Overtraining and burnouts

The physiological signs of overtraining include chronic fatigue, chronic muscle soreness, increase in body temperature, elevated blood pressure, increased frequency of headaches, upper respiratory infections and a suppressed immune system.

Members of the U.S. gymnastics team warm up during a practice session. Training sessionss should never last more than an hour, including warm-ups and cool-downs, says the author.   -  AP

Sunrisers Hyderabad players snapped before an IPL match. Cricket, which used to be a seasonal sport, hardly has any off season.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

International sport is a physically punishing crucible. All sports today demand an almost year-round commitment. Gone are the days when each sport had a definite off-season, a pre-season and a season. In modern sport, these seasonal distinctions are getting increasingly blurred and players are on the roll almost 12 months a year. Exhibitions, charity games and sponsor commitments have further increased the travel and increased the demand on players.

Let’s look at tennis and golf. There was a time when the Majors and the Open titles were considered as the four events which shaped the annual calendar. Players would work around their schedule to peak near about these events. Today, this is no longer possible. The Ranking system, the potential to earn big bucks and sponsors’ demands have turned the modern athlete into a jet-setting travel machine. Cricket, which used to be a seasonal sport, hardly has any off season.

All this has begun to take a toll on the athletes’ mind and body. Athletes typically work harder in the gym, seek out mind-coaches and physical therapists (most top sportsmen include them in their entourage) to cope with these pressures. However, there is a fine line between what strengthens you and what destroys your body. The recipe for a stronger, fitter body lies in the correct balance of food, sleep, rest, recovery and exercise. Alter this balance slightly and it may be a recipe for disaster. Hard athletic training without the proper diet and rest will not bring about positive changes. On the other hand, it will slowly affect performance adversely and very often lead to injuries that may be career threatening or stagnating.

TRAIN, DON’T DRAIN!

Exercise is a way of stressing your body. This stress stimulates the body to grow and strengthen muscles and bones when the body is at rest. What happens when you don’t rest enough? Instead of growing and strengthening, your muscles and bones undergo wear and tear. This leads to dips in performance, mood swings, prolonged exhaustion and chronic low energy and, of course, injuries.

If you don’t know the symptoms of overtraining, it can trap you in a vicious cycle — you will train harder thinking it will improve your strength and stamina, while actually it will only get worse. People with high fitness levels and athletes are often the ones most susceptible to overtraining. Because these people are so fit, they can push themselves harder than most, and can take on large volumes of exercise. Beginners to exercise are far less likely to suffer from overtraining.

WATCH OUT FOR THE SIGNS

Overtraining is more often a problem of too little rest rather than too much exercise. If you are on the run from the time you wake up — rushing to catch an early morning flight, getting a mandatory training session done, sprinting to a sponsor’s dinner, interview, meeting fans, officials and tournament directors etc — and finally collapsing in bed late at night, only to wake up without enough sleep the next day to start the cycle all over again, you are a prime candidate for the dangers of overtraining. You are in no physical or mental shape to handle an important match. Yet, your pride and your ambition, not to speak of skills will dig deep into your neuro-muscular system to extract your very best for the event.

 

Surprisingly, the easiest overtraining symptoms to recognise and assess are psychological. Constantly thinking of exercising, or getting very irritable or depressed about missing even a single session of practice or training, is one of the first signs that you are overtraining, or will soon.

There are over 130 signs of overtraining, and many of them, like changes in blood-lactate levels or hormonal imbalances, need lab testing. It is much easier to keep a tab on your mood. A little bit of irritability after a hard exercise session is normal, but if you are feeling very crotchety, or the irritability does not go away for hours, or even days, you are overtraining. Other psychological signs include feeling demotivated about working out, depression and disturbed sleep.

When you finish a workout session, you should be able to feel the “runner’s high”, or the elevated mood that comes from endorphins, feel-good hormones that your body releases when you exercise.

The physiological signs of overtraining include chronic fatigue, chronic muscle soreness, increase in body temperature, elevated blood pressure, increased frequency of headaches, upper respiratory infections and a suppressed immune system.

THE RECOVERY

Every person has different needs and different levels of fitness. Listen to your body and look for the signs of overtraining. Bring down the volume of exercise, and go back to the basics — evaluate the form of your basic movement patterns: Are you running correctly? Squatting correctly? Doing push-ups and pull-ups correctly? If you are severely fatigued by exercise, then stop doing it for a few days or even a couple of weeks. Do a refreshing and rejuvenating session of stretching every day instead. Get your eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, and eat well.

Training sessions should never last more than an hour, including warm-ups and cool-downs. Always have one day of the week marked as a rest day. For the other six, make sure you do a mix of light, medium and intense sessions. Try and do different things on different days to avoid repetitive stress on particular body parts. I tell my athletes that it is better to under-train than to overtrain because the under-trained athlete will always have some reserve power left but the overtrained athlete will lack staying capacity.

Canada-based endocrinologist Hans Selye first recognised the symptoms of physiological stress from exercising too much (exhaustion, illness and injury), and called it the Negative Adaptation Stage. This stage occurs from the body’s inability to adapt positively to physical stress due to overtraining. I like to describe fitness trainers as stress engineers who seek to promote positive stress adaptation from exercise.