Understanding overtraining is important for better understanding effective training strategies. At its core, overtraining is really just an imbalance between stress and recovery. In order for an athlete to reach a higher level of performance, he/she requires a proper dose of training (biological stress) followed by adequate recovery. It is during the recovery cycle when super-compensation results and not during the training itself. Planning training, monitoring training and recovery, and measuring performance are keys to improving athletic performance and preventing overtraining.
It is not by chance that elite athletes undulate training more than non-elites. Proper planning of training means avoiding monotonous training plans and undulating both volume and intensity of training. This undulation occurs both within a week and within a training phase known as a mesocycle. Too often, when training is not properly planned, recovery cycles are forced due to fatigue or illness and performance gains are not realized. Many athletes are highly motivated, which can be a problem when they are planning their own training. They tend to rationalize excessive training practices and get caught up on meeting certain training parameters such as miles per week. Athletes can be self-destructive when their only solution to a poor performance is to train more, especially when they are increasing an already excessive training load.
Monitoring training and recovery are an important part of the equation. Training load is the product of frequency x duration x intensity. In order to follow the proper intensity, there needs to be a way to quantify it. Heart rate monitors, power meters, GPS devices, and perceived effort are all good examples. While measuring frequency and duration is pretty straight forward, in order to properly monitor intensity, it needs to be individualized. I like to use multiple parameters since there are limitations to each method. For example, pace might be an effective measure for a runner during a track workout, but not during a hilly run in the mountains.
Signs and symptoms of overtraining can be physiologic, psychologic, immunologic and endocrine, but it is important to note that symptoms alone can not diagnose overtraining. Ultimately, the only way to definitively diagnose overtraining is when the overtraining symptoms are accompanied by a prolonged, significant drop in performance. Simple field tests, competition, or lab testing are all examples of performance testing. These tests are also good ways to quantify relative intensity levels for training. Since many of the signs and symptoms of overtraining are also observed in well trained athletes during heavy training, frequent performance testing is important for preventing overtraining and assessing the effectiveness of training. A simple field test could be performing a known hill climb on the bike under the same conditions for time, or a 3 to 4 mile run on the track for time. Competitions themselves can also be benchmarks, especially if there is heart rate and/or power data available. Since the stress-recovery imbalance can be due to both training and non-training stress, overtraining is seen in both elite level athletes and recreational athletes. Lack of sleep, frequent competitions, travel, inadequate nutrition, change in environment, and sudden increase in non-training stress are examples of risk factors for overtraining. When recreational athletes are comparing their training load to that of professional athletes, it is important to factor in the non-training stress from work, family and life. More often it is the non-training stress that can tip the scale towards overtraining.
Unlike overtraining, planned overreaching (functional overreaching) can be an effective training strategy, especially for elite athletes. Proper periodization of training with planned periods of functional overreaching can result in superior performance without the risk of staleness. Functional overreaching involves a short term increase in training load, followed by adequate recovery. The result is a new, higher level of performance. Non-functional overreaching, on the other hand, is an increase in training load that is not followed by adequate recovery and leads to a decrease in performance. The difference between overreaching and overtraining is that overreaching is reversible in two to four weeks, whereas with overtraining it may take several months to recover.
Vail Valley resident Josiah Middaugh is an Xterra national champion as well as a coach and trainer at Dogma Athletica and a client at Vail Integrative Medical Group. He will speak at the first "Live It lecture series" presented by Dogma Athletica on Wednesday at Dogma Athletica in The Riverwalk in Edwards. The lecture series is complimentary to the public and will feature several of the practitioners from Vail Integrative Medical Group and trainers, coaches and exercise specialists from Dogma Athletica.