Beyond Overtraining

May 10, 2004

The term “overtraining” is a misnomer. The physical and mental condition that prohibits athletes from training and performing to their capacities can be caused by a variety of factors other than simply training too hard or too long.

The American College of Sports Medicine says that the primary cause of overtraining is still a poorly conceived training program. Athletes can be at risk when there is a rapid increase in training volume or intensity, as well as inadequate recovery time. Even if those variables are appropriately controlled for one athlete, they may result in overtraining for another. Beyond those obvious problems, the ACSM has identified seven factors that may also contribute to overtraining:

frequent competition, especially if it involves quality effort
monotonous training without resting days
pre-existing medical conditions such as colds and allergies
poor diet, particularly when there is an inadequate intake of carbohydrates and fluids
environmental stress factors (high altitude, high temperatures, high humidity)
psychological stress factors, including difficulty in adjusting to teammates, coaches, work, or school obligations
heavy travel schedules

Reduce the Risk

Take these steps to reduce the risk of overtraining:

Periodize your training program by scheduling heavy, moderate, and light exercise days.
Build rest days into your schedule, especially during heavy training periods.
Individualize your training program.
Keep records of practice/competition performance.
Recognize signs of overtraining (anxiety, decline in performance, anger, depression, fatigue, loss of appetite, insomnia)

Don’t confuse overtraining with what the ACSM calls “overreaching,” which is limited to poor performance in training and competition. It can usually be treated by rest or reduced training combined with active recreation.

With overtraining, a complete break from training of at least two weeks is needed to recover. Illnesses must be ruled out and, in 80 percent of the cases, psychological depression is present and should be addressed. There is no set time for resuming training. It should be based on individual circumstances and progress.

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