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Overtraining Syndrome

Getting the most out of your training is a fine line between training enough and resting enough to improve but not over doing it and becoming overtrained. Coach Julian Piotto looks at overtraining and some suggestions to help avoid it.

Overtraining occurs when athletes try too hard to improve performance and train beyond the body's ability to recover. Recently I became one of the victims of overtraining. During my build up to one of the most important races in the season I started training too hard too early in the season (hey I wanted to be fast!) and that led to a complete burn out, and suddenly I was not interested in the race anymore. Race day came sooner than I thought. I struggled to achieve speeds that would be achieved with ease in training. My resting heart rate was 90 when normally is around 30! Something was definitely wrong with me. I was OVERTRAINED!

The common warning signs of overtraining include the following:
· Mild leg soreness, general achenes
· Pain in muscles & joints
· Washed-out feeling, tired, drained, lack of energy
· Sudden drop in ability to run �normal� distance or times
· Insomnia
· Headaches
· Inability to relax, twitchy, fidgety
· Insatiable thirst, dehydration
· Lowered resistance to common illnesses; colds, sore throat, etc�
· Increased Resting Heart Rate

What do I do if I have some of these warning signs?
If you�re suffering from several of these warning signs go see your physician so that any potentially serious problems can be ruled out. Otherwise, just stop & rest, take a several days off, maybe a week. Drink plenty of fluids, check & alter your diet if necessary. Maybe plan an alternate workout routine so that you�re not constantly working just the same muscle groups. To prevent further overtraining, check out some of the more common overuse factors associated. You may need to modify all or part of what you�re doing.

Prevention and treatment of overtraining
Prevention is the best treatment for the overtraining state. Tapering the training regimen combined with rest, proper nutrition, and sleep helps the body heal. Recognition and treatment of OVERTRAINING is important.

Periodization of training with enough recovery should prevent overtraining if other stressors and their influence on recovery are also taken into consideration. Periodization means that correct loads of training stimulus are administered followed by adequate recovery periods.

If the overtraining state persists in spite of all efforts to prevent it, effective treatment is needed. The best treatment is to rest and avoid sport-involving activities for approximately two weeks. After the resting period, you can start light training. Athletes should try different sports, refraining from the training modality and intensity that caused the overtraining state. Training should progress very slowly, with the pace determined by carefully listening to the patient's feelings.

Athletes should forget the past and concentrate on the future. Otherwise, they can easily start comparing their performance and feelings to the time before the overtraining state, inducing a neurotic attempt to recapture the previous feeling. This also happened to me once I started training again and after five weeks I was overtrained again. Professional psychological help is sometimes recommended for athletes who are seeking to overcome an overtraining problem.

Depression is one of the biggest psychological problems among overtrained athletes. Training history, discussions with coaches and other athletes, and a family history can help clarify this question. Overtrained athletes, however, should get therapy for depression as soon as possible because it can speed up the recovery.

Adequate nutrition is one of the most important background factors behind a positive training effect and is also very important for overtrained athletes. If the diet is balanced, additional supplements and nutritional modifications have not been proven to speed recovery. The most common deficiency, especially in female endurance athletes, is iron, zinc, and magnesium.� Calcium deficiencies have also been reported in endurance athletes, especially those who deliberately restrict their diets. In those cases, supplementation is needed.

Adequate sleep is important during recovery. All additional stressors should be minimised. Traveling can increase tiredness,but in some cases, changing the environment and finding new hobbies can be good for recovery. Increased sexual activity may aid a recovering athlete, as it relaxes and modulates neurotransmitters beneficently.

Massage and thermotherapy (including sauna bathing) are widely used to speed recovery. However, if an overtrained athlete feels exhausted and phlegmatic (that was a refined word I found on the dictionary to describe unemotional disposition), it is better to refrain from these therapies for several weeks. Powerful massage is also a type of exertion for muscles and may slow the recovery process.

A good and simple strategy, in which athletes simply monitor their feelings of fatigue and reduce their training whenever lethargy persists for more than a day or two, unfortunately doesn�t work all the time. The problem is that athletes often report that they are feeling great on the day immediately before they slip into the overtrained state, again that�s something I have done before!

Fortunately, researcher Heikki Rusko has developed another way to check for overtraining, and the new technique is very easy to carry out. After working closely with elite cross country skiers, some of whom became over-trained during thirteen weeks of intensified training, Rusko developed a simple 'orthostatic test' which can often foretell the troubling condition. To perform Rusko's test, you simply lie quietly for 10 minutes at the same time every day while monitoring your heart rate, which should stay constant during the 10-minute period, preferably in the morning when you first wake up. You then stand up and check your heart rate exactly 15 seconds after standing, and then again during the period 90-120 seconds after standing (a Polar heart monitor works best for this, although you could also manually count your heart rate). If you use a heart rate monitor, you should determine your AVERAGE heart rate during the period 90-120 seconds after standing up; for example, if your heart rate is 92 beats per minute 90 seconds after standing and 88 beats per minute 30 seconds later. The average 120-second heart rate would be 90. Rusko found that athletes often develop higher than usual standing heart rates shortly before they descend into the overtrained condition. Usually, the most severe changes are in the 90- to 1 20-second heart rates, which increased by more than 10 beats per minute for many of the athletes who subsequently overtrained. This rise in heart rate wasn't sudden, however; it often took place over a period of about four weeks, giving athletes ample time to ease back on the training throttle. So if you use your heart rate monitor and a training log you could monitor overtraining and prevent it. This is something I use with the athletes I help and it really works.

Why would such heart-rate accelerations be a warning sign for overtraining? Keep in your mind that pulse rate is controlled by the nervous system, and the nervous system is one of the first three systems to show signs of overtraining. Thus, nervous system irregularities show up as changes in heart rate, which you can monitor quite easily, without the need for expensive endocrine or immune system tests. You can do this with one of Polar heart rate monitors.

Another form of checking overtraining is to know your zones on your heart rate monitor. Lets say you know your heart rate is about 145 BPM while running 1km in the track (no hill so Heart Rate is more constant). You will know that if you�re getting fitter you heart rate should decrease at the same speed or you speed you will be higher at the same Heart Rate. One way to keep this controlled is to note down your average heart rate during the training sessions. If you use your training log you can keep track of your progress and always go back to it to check what you progress is like.

Train Smart! Train Safe!

Julian Piotto
Assistant Coach
Endurance Sports Ltd

Brendon Downey of EnduranceCoach.com is an Exercise Physiologist, Level 2 triathlon coach, and coach to Sam Warriner, the 2003 ITU Oceania Champion.

Coaching and detailed training programs are available at EnduranceCoach.com

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Posted: May 21, 2003

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