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: The Curse Of Overtraining

The Curse Of Overtraining

12 Apr

Overtraining is rampant in the sporting world. To understand the toll that it can take on an athlete, look no further than former swimming-superstar Whitney Myers. In 2006, Whitney won the women’s NCAA title in both the 200- and 400-yard IM and a gold in the 200 IM at the Pan Pacific Championships. She was named Breakout Performer of the Year and was a member of the United States National Team. Barely a year later, she struggled at the 2007 long-course championships, making finals in just one event!

By some estimates, up to 60 percent of competitive athletes overtrain at some point in their careers. Until recently, scientists and physicians understood little about this major performance inhibitor. The most frustrating thing about overtraining is that it’s just a step or two above optimum training, but crossing that threshold can mean the difference between success or failure.

In a nutshell, intense prolonged training causes significant trauma to muscles, but trauma in the right amount is actually a good thing. Muscles traumatized through training experience an increase in CPK, an enzyme released from damaged tissue. Trauma also prompts the production of cytokines, which are inflammation-producing proteins. In response to this inflammation, the body releases cortisone, a stress-linked hormone that reduces the amount of swelling. When the levels of these various substances are in balance, the inflammation and soreness will last a day or two; after which the muscles should not only have recovered but be stronger than before.

This approach to training, traumatizing the muscles in a cyclical manner, is a strategy followed by most coaches; and typically culminates with a taper or reduction of work days/weeks prior to a major competition. If all goes well, athletes experience a significant boost in performance. Unfortunately, many experience a slump instead. Why? According to one hypothesis, overtraining can lead to overactive cytokines, which can cause the inflammation to spread beyond the working muscles affecting the entire body. Symptoms of overtraining include:

  • A dramatic drop-off in performance for no obvious reason
  • Heavy legs or legs that lack quickness
  • A loss of appetite
  • A rise in resting heart rate
  • Fatigue that persists for more than 72 hours
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain and weakness that persists for more than 72 hours
  • Irritability, anxiety, or depression
  • Disruptions in the menstrual cycle
  • Cuts and bruises that heal slowly
  • Falling levels of ferritin (a protein that stores iron) revealed through blood work

Fortunately, there is no mystery about how to treat overtraining. Dr. Robert Schoene, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, has written about overtraining and has treated afflicted athletes. He recommends rest, rest, and more rest. This prescription can be difficult for most athletes to follow, choosing to push harder instead. “The human body, no matter how strong and fit, must rest”, Schoene explains. “If you don’t rest it some of the time during training, you’ll be resting it all of the time during recovery from overtraining.”


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