Overtraining or Underperformance? How to tell the difference
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Is Overtraining Real?
The main thing we are going to focus on here is to begin by defining what overtraining actually is. We know that athletes get into deep, dark places and that athletes start to struggle with various aspects around strength training, thinking and questioning their entire existence, and then they just start to think, “Maybe I’m just overtrained? Maybe I need to step back? Maybe I need to take a big old deload?” We have to understand and explore if this is actually real and investigate if overtraining is actually real.
When we see a massive decrease in motivation which leads to a loss of aggression in training and attacking their workouts, we can evaluate if those aspects are a tell-tale sign around overtraining or look to see if the athlete is just under recovered and mishandling outside stressors not directly linked to the physical stimuli of the training room.
The scientific definition of overtraining is pretty phenomenal. It reads something like this: overtraining syndrome is being maladaptive to stimuli leading to perturbations in multiple body systems creating under performance. Technically, overtraining syndrome is seen as a performance decrement for two plus months in the overall performance of the athlete. Going back to the literature, it comes as an unexplained underperformance. Inside the literature, it is all on the athlete. Nothing in the literature says maybe the coach sucks, didn’t listen to the athlete, and periodization methodology is bogus.
Some of the symptoms athletes will see outside of their unexplained underperformance is fatigue, loss of motivation, depression, hypertension, anxiety, weight loss, endocrine problems, and loss of concentration. Epidemiology is telling us that overtraining is a very rare situation. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in sports.
It is rare to train long-term. It is rare to be training at an elite level, so the rate inside the high performance industry might be higher than we actually realize.
How Can This Help Us?
Let’s figure out what causes this unexplained underperformance and the overall symptoms that manifest. First, if we are looking for an adaptation from an athlete we want to target an athlete with these overarching principles. We can create a massive amount of stimuli with heavy squats, heavy weightlifting movements, plyometrics, reflexive strength movements, and they’re doing their technical sport at a high intensity. All of those things over time cause the body to break down and become fatigued. So if the individual is not recovering effectively, that leads to this overreaching which forces the athlete into the dark depths of misery.
From here, we have to take that next step and recognize that we need our athletes to recover as effectively as possible. We need the athletes to eat well, sleep well, mobilize, meditate, focus on their brain work, and work on their overall mindfulness. In addition, we need athletes to achieve joint integrity within their training as well.
If someone is under recovering, or being overtrained, we as coaches have to consider that there may be a new stimulus that is not being factored in, like a new job with more demands physically and/or mentally. That can lead to a massive increase in overreaching that then can lead to that underperformance.
We even see athletes start to change their nutrition without recognizing how their appetite is mutating into something unfilling. The stress brought upon the athlete might lead to eating less which then leads to a lower level of glycogen stores which leads to a lower level of a positive feeling while training which then can lead to an increased tryptophan uptake which then starts this negative cascading effect. Quite the snowball.
We know that an increase in external stress can lead to overtraining. We know that altering nutritional intake can decrease glycogen storage in actual muscles, and we also know that excessive amounts of oxidative work (aerobic training) can also lead to overtraining. Doing an excessive amount of running, erg work, stationary bike, hill sprints, or doing any version of this incessantly to an absurd amount without enabling the body to recover can lead to an excessive amount of oxidative inflammation which leads to the overtraining feeling. Similar to when we talk about the autonomic nervous system.
Monotony in training, doing the same thing over and over and over again, can lead to overtraining.
Having too many competitions in a short period of time can also create the feeling of overtraining. Not having the ability to backoff from high intensity work and recover can enact a toll. Or maybe after the high intensity phase an athlete has to immediately has to get back into a high volume phase, cut the volume just to go into a high intensity phase and get into the stressful, competitive state. This is different for team sports to individual sports.
Most overtraining scenarios will be related to individual sports.
And again, an individual who has terrible sleep patterns leads to under recovery, a form of overtraining if you will. Let’s also bring back up adding external stress from life which can cause a feeling of overtraining. Like having a kid, having more bills, or taking on more responsibilities at a job.
Being Aware And Having Solutions
I recommend every athlete and every coach has a situation set up where blood work can be done quarterly or every six months. If this can be done, athletes and coaches can start to understand hormonal panels and the ebbs and flows within the hormonal panels. This will give a better reading of where the baseline is and will make athletes and coaches more aware of when red flags pop up.
In my personal career, I ended up during my training to be really run down. I ended up having four types of lyme disease. In hindsight, if I had been getting blood work quarterly I would have had a baseline to see any perturbations in my endocrine system much earlier, but I wasn’t doing that. The moral of the story is that in essence, blood work can help hedge not overtraining.
The next thing I want to stress is having a weekly recovery inventory. Have a simple sheet to track nutrition, amount of sleep every night, what type of sleep is being achieved, how many days of doing mobility or other recovery work, naps, trips in the sauna, and how often unplugging from screens. A recovery inventory will help prevent overtraining and keep the symptoms subsided out of existence.
Next we want to comprehend the recovery an athlete needs around key competitions. Some athletes can handle a ton of competitions in a short period of time. Other athletes can not. All coaches and athletes need to be aware how long it takes to recover from a competition.
Another concept is understanding deload schedules for individual athletes. Some athletes don’t like deloads because they get beat up and take longer to adapt. Other athletes, high-wired athletes, do phenomenal with deloads. The period of deloading allows certain athletes’ bodies to handle the inflammation, the overarching principles, and just recover better.
Specifically with women, female athletes need to be hyper aware and in tune with their menstrual cycle. A female athlete who is missing periods or not getting their menstrual cycle at all is a gigantic red flag. No blood flow (outside of a pregnancy) is a huge sign around overtraining or under recovery. It goes without saying, but be aware of what is going on and how the female athlete is adapting to their training stimulus.
Overtraining is actually real. It can be real, but athletes and coaches have to be aware of the symptoms and ways to prevent overtraining from happening. Know the symptoms: loss of motivation, fatigue, loss of appetite, underperformance, and lack of concentration.
With that being said, we as coaches need to know what period of training the athlete is in to be more aware of where they are at as individual athletes. A high volume phase or a high intensity phase trigger different adaptations that we must be aware of what is going on.
Let’s also know the value of training inside of a group or on a team. Individual athletes are almost always the one’s suffering from overtraining. The monotony is real. Creating a group around those individuals, creating a group setting if you will, can diminish the monotony and can make the training more enjoyable and keep the motivation high.
Don’t forget to get blood work done and have that recovery inventory on lockdown to help prevent overtraining as well.
Yo, It's Dane
Welcome to the Garage Strength Blog, where it is my goal to provide you with the experience and knowledge I've gained in the strength and conditioning world over many years of learning from both successes and failures. I train elite-level athletes in a multitude of sports from the high school to professional levels, already producing 5 Olympics and 30+ National Champions. If you want to be the next champion I train, check out my strength programs below!
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