Signs of overtraining are signals that athletes are adapting poorly, or not at all, to the training regimen. Overtraining doesn’t usually settle in overnight; it is a slow process that occurs as a result of a prolonged training program that lacks sessions for recovery and regeneration. Without proper rest, relaxation, and recovery the athlete will coast into a state of chronic fatigue and poor motivation. Classic signs of overtraining include a higher than usual heart rate; irritability; trouble sleeping; loss of appetite; and of course fatigued, sore, and tight muscles.
At times, recovery from intense training programs can elicit many of the signs of overtraining. If these signs persist a few days following one or two intense bouts, it may be a sign of overreaching rather than overtraining. In other words, the athlete may be working at a level above her physiological comfort zone. With proper rest and recovery, the athlete will successfully overcome the fatigue and be ready for the next challenge. However, lack of proper recovery can quickly draw the athlete from a state of overreaching to a state of overtraining. Following are a few tools that can help the athlete and coach determine whether the athlete is entering a state of overtraining.
- Record your heart rate. An athlete or coach can record a daily morning heart rate to determine whether the athlete is working at the appropriate training level. A morning heart rate recording is best because the athlete is rested and not yet influenced by the stresses of the day. An increased resting heart rate over a two- or three-day period may be a sign of overtraining. If this occurs, the coach should alter the training program to a lower intensity level and keep a close eye on the heart rate response over 24 to 48 hours.
- Keep a training log. This simple concept often causes a lot of complaining among athletes. Athletes generally don’t have a problem recording their loads or time in training, but they shy away from recording the intensity level of the session or level of fatigue. Every athlete trains and sacrifices to be the best. Admitting that a training session was too intense is not part of their nature and thus usually goes unrecorded. The coach should keep a close eye on the athlete and take the time to communicate the importance of not exceeding one’s physical tolerability. The coach may need to keep a specific log book describing the physiological impact of the training lesson on the athlete. The log should include how the athlete felt immediately after a workout, after a few hours, and after a few days. Chronic muscle soreness and inflammation of the joints may be signs to decrease the amount and intensity of the training. If the response to training seems intolerable hours and days after training, the coach can try implementing a few recovery techniques following the workout. Stretching is a good way to decrease susceptibility to injury, and it is also a great way of relaxing the body at the end of the workout. Stretching is also an active way to remove some of the substances such as lactic acid and muscle debris that accumulate during training and could be impeding recovery. Partner-assisted stretches are an ideal way to fully stretch the muscles and relax while the workout partner or trainer does the work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that stretching decreases postworkout soreness and aids in recovery. If recovery techniques do not reduce or eliminate the signs of overtraining, however, the coach should alter the program.
Performing 5 to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity such as jogging or cycling is a great way to regenerate the body following a workout. Enjoying a nice sauna or hot shower for 5 to 10 minutes can also help muscles relax and heal following a strenuous workout. A contrast shower, which includes cycling between hot and cold water, is a great way of increasing blood flow from the skin to the organs and eliminating waste products from the body. Athletes should alter 30 to 60 seconds of hot water with 30 to 60 seconds of cold water for two or three sets. Of course this technique will take a little getting used to.
- Use a handgrip dynamometer. A handgrip dynamometer (a squeezing device held in the hand that records pressure) is a quick and effective way to objectively measure overtraining or daily fatigue. It can also serve as a good indicator of CNS fatigue. Before every workout, the athlete squeezes the dynamometer one hand at a time and records the score. If the score constantly decreases or is lower on a particular day, the athlete may be experiencing CNS fatigue and need to recover.
Coaches should remember that psychological stress may affect the athlete’s response to training even though it is not a visible sign. Just because the program indicates a high-intensity training day does not mean that the coach or athlete cannot adjust the program to the athlete’s current physical and emotional state. Sometimes less is more, and rest can, at times, have a stronger impact on adaptation than training has.