The statement “No sweet without sweat!” is well known by athletes of any age. It expresses the time and cost athletes have to invest to achieve top-class performances. K. Anders Ericsson suggested that athletes must practice for 10,000 hours or 10 years to become experts in an activity. However, extensive training holds many pitfalls if athletes practice too much, without appropriate recovery. Recovery demands increase with intensified training. Consequently, the overtraining syndrome can be judged as the result of too much training and stress with insufficient recovery periods. The overtraining syndrome develops over time and occurs when athletes are unable to refill their energy stores adequately and continue to practice in a tired state. Being in a recovered condition is necessary to show top performances and to achieve training effects. The risk of overtraining is particularly salient for athletes who compete in numerous competitions per season. Feelings of tiredness and being drained may arise, which finally may result in the overtraining syndrome.
There are many examples of overtraining syndrome in which elite performers prepare intensively for important challenges but leave the competition with disappointing results. Aside from other factors, underperformances may be due to an imbalance between physical and/or mental demands and the lack of adequate recovery. For example, the number of tournaments in tennis has increased in recent years, as has the pressure to play tournaments to win points for the annual ranking. Consequently, during the 2011 US Open, favorites appeared to be in poor shape, seeming to be underrecovered. “Out of the 14 players, 11 [had] musculo-skeletal problems, and all [appeared] to be because of overload” (Bricker, 2011).
The relevance, impact, and consequences of overtraining have been addressed in many publications. The most frequent causes of overtraining cited by athletes are (a) too much stress and pressure, (b) too much practice and physical training, (c) physical exhaustion and allover soreness, (d) boredom because of too much repetition, and (e) poor rest or lack of proper sleep. Underrecovery (insufficient and/or lack of recovery time) between training sessions is the main cause of the overtraining syndrome and can be characterized as a precondition. Factors such as nutrition, sleep deficit, sickness, travel, and competitions increase the negative effect of insufficient recovery.
In 2013, a joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine regarding the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome was published, summarizing the challenges of training to increase performance. The publication differentiated among training, functional and nonfunctional overreaching, and the overtraining syndrome. The reward of balanced training and regeneration is an increase in performance. Training may include functional overreaching, which is characterized by an intense period of exercise with a short-term recovery. Negative psychological symptoms should not arise when athletes experience short-term performance decrements as a result of functional overreaching. However, problems may arise when overreaching is driven inappropriately or is extended for too long, which may lead to harmful, nonfunctional overreaching. Achieving overload for successful training necessitates being aware of the nonfunctional combination of excessive overload plus inadequate recovery.
The difficulty of distinguishing nonfunctional overreaching and the overtraining syndrome is caused by similar physical and mental symptoms of affected athletes. Additional adaptations of several biological, neurochemical, and hormonal regulation mechanisms may be used to identify the overtraining syndrome and the prolonged maladaptation of the athlete. Typical symptoms of the overtraining syndrome, such as fatigue, performance decline, and mood disturbances, are more severe than those of nonfunctional overreaching. Therefore, training load (e.g., stress–recovery relationship, training volume, intensity, methods, technique training, frequency of competitions) must be carefully controlled to increase performance without incurring nonfunctional overreaching and overtraining syndrome.
In addition to training load, nontraining stress factors have a huge impact on the athlete as well. Performance abilities are influenced by many factors, such as state of health (e.g., cold, fever, gastric and intestinal diseases, infections), lifestyle (e.g., sleep, daily schedule, nutrition, alcohol consumption and smoking, housing conditions, leisure activities), and environment (e.g., family, roommates, teammates, social contacts, job or school, coach). Emotional worries or social fights inside and outside of the training environment (e.g., illness, quarrels with friends or partners, parents’ divorce) can strongly affect athletes. Problems and obligations at school, difficulties in time management (e.g., practice, school, friends), and other responsibilities can increase stress. Often, individuals can cope with these situations, but when an additional heavy training load is added to an already high stress load, the athlete’s coping resources may be inadequate for the combination.
In light of this, young athletes may be especially susceptible to overtraining overload symptoms. Due to the incomplete developmental process, the variability of psychological and psychological characteristics is higher than that of older athletes. For example, young athletes may lack sufficient coping strategies. Young motivated athletes may practice additional units at home, which coaches are typically unable to monitor. Adding more hours of training outside normal practice can contribute to excessive training load, ultimately contributing to overtraining syndrome. Often young athletes show earlier signs related to overtraining, but the symptoms may not immediately be identified as stemming from the training process due to other developmental processes experienced by young athletes.
Consequences of overtraining, or rather the overload of practice and noncompliance of recovery, can be differentiated in short and long-term consequences. Besides the short-term consequences of tiredness and exhaustion, the long-term consequences can be harmful. Stagnation or decreases in performances can be observed in competitions. In addition, feelings of depression, general apathy, decreased self-esteem, or emotional instability can occur. Behavioral and physical reactions include restlessness, a lack of sleep, disturbed sleep, weight loss, increased resting heart rate, hormonal changes, and an increased vulnerability to injuries. Overtraining may also increase the risk for infections or respiratory diseases.
The consequences of poorly structured and/ or monitored training are particularly serious for young athletes. Frequently, these athletes drop out of the sport before having achieved top levels. Unfortunately, when athletes observe performance stagnation or decline, they commonly tend to increase training efforts, leading to even worse stages of nonfunctional overtraining. In such cases, common statements from coaches like “You need to do more!” are counterproductive and miss the target.
How Coaches and Athletes Can Prevent Overtraining
“I am better this year because I train less; in other years I was already tired before the race,” a professional cyclist commented on his late-season fitness levels. This statement underlines the importance of well-structured practice and emphasized the need for balance between training and recovery periods. During an intensive season with high amounts of training during the off-season, a complete physical and psychological recovery may seem difficult to achieve. However, coaches and athletes need to be aware of the costs of inadequate regeneration periods. Coaches need to plan breaks and changes in strains to prevent an overload. A break could include a different sports activity (e.g., swimming, cycling) or the reduction of intensity. Such variability positively affects athletes’ performances. Breaks should take place without irritations, disturbances, and annoyances. For example, having a nap between two practice units sounds relaxing but only if this nap is not disturbed by a neighbor’s loud music. Breaks must be times in which athletes actually relax and replenish their resources.
Active and proactive recovery represents the best overtraining syndrome prevention strategy. Self-initiated active processes to reestablish psychological and physiological resources help to prevent symptoms of overtraining and support performance ability. Strategies like muscle relaxation, yoga, or a night out with friends as a kind of social recovery may refill empty stores. Athletes should learn how to relax themselves and establish their own personal way of recovering. Recovery is an individual phenomenon so the effectiveness of different strategies will vary across athletes. Accordingly, coaches must be aware that athletes should choose their own effective strategy. A trusting relationship between athletes and coaches is critical to guarantee an open exchange of ideas, problems, and advice. When athletes realize that the load of training is too high, a talk with their coach is indispensable. Communication about private circumstances (e.g., changes in job, school) is important to reduce stress, optimize recovery, and prevent overtraining.
Unfortunately, when symptoms of overtraining become obvious, it is often too late for prevention, and the athlete should visit a medical doctor specialized in high-performance sport. A commonly accepted view in the literature suggests that rest and recovery phases from weeks to months, depending on the seriousness of nonfunctional overreaching or overtraining syndrome, represents the best treatment for overtraining.
The concept that “sometimes less is more” may be serious advice when it comes to the interrelation of overtraining, underrecovery, and performance ability. When performance plateaus occur, athletes and coaches often increase their efforts and increase the training load. High loads of intense practice need adequate periods of rest and regeneration, but the latter tend to be neglected. The consequences of imbalanced exercise and recovery not only concern performance but also motivation, infections, injuries, and early drop-outs. The risk of the overtraining syndrome can be reduced, if not eliminated, through careful periodization of training, the reduction of intensity, changes in activities, or the mere implementation of longer or more efficient recovery periods. Young athletes should be discouraged from doing additional workouts without informing the coach. Unfortunately, rest is often just a four-letter word for athletes, so they should be taught and, if necessary, compelled to recover.
- Bricker, C. (2011). Record injuries at the US Open.Retrieved January 8, 2013, from http://www.worldtennismagazine.com/archives/5647
- Kellmann, M. (Ed.). (2002). Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports,20(Suppl. 2), 95–102.
- Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Foster, C., Fry, A., Gleeson, M., Niemann, D., et al. (2013). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: Joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). European Journal of Sport Science,13, 1–24.