Signs of Overtraining

by Jackie Ansley

Coaches are always trying to motivate their players to work hard. As athletes get bigger faster and stronger, getting an edge over your opponent is more crucial. Therefore, as athletes work to get an edge over their opponents and become committed to put in extra hours to achieve their goals, their tendencies to overtrain become prevalent. So many times athletes are so driven and think that more is better. Once an athlete gets themselves into this cycle their workouts start to get less productive and many times their bodies begin to break down. As their strength coach/basketball coach responsible for monitoring their progress and workouts, it is important to know and understand just how much “overtraining” can affect an athlete’s body.

Overtraining is a condition where the body has performed too much work without balancing the workload with enough sleep, rest or nutrition to adequately recover from it. It is often referred to as “staleness” and is most common in endurance-trained athletes or athletes not allowing appropriate rest in between workouts. Overtraining can be very difficult to detect in an athlete, but there are many signs that can be observed to indicate when an athlete has trained too much. The most easily detected sign of overtraining is an unexplained drop in performance that cannot be resolved by a couple of days of rest. If an athlete starts to struggle with workouts that had previously been well tolerated, they may be experiencing staleness. If the performance drop is accompanied by any of the other following signs, suspect overtraining. Other signs include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances (poor-quality or restless sleep)
  • Lack of interest in workouts or daily activities
  • Muscle soreness that does not go away normally
  • Injuries that do not heal
  • Elevated resting pulse (taken before getting out of bed)
  • Decreased appetite or Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent infections
  • Mood disturbances: irritability, depression
  • Amenorrhea

Often the psychological symptoms are present before the physical, however, distinguishing them from other possible causes is hard. Hence, identifying overtraining requires paying attention to all possible indicators, watching to see if the athlete shows more than one of the above signs.

Prevention of Overtraining

Prevention of overtraining is the number one role of a strength coach/basketball coach working with athletes in an intense training program. There is a fine balance between providing the body with enough stress to insure positive adaptations and over stressing the body and causing staleness. Careful monitoring of workout intensity, progression and rest is the best way to prevent overtraining.

Assess an athlete’s training program to determine if they are getting enough rest days. One rest day per week is minimum, and if the training intensity is high, more rest may be needed. To determine training intensity, look at the athlete’s RPE, training load, and volume of each workout. Also consider these factors over the course of a week and a month. Sustained high intensity training (usually more than 3 weeks) is more likely to result in overtraining. To prevent overtraining, alternate hard and easy days during the week, and mix easier weeks in with harder weeks each month. Workout monotony can also be a factor. Repeating the same workout for extended periods of time, may contribute to staleness. Incorporating exercise variety or cross-training into the workout plan adds diversity that can prevent overtraining.

Other factors not associated with the actual workout plan also affect the athlete. Poor nutrition from eating on the go or getting stuck in a redundant pattern of food choice can deprive the body of the necessary nutrients to recover from exercise. Working with a nutritionist or dietician is recommended because of the complexity of the problem. As a strength coach, you should also be aware that social stress such as relationship problems or lack of support could also affect an athlete and contribute to the onset of overtraining by reducing the body’s ability to adapt. There may be little you can do to assist with these problems, but referral to the appropriate resource may be necessary.

Overall, overtraining is a complicated problem, difficult to detect until it has already affected the athlete. Recovering from overtraining depends on the extent of the problem. Short term overtraining, also called overreaching, can often be resolved with a few days of rest. Long term overtraining is much more difficult to overcome and may take weeks or months before the athlete is ready to return to intense training. Prevention is essential, and proper programming can reduce the chance of an athlete experiencing the setback of overtraining.

Knowing how to get the most out of a workout where quality is the focus verses quantity is so vital. Take for example vertical explosion. Training can give an athlete a significant increase in their vertical but more is not always better. Athletes get so excited by the increase they tend to want to jump and jump and jump some more to achieve a higher reach. This will directly cause a breakdown most commonly resulting in shin splints or stress fractures or even knee injuries. Monitoring the amount of jumping along with the rest and recovery is so vital. Our muscles need time to recover and rejuvenate to perform at their peak performance.

Below are some recommended reading materials to better understand recovery and rest so overtraining will not put your athletes behind in their training and performance. Peak performance is the goal so remember quality is the key in getting the most out of the training sessions.

Foster, C. (1998). Monitoring training in athletes with reference to overtraining syndrome. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 30, 1164-8.

Kentta, G. & Hassmen, P., (1998) Overtraining and recovery. A conceptual model. Sports Med, 26, 1-16.

Lehmann, M.J., Lormes, W., et al. (1997). Training and overtraining: an overview and experimental results in endurance sports. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 37, 7-17.