Overtraining: Insights and Treatment

In today’s “no pain, no gain” culture of sport, many athletes at all levels are pushing the training envelope with the goal of improving performance. This seems to be increasing in Zimbabwe’s school sport, so much so that cases of overreaching and overtraining are becoming more prevalent in our school sport, especially at first team level.

What is overreaching and overtraining you might ask? Simply put, both are as a result of excessive training – overreaching is caused by short term excessive training, overtraining is caused by long term excessive training, whereby your body is subjected to stress (both mental and physical) and little rest. In other words, TOO MUCH TRAINING AND NOT ENOUGH REST!!

Overtraining both physically and psychologically affects the athlete. With children playing so many different sports at school in one term, with no special focus on conditioning, the chance of overtraining occurring is, in some children, high.

What are the causes?

The causes are various stressors. There are two categories of stressors, namely training stressors and non-training stressors.

Stressors That Cause Overtraining
Training Stressors Non-training Stressors
Very long sessions  Inadequate nutrition
Very intense sessions  General health
Not enough time for recovery
or rest between sessions
 Lifestyle issues such as sleep behaviour
Excessive bias of training methods and
units (i.e. the same stuff over and over again)
 School, family or social issues

When a number of these stressors combine, they can lead to emotional and or physical distress and an increased chance of overtraining.

Signs and Symptoms

Remember, in terms of training, what works for one athlete may not work for the other. So, how do you know if you are suffering from overtraining or, as a coach, how do you know if your, or other, athletes are struggling? There are two main categories of signs and symptoms to look out for.

Signs and Symptoms of Over-training
Physical Psychological
Appetite loss Depression/sadness
Weight loss Lack of caring
Gastrointestinal disorders Loss of self esteem
Muscle pain Feelings of apathy and weariness
Headaches Irritability/anger and hostility
Higher resting heart rate Mood swings
Delayed recovery after exercise Emotional isolation
Higher systolic blood pressure Increased anxiety
Severe fatigue  Concentration difficulties
Overuse injuries
Disturbed sleep patterns

How to treat Over-training

The main treatment is rest. Depending on how severely over trained the athlete is, rest can be anywhere from 3-5 days up to 3 weeks. Once the rest period is over, the athlete should gradually come back to sport, not too much too soon!

I cannot overemphasize that overtraining is highly individualized. In other words, what causes the signs and symptoms in one athlete may not be the same for another athlete. It is especially important for coaches to know and be tolerant of this.Coaches, listen to your athletes, they know how their body feels, don’t ignore this!

If these signs and symptoms are not addressed, then the athlete can enter into what is known as Burnout, whereby the problem with the athlete is now predominantly psychological and very, very serious! It can cause athletes to give up the sport for good and in extreme, but rare, cases athletes have been suicidal. If burnout occurs then medical intervention is required by a doctor and psychological intervention by a psychologist.

It is important for coaches to understand overtraining and to prevent it from occurring. If a coach or an athlete is unsure about overtraining, please, contact someone who has expertise for help. Remember, especially at school level, the health (Physical and Mental) of the child/athlete comes first, even before winning!!

*Chris Fourie (B.SportSci) (UP), (DipSptMgmt) (Boston), is a Sports Scientist and Physical Education teacher at Hellenic Academy. If you have any questions, please contact him on his email address at cfourie@hellenicacademy.ac.zw

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