Overtraining- are you training too hard?

Overtraining Syndromme (OTS):

Ironman, a long distance triathlon is the mother of all endurances races. Training for such an event involves a huge amount of time, preparation and commitment. Athletes need to push themselves, sometimes to the limit of their capabilities.

Most athletes are familiar with the ‘overload principle’ when it comes to training. This principle states that a greater than normal stress or load is required on the body in order for training adaptations (or improvements) to take place. For example when training for an endurance competition like the Iron man, muscles must work for a longer periods then they are used to, for training improvements to be made.

Successful training must involve overload, but must also avoid the combination of excessive overload with inadequate recovery (Meesun et al 2012). If the balance between appropriate training stress and adequate recovery is disrupted, an abnormal training response may arise and a state of ‘Overtraining’ may occur. By definition,’ Overtraining’ occurs when an athlete is training intensively , but instead of improving, shows a deterioration in performance even after an extensive rest periods (Smith, 2004). This deterioration is often also accompanied by changes in mood and behavior

Overtraining syndrome also known as “burnout” is a condition that effects many athletes especially endurance type athletes, often in the prime of their athlete career. Some survey studies of elite athletes report that 60% of female and 64% of male runners reports experiencing at least one episode of OTS in their careers (Morgan et al 1988). Moreover it has been discovered that that athletes who have experienced OTS and at a heightened risk of relapse (Raglan 1993).

What causes Overtraining Syndromme:

Despite the fact that this condition has been recorded as far back as the 1920s the underlying causes remain unclear (Noakes 2001). A number of hypothesis and theories have been proposed.  Most investigators agree that overtraining is connected to an increase in volume and or intensity of training over an extended period of time without sufficient recovery time.

It is well established that mild tissue trauma plays an integral part of the training process. Muscle gets broken down after exercise and later repairs itself using nutrients you consume through food and drink. Mild tissue trauma (from gradual increases in training) and enough recovery time often allows an improvement in athletic performance.  A dramatic increase in training intensity however, combined with in-sufficient recovery time can cause a more diffuse, widespread repetitive tissue trauma resulting in chronic inflammation.

One theory proposed by Smith 2004 is that this repetitive trauma causes the release of molecules called cytokines. Cytokines are regarded as emergency molecules that are responsible for transmitting information around the body. Organs are thereby “informed” that there is an injury and can make necessary adjustments in order to aid recovery. The symptoms of OTS occur due to the body’s response to cytokines release. These symptoms are supposed to promote a withdrawal from daily training activities and encourages the body to rest, heal and recuperate.

What are the signs and symptoms of overtraining?

When training for the Iron, look out for these signs and symptoms (For a full list see Smith et al 2004l ):

  • A decrease in performance and inability to meet previous standards
  • Changes in heart rate during exercise rest and recovery
  • Increased  aches and pain, muscle soreness and tenderness
  • Constant fatigue, reduced appetite and depression.
  • Difficulty concentration and an increased susceptibility to headaches

How to prevent Overtraining Syndromme when training for the Ironman?

Rest is the most important factor and should be an integral part of your Iron man training programme. You should have at least one complete day of rest per week

Have variety in your training schedule and utilise cross training. Alternate very hard and light training days

Dont increase training intensity too quickly. An increase of 10% per week at the most is recommended (Gleeson 2000)

Treat injured tissue- see a physiotherapist to get some advice

Eat a well balanced diet- including a large variety of food that contains carbohydrates proteins and micronutrients. Remember good nutrition helps to build tissue and prevent injury.

A good night sleep is extremely important when training. Sleep is also when your bodies healing takes place.

In conclusion, if it takes you 24-48 hours to recover from a hard workout then all is well. If not you may be heading towards a state of OTS and continued training could be counter-productive. Recovery from OTS can take 6-12 weeks. An athlete with OTS should only start training only when the desire to train returns and they should start slowly.

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