In the last post, we went over some symptoms of overtraining. If you found yourself nodding along in agreement (ESPECIALLY, coaches, if you noticed those symptoms in your athletes!), then today’s post is certainly for you. If you didn’t, well, it’s still beneficial to read this to ensure you, or your athletes, don’t end up nodding in agreement in the future.
Just so we’re clear, overtraining is, loosely defined, as an accumulation of stress (both training and non-training) that leads to decreases in performance as well as mental and physical symptoms that can take months to recover from. Read that last bit again, M.O.N.T.H.S. Just because you take a couple days off does NOT mean the body is ready to go again. The time it takes to recover from and return to normal performance will depend on how far into the realm of overtraining you’ve managed to push yourself.
Let’s talk about recovery strategies. Of the many symptoms that can appear, chronic inflammation seems to be a biggie. Whether that’s inflammation of your joints, ligaments, tendons, or muscles, doesn’t matter; too much inflammation compromises your ability to function. (A little inflammation is ok as it jumpstarts the recovery process.) Just as you create a training plan, healing after overtraining requires a recovery plan.
Step 1: Seek to reduce inflammation. How?
- Get plenty of sleep. Your body restores itself during the night. It releases anabolic hormones (building hormones) such as growth hormone (clever name) and the reduction of catabolic (breaking down) hormones such as cortisol. Since increased levels of coritsol are part of the overtrained symptom list, it would be a good thing to get those levels under control! Teenagers: I know it's cool to stay up late, but seriously, get your butts in bed! Not only are you growing (which requires sleep) but the sport season entails enough physical stress that if you don't sleep enough (8-10 solid hours), your body will be pissed off pretty darn quick.
- Eat whole foods. Particularly load up on vegetables (such as dark greens) and fruits (like berries) that are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Solid protein sources like fatty fish, chicken breast, and lean beef (grass-fed if you can get it) will not only help provide the much-needed protein for muscle rebuilding but also will supply healthy fats that also help reduce inflammation. Speaking of fats, adding coconut milk/oil to smoothies as an excellent way to ingest some delightful anti-inflammatory fats.
- Drink lots of water. (not Gatorade or powerade or any other -ade.) Water helps the body flush toxins, damaged tissues/cells, and keeps the body’s systems running smoothly. Water also lubricates your joints, which if they’re beat up already, the extra hydration will help them feel better and repair more quickly. A good goal is half your body weight in ounces.
Step 2: Take a week off
You’re muscles are not going shrivel up, lose your skill/speed, nor will your body swell up with fat. Take 5-7 days and just rejuvenate. Go for a couple walks, do mobility circuits, play a pick-up basketball game… do something that’s NOT your normal training routine and just let your body rest. Remember, the further you wade into the murky waters of overtraining, the longer it will take to slog your way out. During the sports season, this isn't always an option. In that case, coaches, give your players a couple of "easy" practices/workouts with the goal of getting the blood flowing, but not destroying the athletes. They should walk away feeling better than when they started. Building in an "easy" practice each week would go a long way in preventing overtraining.
Step 3: Learn from your mistakes.
While you’re taking your break, examine what pushed you over the edge. Was it the volume or intensity too high (or both?), too many days without rest? Was your mileage too high? Were you were stressed out at work/school, not sleeping enough, or maybe you weren’t eating enough or the right foods to support your activity. Are there external factors you’re missing? For instance, I’ve learned that I cannot train too hard (outdoors especially) during allergy season. Even if I'm inside, I just can’t get enough oxygen in my system to support intense training (lifting or sprinting). Therefore, I limit my outdoor sprints, ensure I take longer rest breaks between sets, and make sure I take medication during the peak of the spring and summer.
Step 4: Recalculate and execute
When you’re ready to come back, don’t be a ninny and do exactly what you were doing that got you into this mess in the first place. Hopefully, you learned from your mistake and you’ll make the necessary changes to avoid overtraining in the first place. Here, let’s learn from my mistake:
I overtrained; and I mean, I really overtrained. I had all the symptoms (mental and physical) for months and months. I was a walking ball of inflammation, every joint hurt, I was exhausted mentally and physically (and, decided to make up for my exhaustion by pushing myself even harder.) I ignored all the warning signs. This intentional stupidity led to my now permanent injuries (torn labrums in both hips, one collapsed disc in my spine, and two bulging discs). The body is pretty resilient, but it can only take so much. I ended up taking four months off, completely, from any activity beyond long walks. (that sucked by the way). When I did come back, I had to ease into it. Very. Very. Slowly. Even then, I think I pushed it a bit too much. It took me almost 2 years to return to my normal physical and mental state. (Well, outside of the permanent injuries. Those I just work around now.) Learn from my mistake. Overtraining is not something to poo-poo as "weakness" or "just being tired." It's real and can have damaging, lasting effects.
So how can we avoid overtraining? Here are simple strategies:
1. Eat enough and the right foods to support your activities.
2. Take rest days. Listen to your body. If you need to rest, rest. If you need to scale back your workout, do so.
3. Keep workouts on the shorter side. Don’t do marathon weight lifting sessions. Keep it to 1-1.5 hours. Max. Sprint sessions shouldn’t exceed 15-20 minutes. (if you're in-season, weight lifting sessions should be 45 min-1 hour MAX, with lower volume than out-of-season)
4. Sleep. High quality sleep should be a priority in your life. If it isn’t, you need to change that.
6. Train towards specific goals. You can’t be a marathon runner and a power lifter. Pick one to three goals (that don’t conflict with each other) and train towards them. You can’t do everything at once.
Armed with the knowledge of overtraining prevention, rest, recover, and continue in greatness!