By Ben Devito
Are you a runner that constantly has roller coaster workouts? A runner that is often feeling unmotivated or battling with injury? Many runners are constantly putting their bodies under extreme stress without utilizing the proper recovery tools to repair themselves. These athletes are entering the danger zone each day by not properly training and recovering. Overtraining and under recovering are often caused by poor coaching, poor team and sport culture, and poor recovery methods.
Overtraining, under-recovering, and performance.
Training should help athletes become better physically and mentally by inducing training responses from large training volumes or intensities. The athlete must recover from these training sessions and adapt to the stimulus. If the athlete does not recover from these training sessions, overtime they will become overtrained, under recovered and burnt out. Often many runners experience overtraining and this is too often the case with distance runners in particular. There are many symptoms that athletes display when overtraining or under recovering occurs. These symptoms can range from fatigue, irritability, sleep disturbances, illness, injury, hormonal changes, menstrual cycle changes (females), impaired sex drive and impaired cardiovascular function (8). Everyone can be affected by overtraining, under recovering and burnout, the symptoms often vary case to case.
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
There are many key factors in the body that regulate recovery and burnout, one of which is the autonomic system (7). When an athlete begins to overtrain, the ANS becomes impaired which shifts the body into sympathetic activation and parasympathetic inhibition (1). In other words, the body is in constant “fight or flight” instead of in a restorative state. In recent research and technology advancement there are ways to detect overtraining through the ANS by using heart rate variability (HRV) measurements (1). Many tools, such as the WHOOP, are useful to understand whether your body is overtraining. Often when athletes that are overtraining, the ANS is largely impaired by large increases in volume, not intensity (1). There is more evidence indicating that the time under stress or volume play more of a significant role in autonomic system fatigue and burnout rather than intensity (1). Intensity can still cause burnout or disturb the ANS, but it is much less common. The ANS is an integral part of the machine for both athlete burnout and performance.
Central Nervous System (CNS)
In addition, there are other ways an athlete can become overtrained. Many coaches and athletes neglect to recognize central nervous system fatigue (2). The CNS controls an athlete’s ability to contract muscles and move explosively. Many endurance runners do not realize when their CNS is not functioning optimally (2). Evidence illustrates that many endurance athletes can either have a very fatigued or under stimulated CNS, which can cause hindrance in their performance as well as be associated with overtraining (2). The CNS can be taxed or stimulated through fast explosive movements as well as heavy weight training (2). Often when the CNS is taxed or under stimulated the athlete will feel “flat”, and as a coach and athlete it is important to understand that this "flat" feeling may be because of over stimulation or under stimulation (2). The CNS is another cog in the machine that must be observed and regulated to ensure optimal performance.
Another system that needs to be balanced and measured for athletic performance, is the endocrine system or the “hormonal system”. Many of us have hormonal imbalances either due to stress, poor nutrition, inadequate hydration and inadequate sleep. And although these imbalances are common, there are simple signs to detect specifically what is unbalanced (3). For example, there is anecdotal evidence that where an individual carries fat on their body indicates different hormonal imbalances. If an individual carries fat in their midsection, their cortisol may be to high; if an individual carries fat behind their arms, they may have a testosterone deficiency; and if an individual (mainly detected in males) have fat tissue in the chest they have an estrogen surplus (3). Luckily, there are many simple lifestyle ways we can help maintain proper hormonal balance. This can be done through strength training, improving your nutrition, enhancing sleep, optimizing hydration, and even through hormonal therapy (3). The biggest factor for hormonal balance is sleep length and quality. The hormonal profile is very tough for coaches and athletes to monitor but ultimately can be kept at balance using the most important recovery methods of sleep, proper nutrition, hydration and exercise.
The final point is both most significant to athletic performance, as well as the easiest to detect. The brain and the mind play a significant role in burnout and overtraining for athletes. The brain, encompassing the 3 pounds of tissue, can be thought of as the hardware of the body. If this hardware is affected by physical trauma it can send an athlete directly into burnout (4,6,8). Also the other systems previously discussed play a significant role within the brain as well. For example, there is anecdotal evidence of individuals with head trauma experiencing a decrease in hormonal function, ANS function, and nerve function (4,6,8). Simply, if the brain or the “ hardware” is affected, it also affects all the other systems. This is why it is essential to take any sort of trauma seriously as an athlete. The mind, on the other hand, can be though of as the software of the body. It is the highly adaptable sense of self, including your behaviour and your habits. The mind is one of the most controllable parts of the entire system and can have instrumental effects on all the other systems (6). Most athletes understand that mentality is everything for athletic performance and recovery (4,6,8). If the mind is functioning on all facets, the body will be able to perform and recover optimally. Using the mind to get ready and motivated for workouts is something that all elite athletes do. For example, humans can use their minds to change hormonal function, autonomic function, CNS function and even brain function. The mind can decide to dump adrenaline into the hormonal system, the mind can increase heart rate and HRV, and the mind can change how you sleep and recover, which helps keep the CNS functioning as well as the brain (4,6,8). The mind is very powerful and has a huge influence on whether an athlete burns out mentally and physically.
How to Prevent Overtraining and Under Recovering
Recovery is essential for any athlete and should be the highest priority on every athlete’s agenda. Many of us get sucked in, dialed up and focused on the “huff and puff” of hard workouts. Realistically, without recovery these hard workouts mean absolutely nothing. There are various recovery modalities, but the three major tools in an athlete’s arsenal are sleep, hydration and nutrition. If you are not taking these three factors seriously, then you are depriving your body of the ability to properly recover between runs and workouts. If you are struggling with sleep, please read our Sleep and Running Performance blog article as it will give you tips on how to sleep better.
Another great way to improve recovery is by using your mind. Creating a healthy mindset is sometimes much harder than taking care of the ANS, CNS and endocrine system. Taking mindset seriously will help improve recovery and performance immensely (4,6,8). Some great tools to help get your mind right include meditation, visualization, self talk and journaling. This will ensure that your mind is in check and ready to go to battle in those tough workouts as well as able to relax going into those days when the body needs to recover. The best part about mind set training is that there are no boundaries or rules, you just have to do it!
Developing a healthy Sport & Team Culture
A poor team and sport culture can be detrimental to athletic performance. Often as runners, we fall into a false mantra that “more is better”. This is something that runners have engrained in their minds for generations. Certain typical running subcultures believes that the harder you work, the faster you will be. Often runners opt for an extra kilometer, extra mile or reach deep down for one more hard rep in an interval workout. This is not necessarily a good idea, as an individual can continue to do more up to the point they mentally or physically break (or both!). As runners, it is time for a change to smart work, instead of hard work. This is not saying hard work isn’t important. Hard work is in fact essential. But there needs to be reframe on what “hard work" entails. To many of us hard work means being tough, always grinding out an extra rep. But runners need to believe that “smart work” is much more valuable. Smart work allows us to train properly and get the gains without burning out. But don’t get it twisted, smart work involves hard work, but also includes an emphasis on recovery and training methods. Smart work focuses on what you need individually to allow yourself to consistently progress, even if it is not deemed as “hard work”. A perfect example of this is "mileage". Most runners find getting out the door for mileage is hard work but in all honesty its actually easier than doing the quality training that may be more appropriate for that day. The quality training usually includes working on weaknesses that runners do not like to address such as strength, mobility, running mechanics, muscle activation, or even specific tough workouts. Developing a sport or team culture that attempts to address training holistically instead of the “more is better approach” can help athletes prevent under-recovering and overtraining. Remember, better is better and more is sometimes is worse.
Coaching & Training
Coaching and training methodologies are a huge factor in overtraining, and one of the primary causes of athletes being under-recovered. Both the coach and the athlete must take ownership during and between training sessions. Coaches have the responsibility to create training plans that allow for progressive overload but also allow sufficient recovery. And the athlete has the responsibility to do whatever they can to facilitate recovery between training sessions. The most important attribute between the athlete and coach relationship is communication. If the coach and athlete communicate effectively about training and recovery, an athlete should hypothetically never burnout. The coach must seek for this communication, especially with younger athletes as many of them are new to the sport of running or even too shy to illustrate how they are feeling. Ultimately, coaches must take extreme ownership over the athletes training even though the athletes might be under recovering due to bad habits. It’s the coach’s role to change and create sound training programs for athletes, as well as educate them. A coach should know exactly how their athlete is feeling going into a training session and how to adapt that training session to get the biggest gains during that day. The greatest coaches understands when their athlete is recovered or not by observing the first 10 minutes of practice. This is done through communication as well as examining body language and movement. Coaches and athletes both must take extreme ownership over training to prevent burnout and to get the best performance possible.
The goal is always to train and not to strain. Unfortunately, more than enough athletes begin to fall into the false nuance that more is better. This exact mentality often leaves athletes strained and overtrained. As a coach and athlete it is paramount to be able to regulate the key factors in the body by understanding the ANS, CNS, endocrine system and the mind. If these factors are regulated and kept in check, than athlete will not burnout, overtrain, or under recover. Using the most effective recovery strategies, various measurement tools, building a great team and sport culture, establishing a balanced training plan, and being or finding an educated coach will prevent impairment of these systems. This will ultimately allow the athletes to train more consistently, effectively, and efficiently towards their goals without the risk of overtraining.
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