Overtraining Syndrome

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

  1. Bricker, C. (2011). Record injuries at the US Open.Retrieved January 8, 2013, from http://www.worldtennismagazine.com/archives/5647
  2. Kellmann, M. (Ed.). (2002). Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

See also: