To learn about our efforts to improve the accessibility and usability of our website, please visit our Accessibility Information page. Skip to main content

Athlete Overtraining

"I can't take time off! Every minute I'm not working out is a minute my competition has to get ahead of me."

"I get my confidence from knowing that I work harder than everyone else out there."

"No pain, no gain."

Statements like these are all too common in the world of sport, particularly at the elite level, where success versus failure is often measured in the smallest of increments. Yet coaches and athletes today are walking an increasingly fine line between maximizing performance and going over the edge into overtraining. Training loads are increasing, by some estimates, at a rate of ten-20 percent every five years. Mark Spitz, for example, won his seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics by swimming 9,000 meters per day. Within 20 years, however, the average college swimmers were surpassing this mark, and by 1995, Olympic swimmers were putting in over 35,000 meters per day. (Raglin and Wilson, 2000).

These training increases have come with a price tag. Overtraining, defined by the USOC in 1998 as "the syndrome that results when an excessive, usually physical, overload on an athlete occurs without adequate rest, resulting in decreased performance and the inability to train" is on the rise. Differences in how overtraining is defined has made a true estimation difficult, but researchers suggest that on average, 10 percent of athletes are over trained at any given time. Endurance sport athletes are usually harder hit -- 60 percent of competitive runners are or have been overtrained, by some estimates (Morgan et al., 1988). Overtraining has permeated the highest levels of sport, with 28 percent of 1996 Summer Olympians and 10 percent of 1998 Winter Olympians reported overtraining as a significant reason for their competitive difficulties (Gould et al., 2001).

More disturbing, however, is the increasing prevalence of overtraining at sports' developmental levels. The price athlete's pay for overtraining can be a high one. While most athletes who become stale or over trained miss only a few days of training, for others, the symptoms can last much longer. This outcome is particularly true for the athlete who continues to try to train through his or her early symptoms, ignoring the warning signs.

Given the increasing likelihood that your athletes are going to experience overtraining during the course of their careers, what can you do as coach to mitigate or even prevent this from happening?

Step 1: Know the Symptoms of Overtraining

While the sport scientists are still working to determine the exact mechanisms of overtraining, research and anecdotal reporting have combined to produce a list of overtraining symptoms to watch out for in your athletes:

  • apathy
  • lethargy
  • depression
  • decreased self-esteem
  • emotional instability
  • impaired performance
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • disturbed sleep
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • increased resting heart rate
  • increased vulnerability to injuries
  • muscle pain/soreness

Clearly, coaches who know their athletes better are at an advantage in early detection, since many of these symptoms could be signs of other problems entirely, or even "business as usual" for some athletes. One of the detection issues with overtraining is that different athletes respond qualitatively differently to the same training stresses. What is most important, therefore, is not the presence or absence of a particular symptom of overtraining, but a pattern of differences in symptoms for a particular athlete over time.

Step 2: Increase Athletes' Self-Awareness

"When you don't feel right, back off. [In marathon training] it is all too easy to fall victim to the idea that you must run a certain number of 20-milers. When you're tired, it's better to run less." -Joan Benoit Samuelson, USA, 1984 Olympic Marathon Champion (Samuelson and Averbuch, pp. 106 - 107).

Easy for Joan to say, hard for most athletes to do. How can you as coach help your athletes increase their self-awareness, to differentiate between pushing through a needed hard work out, and knowing when enough is really enough and more recovery is really the answer?

  • Make it a habit to ask your athletes how they are feeling and listen to their answers. Simple as this may sound, many athletes simply have not given much thought to how they feel until the feeling cannot be ignored. Helping your athletes to focus more regularly on their physical and emotional symptoms will hone their self-awareness and their ability to detect symptoms more quickly.
  • Encourage your athletes to keep a regular training log. Elite athletes across sports agree that regular use of logbooks can greatly increase self-awareness and smarter training. Dietary intake, sleep quality, resting heart rate, physical and emotional well-being, as well as workout quality can all be useful information when assessing for the possibility of overtraining. For more information on putting together logbooks, refer to the USOC Sport Psychology's Mental Training Manual.
  • Systematically evaluate athlete performances. For many athletes, their competitive performance analysis consists of the knowledge of whether they won or lost. Helping them to understand the process that went into the outcome, including fatigue, emotions, execution of strategy can be helpful in its own right to give athletes an increased sense of control over their performances, as well as connect training quality with performance. It can also help them answer the important question of whether they were adequately recovered, or optimally trained for the competition in question.

Step 3: Model and Teach the Value of Recovery

A key for coaches and athletes in the battle against overtraining starts simply with how we define the issue of overtraining. As the comments at the beginning of this article reflect, it is incredibly difficult from a psychological standpoint for a high-achieving athlete to willingly do less of something in order to get better. But if we turn the problem on its head, going from Overtraining to UNDER recovery, we can help athletes understand that their job doesn't have to be all about backing off from training, but training smarter and doing more recovery activities.

How do you approach the concept of recovery with your athletes? Are recovery periods built into your training cycles? Do you refer to them in the same tone of voice and with the same sense of reverence you reserve for your athletes' most difficult workouts? Do you yourself model good recovery strategies in the context of your own lifestyle?

In addition to being a good role model, coaches must be good teachers of the concept of recovery to their athletes. An active rest day at the swimming pool shouldn't, for example, turn into a water polo game if rest was really the goal. Particularly at the elite level of sport, athletes need to learn that recovery is as much a part of their job as is the rest of their training regimen, their diets, or their sleep.

Step 4: Keep Training Fun and Sport in Perspective

One of the main correlates of overtraining has proven to be the levels of stress the athlete associates with his or her sport. Gould and Dieffenbach (2001) suggest that coaches should work to dispel the myth that intense training cannot also be fun and to incorporate innovations to training programs to reduce stress and make sport more enjoyable for their athletes. Athletes should also be encouraged to maintain balance in their own lives and develop their identities in other realms of interest, be it family, school, non-sport careers or outside interests.

References

Gould, D., Greenleaf, C., Guinan, D., Dieffenbach, K., & McCann, S. (2001Pursuing performance excellence: Lessons learned from Olympic athletes and coaches. Journal of Performance Excellence, 4, 21-43.

Morgan, W.P., O'Connor, P.B., Ellickson, K.A., & Bradley, P.W. (1988). Personality structure, mood states, and performance in elite distance runners.

Raglin J.S. & Wilson, G.S. (2000). Overtraining in athletes. In Y.L. Hanin (Ed.), Emotions in sport (pp. 191 - 207). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Samuelson, J. and Averbuch, G. (1995). Joan Samuelson's running for women. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Courtesy of the United States Olympic Committee