Overtraining in Sports

on September 30, 2021

In this post, we are going to share with you what happens if you do overtrain in Sports. Overtraining by definition is when elite athletes undergo vigorous training schedules to increase or enhance their performance, which however is not appropriately recovered from.

In fact, studies show that overtraining can also be defined through the imbalance between stress and recovery, where the stressing factors of physical, psychological, and social order combined with the inadequate recovery times leads to destructive effects in the athlete’s performance.

Now it’s time to show you what happened when you do overtrain in sports and how to prevent it.

Let’s dive right in!!

definition of overtraining

Definition

The increased training load may involve intense training programs that require several hours of training per day and an increased training load, which can be compensated through planned periods of rest and recovery.

Sometimes, during these periods of increased intensity training, athletes may present with decreased performance due to psychological and physiological processes. With the training intensity and volume increased elite athletes often have less opportunity for recovery and may present with excessive fatigue episodes.

When there is inadequate amount of recovery between every training session, it may lead to maladaptive response called overtraining (OT) syndrome. Overtraining is defined as the decreased ability to perform at established levels, which may persist for several week to months.

There are three primary types of overtraining:

  1. Functional Overreaching (FOR) results in only initial relative reductions in performance by achieving an appropriate balance between training and recovery;
  2. Non-functional Overreaching (NFOR) stems from prolonged training without the adequate recovery and can impair adaptation and performance, taking several weeks to recover;
  3. Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is the most severe form of overtraining and can require several months to recover from.

Overtraining terminology includes burnout, staleness, failure adaptation, under-recovery, training stress syndrome, and chronic fatigue.

A study reported that approximately 10% of collegiate swimmers and wrestlers have reported to overtraining during a training season/cycle. In contrast, there are multiple studies that have found a substantial portion of athletes report being overtrained at some point in their career.

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Causes and Symptoms

As explained above, the causes of overtraining are quick increases in frequency, intensity, or duration of training sessions in combination with a lack of adequate recovery. Besides that, the risk factors include:

  • Specializing in a single sport;
  • Sudden increases in training;
  • Participation in endurance sports;
  • Low self-esteem; and,
  • Parental and/or coaching pressure to perform.

Thus, overtraining is thought to be result of the combination of both the physical and emotional stress of training. The symptoms are typically due to a combination of changes in hormones, suppression of the immune system, physical fatigue and psychological pressures.

  1. Physical symptoms

The physical symptoms of overtraining syndrome exhibited can range between frequent losses of appetite during periods of hard training and/or during competition, increases in perceived training effort, feelings of muscle heaviness and frequent sleep problems. Moreover, overtraining may also increase the frequency of occurrence of injuries, exhaustion following competing and a higher likelihood of upper respiratory tract infections.

  1. Psychological symptoms

Overtrained athletes often report specific psychological symptoms during their episodes of overtrained state, such as feeling apathetic during periods of training, bad moods, feeling sad and/or crying during periods of hard training. Furthermore, a study showed that overtrained athletes complained of feeling discouraged by their opponents in competition, leading to a lack of confidence in their future as athletes and in competitions and showing reduced enjoyment for training sessions. Excessive anxiety and emotional stress are symptoms associated with mood changes and with the development of overtraining.

Table 1: Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome

Parasympathetic AlterationsaSympathetic AlterationbOther
FatigueInsomniaAnorexia
DepressionIrritabilityWeight loss
BradycardiaAgitationLack of mental concentration
Loss of motivationTachycardiaHeavy, sore, muscle stiffness
HypertensionAnxiety
RestlessnessAwekening unrefreshed

a More common in aerobic sports

b More common in anaerobic sports

 

Overtraining

Overtraining Syndrome and Injury

Overtraining injuries are musculoskeletal injuries that occur due to the increased activity the body is (suddenly) subjected to. Most of the time, injury may occur even before the athlete is diagnosed with overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining injuries may happen to anyone who increases their training intensity or changes the type of activities in their daily routine. Injuries from overload often arise from an accumulation of stress, with a gradual onset, making early detection sometimes difficult.

Further explained, weakened or fatigued muscles might not manage the load of the training program and transfer these forces to the musculoskeletal system, resulting in stress fractures that are a common result of overtraining syndrome.

This has been supported by Richardson et al. (2008) who found that when athletes begin training cycles with muscle weaknesses, imbalances or low flexibility, overload-related injuries may occur.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis will typically be made based on the athlete/patient’s history and/or complaints, in particular when the present with unexplained underperformance. The clinical symptoms include:

  1. Decreased performance persisting despite weeks to months of recovery;
  2. Disturbance in mood; and,
  3. Lack of signs/symptoms or diagnosis of other possible causes of underperformance.

Other possible diagnoses that can result in underperformance are asthma, thyroid disease, diabetes mellitus, iron deficiency, infection and malnutrion. Therefore, an extensive nutritional history should be obtained with an assessment of calorie expenditure.

The diagnosis from the history can be only made in retrospect given the definitions of NFOR and OTS, and will be made according to the time required to return to sport. NFOR should be the diagnosis if the athlete requires less than 14 to 21 days rest before return to previous performance.

If it has been greater than 14 to 21 days of rest, OTS is diagnosed.The history also should include assessment of possible triggers. The potential triggers of overtraining syndrome are increased training load without adequate recovery, excessive number of competitions, sleep disturbance, stressors including personal life and occupational, previous illness and excessive heat episodes.

Aside from the history, the sports medicine team should also consider tests to include a comprehensive metabolic panel, complete blood count, iron studies, thyroid stimulating hormones and more. Cardiovascular disease should be investigated among athletes who have a positive family history.

Prevention & Reconditioning

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Treatment

The best treatment for overtraining syndrome is rest. The athlete should stop taking part in training and competition for a set period of time, depending on the stages of overtraining (NFOR vs OTS),  which may also vary depending on the sport and the athlete’s level of participation. Nonetheless, in general the rest period is between four to 12 weeks.

During this rest period, the athlete is allowed to take part in short intervals of low-intensity aerobic exercises, to help them practice an active rest and keep fit. Return to sport activity can be introduced as the signs and symptoms of the overtraining have resolved completely, including both physical and psychological symptoms.

Prevention

Studies show that, unfortunately, there seem to be no evidence-based means of preventing overtraining syndrome. Nonetheless, observation of the training load, performance measures and mood questionnaires can help to reduce the progression of overtraining in athletes.

The training regimen should be flexible with planned rest on one to two days a week, and longer breaks every few months to allow for complete recovery. In addition, weekly and yearly limits of participation in competition should help to reduce the mental stress on the athletes.

Coaches should observe and try to avoid sudden increases in training load, ideally a steady increase of 5% intensity per week should be followed.  In addition, the major components of prevention are screening and education.

The coaches or sports medicine team should educate the athletes of the risks of overtraining and of the initial signs and symptoms.

Finally, the symptoms of overtraining are similarly apparent in young and adult athletes but can often vary widely between individuals. Overtraining is a serious issue among athletes and coaches, parents and sports medicine teams are advised to view the problem as a multifactorial and multidimensional.

Therefore, it is essential to develop new and effective strategies to protect athletes from experiencing the negative consequences of overtraining during their sporting careers.

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