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How to Avoid Overtraining in Track & Field

You train hard. With strenuous training comes stress. Stress on your nervous system, muscles, bones, joints, heart, and more. Breaking down is a necessary precursor to building up, but when does it become too much? What’s the difference between being sore and being overtrained? How can you tell when you’re overtraining? And what can you do about it? This guide will help you ensure you don’t fall prey to the frustrations of overtraining.

What Is Overtraining?

Stress resulting from training is normal. It is desirable, even, as it takes loading the body with a stress to which it isn’t yet accustomed in order to make an improvement. You can think of it as embarrassing your body: It doesn’t want to be embarrassed again, at least not by the same workload.

It is important to realize that it takes time for the body to improve its various functions, just as it takes time for your hair to grow or a cut to heal. After working out, your body is tired and broken down. It takes days of repair for your body to be stronger as a result of your training.

Just as the specific type of stress differs by workout, the body’s rebuilding processes take many forms and happen on different time schemes. It should be a goal of every coach and athlete to balance stress on the various systems and structures of the body. But determining exactly when a system becomes over-stressed, or pinning down specific time frames for recovery can be daunting tasks. In contrast, it is obvious in hindsight when an athlete has been seriously overtrained.

The trick is being able to recognize the symptoms of overtraining as they pop up. Good athletes never stop refining their knowledge of how their bodies respond to training, but this guide should get you started.

Who Is Affected by Overtraining?

Overtraining takes place over a number of training sessions. In fact, the term “overreaching” is given to overtraining limited to about a two-week window. So, overtraining is most likely to happen to athletes who are training regularly — almost every day, at least.

It isn’t only how much you’re training, though. Overtraining most often occurs to those who have drastically increased their training volume or intensity. If you’re training regularly, but have recently ramped up your regimen, you might be at risk. Proceed with care.

Don’t forget to consider other life factors: Travel, work, school, or family stress can all contribute to overtraining. Stress is stress, no matter where it comes from.

Remember, nobody willingly overtrains. Because an overtrained athlete can likely still complete good workouts, it is often too late when the athlete finally thinks: “Could I be overtraining?”

Signs of Overtraining

Use these signs to help you nip overtraining in the bud:

1. Decrease in Performance

This seems like an obvious indicator, but it’s not always that straightforward. If your performance has been on the upswing all season, but has tapered off or begun to decline, it could be due to any number of factors. But asking, “Could my bad performance be due to overtraining?” is never a bad place to start. If you have one of these symptoms, check the rest of this list to determine if overtraining is a likely culprit.

2. Fatigue

As an athlete, fatigue comes with the territory. Being tired from your training is okay. Being tired for a week or more is a caution sign. If it’s been a week or two since the last time you felt fresh, you’re in the danger zone.

3. Losing Sleep

Take note if you’re tired, but can’t fall asleep, or sleeping restlessly. Worsening sleep patterns can be a sign that the stresses of training are too great.

4. Decreased Motivation

Like many of these symptoms, decreased motivation can come from a variety of sources. However, it is very common with overtraining, especially if coupled with other symptoms. Be sure to take note.

5. Increased Resting Heart Rate

This sign is only useful if you regularly check your resting heart rate and have a standard for comparison. For athletes that are familiar with their resting heart rate, an elevation of five or more beats per minute could be a sign of the body’s inability to cope with training stress. However, many factors influence heart rate, so be sure to take measurements in the same setting each time.

6. Mood Swings

Overtraining is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety, depression, or drastic mood changes. If you’re noticing yourself being quick to snap at your friends, or feeling more down than usual, it may be a result of your training. For the sake of both your training and your mental health, you should back off a bit.

7. Chronic Muscle Soreness

If you have felt sore as long as you can remember, it might not merely be that you’ve been working hard. Chronic soreness can be a sign of overtraining. Think of the soreness as a backlog of recovery work your body hasn’t gotten around to yet. If you’ve been consistently sore for a couple weeks or more, treat this as a warning sign.

8. Illness

If you’re getting sick more than usual, it could be that overtraining is weakening your immune system. If you’ve been sick a lot and can’t figure out why, ask yourself if it could be your training.

9. Perceived Exertion

You’re running a workout you’ve done 10 times this season, and you’re hitting your times. However, if you find yourself digging deeper to complete the same session, you are likely overtraining. If you’re hitting the same times, your case is likely not too severe to recover from. Nonetheless, this feeling of digging deeper than usual is a warning sign that only you, the athlete, can heed.

Amazingly True Story

Dwight Phillips, an American long jumper, was the Olympic champion at the 2004 Athens Games. As the 2008 Beijing Games approached, he hit a slump and failed to even make the team. Shortly after, he was dropped by Nike.

It is not uncommon to see overtraining pop up in an Olympic year, when pressure to perform is higher than normal. Phillips didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew he had to make a change. He enlisted the help of coach Loren Seagrave, who backed off Phillips’ training.

"Here's a guy that loves track and field and training so much that he overtrained to the detriment of his health,” Seagrave told USA Today in August of 2009. Backing off was working. Phillips soared to a personal best of 28-8.25 and claimed his second long jump world title. “Now he understands,” explained Seagrave, “that less is often more.”

Preventing Overtraining

The ideal way to deal with overtraining is to avoid it entirely. These steps will help:

1. Get Plenty of Rest

Not everybody needs the same number of hours each night, but typically a hard-training athlete will need at least eight. Keep it simple: If you’re feeling tired, sleep more. Don’t be afraid to nap. Sleep is a big part of the recovery process necessary for good performances.

2. Eat to Recover

After exercise, enzymes activated in your working muscles allow calories consumed to be directed more toward workout-specific rebuilding. Eating 200-300 calories with solid carbohydrate and protein content will jumpstart your recovery.

3. Gauge Your Training Stress

Anything you do to more accurately gauge the effect training has on your body will help you avoid overtraining. Heart rate monitors, rates of perceived exertion, frequent communication with your coach, or any frequently repeated type of exercise that gives you a standard of comparison will help you and your coach balance your training. The sooner you notice the signs of overtraining the better.

4. Keep a Training Log

One of the many benefits of keeping a training log is reducing unintentional fluctuations in training. Having control and awareness of exactly how hard you’re working will help you to avoid overtraining in the first place. If you do end up overtraining, your training log will help you understand how it happened so you can avoid the same mistakes next season.

5. Manage Stress

Stress comes in all shapes and sizes, and not just as a result of training. Minimizing stress in other parts of your life will help you safely handle more training. Family issues, along with increased pressure from school or work, will likely negatively influence your training and racing.

6. Dealing with Overtraining

Depending on the severity of the overtraining, the appropriate course of action will vary. For minor overreaching, the answer could be simply reducing training volume or intensity. For severe overtraining that has seriously affected the nervous system, the only solution might be taking off up to two complete months. In most cases, the best course of action is a couple days off followed by a couple of days easing back to full throttle. Talk with your coach or an athletic trainer and review your past experience, which is often the best guide.

Be Patient

Learning to deal with overtraining is a long and complex process. It often takes athletes and coaches their entire career to perfect. Remember that in the end, it is all about learning about your body, and how to balance aspects of your training and your life.

In track and field, little is more frustrating than watching hard work turn into a decline in performance. Use this guide to avoid the disappointments of overtraining.
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