How to Improve Sports Performance Without Getting HurtDr. Robert Duvall, DPT, MPT, ATC, MGFI
Everybody knows that to improve your performance you've got to work hard. However, training hard breaks down tissue in a process called catabolism. Physiological improvements occur during the rest period as a result of the body's adaptation to intense training. This is the anabolic or building-up process.
This physiological adaptation is in response to increased loading of the cardiovascular and muscular systems and is accomplished by improving efficiency of the heart (more blood pumped per heart beat), increasing the capillaries and blood supply to the muscles, and increasing glycogen (energy) stores and mitochondria (power plants) within the muscle cells.
During periods of recovery these systems rebuild to greater levels in response to the stress that you have placed on the system. They are, in effect, preparing your body for greater demands. The result is that you are now capable of performing at a higher level before fatigue sets in. If sufficient rest is not included in a training program, then this rebuilding cannot be completed and performance plateaus or declines. This is overtraining!
Overtraining occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds the point where rest is not adequate to allow for full recovery. The runner may cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness. Overtraining is a common problem with runners, but also can happen to other athletes. Proper conditioning requires a balance between overload and recovery. Too much overload and/or too little recovery may result in both physical and psychological symptoms called overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining Syndrome is the name given to the collection of emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms caused by inadequate recovery following the demands of exercise that has persisted for weeks to months. Athletes and coaches also know it as "burnout." This is different from the day-to-day variation in performance and post-exercise fatigue that is common in conditioned athletes. Overtraining is marked by fatigue and exhaustion that persist even after ample recovery periods.
Overtraining syndrome frequently occurs in athletes who are training for competition or a specific event and who push themselves beyond the body's ability to recover. Athletes often exercise longer and harder in order to improve, but without adequate rest and recovery these training practices backfire, and actually decrease performance.
- Lethargy, fatigue
- General body ache
- Pain in muscles and joints
- Sudden decreased performance
- Decreased training capacity/intensity
- Increased incidence of injuries
- Increased number of colds, sore throats, etc.
- Irritability and moodiness
- Lack of enthusiasm for the sport
- Decreased appetite
- Decreased sexual performance
Other Causes of Overtraining
Overtraining occurs more frequently when combined with other physical and psychological stressors. Such stressors include jet lag, ongoing illness, work-related stress, menstruation, poor nutrition, etc. It is a particular problem for those athletes and dieters who engage in intense exercise while limiting their food intake.
A number of possible mechanisms for overtraining have been proposed:
- Excessive micro trauma to the muscles without proper healing time
- Dietary protein deficiency, decreased availability of amino acids needed for rebuilding damaged tissue
- Levels of the "stress" hormone cortisol are elevated for long periods of time
- The body spending more time in a catabolic state than an anabolic state
There are several ways to objectively measure the signs of overtraining:
- Document your heart rates over time. Track your aerobic heart rate at specific exercise intensities throughout your workout and keep these records. If your pace starts to decrease your resting heart rate starts to increase, and/or you experience some of the symptoms listed above, it may be a warning that you are nearing the point of overtraining. You can also track your morning heart rate to determine how well you recover from training.
- Keep a training log that includes a note about how you feel each day can help you notice downward trends or decreased enthusiasm. It's important to listen to the signals your body is sending and rest when you feel tired.
- Get feedback. It is also a good idea to ask those around you if they think you are exercising too much.
Treating Overtraining Syndrome
As with most injuries, prevention is the best medicine. Well-balanced, gradual increases in training are recommended. A training schedule design, called periodization, varies the training load in cycles with built-in mandatory rest phases. During the high-workload phase, the athlete alternates between high-intensity interval work and low-intensity endurance work. This approach is used successfully by a number of elite athletes in many sports.
Research on overtraining syndrome shows that allowing ample rest is the primary way to treat overtraining and its symptoms. However, some new evidence indicates that low levels of exercise (active recovery) during the rest period will speed the recovery process. Moderate exercise has also been shown to increase immunity. Total recovery can take several weeks and includes proper nutrition and stress reduction. Unfortunately, many athletes wait too long before realizing it's time to do something. An important component of exercise is to objectively measure your training direction and modify it before damage is done.
If the overtraining has only occurred for a short period of time (e.g., 3-4 weeks) then interrupting training for 3-5 days is usually sufficient. It is very important that the factors that lead to overtraining be identified and corrected early, otherwise overtraining is likely to recur. In more severe cases, the training program may have to be interrupted for weeks, and it may take months to fully recover. In these situations, an alternate form of exercise (swimming, walking, etc.) can be substituted to help prevent exercise withdrawal syndrome.
Some Recommendations to Prevent Overtraining
Allow more time for the body to recover by:
- Taking a break from training to allow time for recovery
- Reducing the volume and/or the intensity of your training
- Suitable periodization of training
Drink plenty of fluids. Check and alter your diet if necessary by:
- Ensuring caloric intake matches (or possibly exceeds) expenditure
- Addressing vitamin deficiencies with nutritional supplements
- Many nutritionists suggest drinking 5 oz. of water per 10 pounds of body weight. (e.g., a 180-pound person should drink 90 oz. of water per day).
Cross-training can help you discover if you are overworking certain muscles and also help you determine if you are just mentally fatigued. It can also help strengthen muscles that you might be neglecting.
Spa treatments may be effective through:
- Deep-tissue or sports massage of the overworked muscles
- Self-massage of the affected muscles
- Cryotherapy and thermotherapy (cold and heat)
- Temperature contrast therapy (contrast showers – alternating between cold and hot showers to stimulate the body to heat itself up and cool itself down, etc.).
As you train, it is beneficial to get assistance from a variety of skilled professionals you feel comfortable with (i.e., running and strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, athletic trainers, physical therapists, physicians, chiropractors, and shoe experts) who can help you to focus your efforts and minimize the potential for injury.
In addition, you should try to be somewhat flexible with your training routine and be sure to heed any early warning signs of overtraining. This way, you will get the most benefit out of your training time, limit injuries, and will more likely achieve your long or short-term fitness goals.