant fear of overtraining even in the lowest volume training situations and macho “there’s no such thing as overtraining” attitudes. The reality lies somewhere in the middle and the polarity of opinion is mostly the result of a lack of understanding of what overtraining actually is.
First, let’s clear up what overtraining is not. Overtraining is not overreaching. Overreaching is a strategic training period as part of a taper cycle when fatigue will be incurred past a recoverable level. Many athletes will experience this as a natural part of a training cycle. This period is strategic, intentional, and should be carefully monitored by the coach and athlete. The athlete overreaches for a short period of time (2-3 weeks) during which time fatigue is very high and performance is diminished, then training is scaled back for another short period of time (1-2 weeks) to allow for recovery before a peak performance. This is the strategy of tapering to produce an immediate short-term spike in performance for a peak event.
Overtraining is different from overreaching in that it is not strategic, does not have a performance purpose, and is the result of a mistake or error on behalf of the coach or athlete.
Many coaches often overestimate athlete recovery ability, fail to appreciate that the athlete has other priorities in life such as school or work, or abide by an old school “toughen up” mentality that creates an environment of training to survive training. However, if the athlete deviates from a training program to include more training such as extra sessions or higher intensities without the coaches’ knowledge, or fails to prioritize recovery from training by having a poor diet or poor sleep, this is not the fault of the coach or training program.
Overtraining takes two forms, commonly referred to as chronic overtraining or acute overtraining. Chronic overtraining is often what people mean when they say, “there’s no such thing as overtraining,” because chronic overtraining is very rare. Chronic overtraining is usually traumatic and takes a long time (several weeks to months) to recover from. Symptoms include blood in the urine, extreme muscle cramping, soft tissue injury, depression, severe exhaustion, inability to gain or maintain muscle mass, and prolonged plateau in performance even after weeks of rest, as well as actual biochemical changes at the hormonal level.
Acute overtraining is much more common and often goes unrecognized.
Symptoms of acute overtraining include stagnant performance, irritability, mood swings and depression, elevated resting heart rate, sleeplessness, suppressed appetite, increased susceptibility to illness, dampened enthusiasm for training and competing in the sport, lasting fatigue, and increased likelihood of injury. This kind of overtraining is commonly referred to as “staleness,” “burnout,” “overfatigue,” “just feeling run down lately,” etc. Are you experiencing any of these symptoms? Nearly every athlete I’ve worked with has experienced some of these symptoms in their training career separate from strategic overreaching. This is to be expected—training can’t always be perfect and as an athlete who pushes the envelope, it’s natural that you’ll tread over this line at some point. However, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the symptoms and know how to make a change to prevent long-term chronic overtraining, illness, or injury.
There are two sides to the issue of overtraining. One side is predominantly the responsibility of the coach (or self-coached athlete) to manage training volume and intensity. Volume, intensity, and frequency cannot all be high at the same time beyond a short period of time before overtraining sets in. The other side is largely the responsibility of the athlete to manage recovery through sleep, nutrition, hydration, and rest. This is the source of the common phrase, “there’s no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovering.” While this sounds nice on social media or macho athlete sound bytes, the reality is that athletes do not have unlimited recovery abilities. Even professional athletes have a limit, and even more so for athletes who have school, work, a family, or other stress and obligations that take up time, mental energy, and physical energy.
It can be difficult to diagnose whether overtraining is a result of training vs. recovery, but a responsible athlete or coach should be able to take an objective look at lifestyle and training to make a determination. The same training can have different effects at different times based on different situations. The training you once tolerated and improved on may be too much for you at a later stage in your career, so it is important to look at your program holistically.
- Are you getting enough macronutrients (calories in the form of protein, carbohydrates, and fats) and enough micronutrients (fiber, vitamins, and minerals) from quality sources each day? A diet deficient in these may lead to decreased recovery.
- Are you getting at least 6-8 hours of quality sleep? For some athletes, this may include naps, but be wary of counting low-quality sleep toward this number. Snoozing with the TV on or on the bus in the morning does not count as quality sleep.
- Are you drinking at least half your bodyweight in ounces of water per day? For example, a 200lb athlete would aim for 100 ounces of water per day as a bare minimum.
- Is the non-sport part of your life low in stress? If you have a higher stress school, work, or family situation, your recovery will be lower than an athlete who has an easier degree, easier job, and non-stressful family life.
If you are getting sufficient nutrition, sleep, and do not have a lot of stress in your life, but still have overtraining symptoms, you may simply be training too much.
- Have you had at least two consecutive days off from any kind of training in the last 6-8 weeks?
- Have you had an entire week off of structured training in the last 3-4 months?
If either of those answers are no, you may be training too often or for too long without time off. As mentioned earlier, training that is high in volume, frequency, and intensity is not sustainable and will lead to overtraining. Regular short periods of lighter training intensities and volumes are necessary to avoid overtraining, especially in such a repetitive sport as rowing. I typically plan for a week off of structured training after each block of training, referred to as “active rest,” followed by a transition week for the next block, then starting the current block of training. This allows the athlete to pursue other enjoyable activities during the active rest week, then acclimate to the demands of the next block of training, then fully set in with enthusiasm and rested body and mind for the next training block.
Overtraining isn’t to be feared, but it is good for athletes to understand why they’re feeling what they may be feeling and how to get back on track. If you’re feeling run down and your times or lifts aren’t improving, take a look at your training. If you’re training too much or recovering too little, adjust and move forward. The only thing really “bad” about overtraining is when there is also a failure to adjust and correct.
A lack of understanding of the balancing act of training and recovery can lead to needless frustration. I have experienced it myself, and seen it in other athletes. Times aren’t improving, body mass is decreasing, the constant feel of being sore and fatigued—rather than get caught in the frustrating loop of not knowing what minor training variable has gone wrong, take a look at your training and recovery more broadly. This part will discuss some other training considerations with regard to overtraining.
First, what do athletes who must maintain a certain bodyweight for a weight-class sport do? The subject of lightweights is complicated and made more so by issues of competitiveness at higher levels and college scholarships. I will say that there is a common misconception in many weight-class sports that lighter is always better. I wrestled and rowed lightweight in high school and can tell you that this is not always the case, especially for younger athletes. I would encourage any athlete under 18-years old to compete lightweight for no longer than it is comfortable to maintain that weight. At the point where calorie restriction and weight-cutting measures beyond slight day-of restrictions are necessary, it may become detrimental to performance in both the short and long-term, as the mental and physical cost of cutting weight becomes greater than the benefit of competing in a lighter class.
In the long-term, restricting calories below what is necessary to recover from strenuous exercise can lead to overtraining and stagnant performance by failing to provide enough macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to recover from strenuous exercise. While overtraining may show up as a frustrating plateau for older athletes, there are real health consequences for younger athletes. Athletes 12-18-years old are still in the process of puberty, which brings about a cascade of hormonal changes and often results in rapid growth. Restricting calories during this time frame can result in missing this window for rapid growth and leaving long-term potential on the table, as well as introducing possible health consequences. With the support of the Child Protection Group and the Medical Sub-Committee, British Rowing removed the lightweight category from junior rowing in 2012. In particular, bone growth and bone density is vitally important for athletes going through puberty. Restricting calories, food groups, and certain micronutrients can diminish the body’s ability to create stronger, larger, healthier bones during this critical window.
By college, adult athletes should not only be able to manage their weight more safely, but also more responsible for recognizing when their weight-restriction measures are too extreme. It is also my hope that a college athlete would have greater coaching support and better resources available to help them manage their weight safely. While I know this assumption won’t hold true in all situations, I am much more comfortable with putting the decision in the hands of an adult athlete than a youth athlete still in an active physical and mental growth stage. College lightweights should be aware of overtraining symptoms and take extra steps to improve recovery by non-caloric means, particularly sleep, contrast baths (though research is inconclusive), quality food choices, and at least self-massage via foam rolling or other available options if professional massage is not available. College lightweights should also be aware that they might someday be faced with a decision of continuing to row lightweight to maximize short-term competitiveness vs. moving up in weight to row heavyweight and maximizing long-term competitiveness. This is a personal choice that will depend on a variety of factors including whether or not a school will even allow an athlete to do so.
In general, my best training practice is to ask “why” rather than “why not” when increasing training. Finding the minimum effective dose for athletes is an important skill to learn for coaches who don’t have an unlimited athlete pool. Athletes at the top level of their sport usually have better recovery abilities, whether naturally by genetics or structurally via lifestyles geared around their sport. An athlete who receives extra support from their program for nutrition, massage, and other recovery modalities and who has few other responsibilities and stressors other than training for their sport can afford to train harder and longer than an athlete with work, school, or other life responsibilities. Furthermore, coaches at the very top level can afford to burn through athletes with high volume, high intensity training as there will always be competition to fill the place of an injured or burnt out athlete. While this is not always the case, many upper level programs are characterized by training to survive training rather than training to thrive from their training.
For coaches at the youth, high school, and non-elite college programs, dwindling athlete pools as a result of overwork, injury, and the level of commitment required for the sport are very common. We can either say “well, they just aren’t tough/committed/dedicated enough” and live with smaller teams, or we can find a compromise. Find that point of marginal returns—are 12 practices per week that much more beneficial than 10 practices per week? That answer may be yes, but as coaches, I think we need to be honest about how much time we expect out of our athletes compared to the benefit they will receive from that training.
Finally, I also feel that it is a coach’s responsibility to educate athletes on recovery and emphasize its importance in the overall training picture. Make time to talk with your athletes to explain the balance of training and recovery and provide them with a few things they can do to be successful. Too many times we wait until something is a problem to explain the solution—the time to talk recovery is before your athletes get injured, burnt out, or fatigued.