Overtraining and the use of Training Diaries

As performance coaches, it is our aim to ensure that the athletes we work with perform at their physical and mental peak during competitions.  It is important to overload our body to elicit physiological adaptations such as muscular efficiency, motor skill control, and increased fitness levels.  However, sufficient rest is also imperative. Overtraining is a behavioural, physiological, and psychological condition that occurs when the duration and intensity of training are exceeding the recovery rate.  In our experience, athletes overtrain because the more they train, the better prepared they believe they are.  They may be reluctant to take the necessary strategic rest.

Our bodies need rest and recovery for optimal performance. According to the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), our body is firstly “alarmed” by increased loads in exercise.  Physiologically our heart rate, breathing, and perspiration increase.  If exercise continues, the body will move into the second stage of the GAS and adaption will occur.  In this stage, blood pressure increases along with an increase in blood sugar levels to fuel the working muscles with energy.  It is at this point where rest is essential.  If sufficient rest is not provided, the third stage of GAS commences – exhaustion.  Exhaustion starts with a decrease in blood sugar level, an increase in resting heart rate, and progressive loss of concentration, and eventually leads to illness and depression.  The most significant effect of overtraining may be an impaired immune system.

Now that we know what overtraining is, how can we detect it before our athlete overtrains?  As coaches we need to ensure our athletes are using training diaries.  These are useful for two reasons: (1) to allow our athlete (and their coach) to monitor performance progression, and (2) as an early warning system for us both to recognise overtraining.

The Training Diary

First thing in the morning after waking, take a heart-rate reading.  Find your pulse near the wrist and count how many beats you can feel in 30 seconds and times this number by two.  It is usually best to use your first three fingers of the other hand to take your pulse.  Write the date and heart rate in the diary.   Then draw a face symbol of how you are feeling – happy J, indifferent K, or sad or tired L.   Note down if anywhere in your body is tight or feeling heavy – e.g. heavy legs, tight back.  This process should take no longer than a minute.

Throw (or place) your diary in your fencing bag.  After you have trained or completed any physical activity you should write the activity and duration in your diary.  If you have been to the gym to lift weights, list what you have completed.  If you have fenced, list with whom you fought and how you did, e.g. Joe: 7-15V.  Analyze your own performance, e.g. slow recovery from lunges, gave 3 hits away on front foot. It should only take a few minutes to write this in your training diary each day, and it soon becomes a habit.

Detecting Overtraining

As coaches on the lookout for overtraining, we now have three distinct factors to keep an eye out for.  A 10-15% increase in resting heart rate and (for example) feelings of heavy/tight legs on two consecutive days are two physiological warnings.  The cure is immediate rest.  A sad face L in the diary is our psychological warning of overtraining or even burnout.  Research suggests that 48 hours of recovery is essential after a “heavy” exercise session, sometimes even longer.

As coaches it is our responsibility to ensure that our athletes keep a training diary and to actively check what is written inside and provide feedback.  In this way we can help ensure our athletes will always be at their physical and psychological peak during competitions and our job as coaches is achieved.

If you would like any further information or if you would like a specific sports performance topic to be covered in the next issue, please contact me.