stress & overtraining

Stress & Overtraining : Strategies to ward off overtraining by dealing with stress from all sources

The simple physiological equation employed by most coaches is this: training-plus-recovery equals-adaptation. But while there are literally hundreds of ways of measuring training (eg sets, reps, load, volume, time and intensity) and a similar number for measuring adaptation (game performance, lactate threshold, heart rate, speed, power etc), how many coaches measure or prescribe a recovery programme, asks James Marshall.

The evidence is that recovery is hugely important for athletes. Of 298 US athletes who participated in a survey after competing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, 35 (12%) said that the number one coaching decision that affected their performance was ‘overtraining/not getting enough rest’ (1). In fact, it has been reported that athletes are often fitter on the plane home than en route to a competition, simply because of the rest days they have enjoyed after the event!

Recovery is not just the absence of activity; it can also mean an enhancement of activity, such as stretching, or a change of activity, such as swimming instead of running. A coach may assume that if an athlete is not training he or she is recovering, but this may not be the case, and athletes may need a specific programme to help accelerate the recovery process.

The problem is that athletes prefer to focus on what they do best – training – and getting them to focus on recovery can be difficult. Indeed, if recovery sessions are not supervised, athletes may try to slip in extra sessions in order to ‘gain an edge’. Thus, coaches need to monitor as well as prescribe their athletes’ recovery programmes.

Prevention is better than the cure

Careful planning of the training programme is a key factor in preventing overtraining. External factors may have an adverse influence on an athlete’s well-being, leading to underperformance, but at least the coach should be aware of some simple precepts that have been shown to work. Table 1, below, offers a succinct summary of what not to do.

Table 1: how to overtrain

  1. No rest days
  2. No regeneration week every 2-3 weeks
  3. Monotonous training programmes
  4. More than 3 hours’ training a day
  5. More than 30% training load increase in a week
  6. No alternation of hard/easy days (2,3)

Monotony of training can be a real challenge for an athlete, especially if he/she is in a full time squad or team and has to see the same faces at the same place every day. In such situations, a coach can maintain intensity and quality by ensuring a small change in the routine every week. This could be a change in environment – eg taking the team onto a track or beach for runs instead of a pitch; it could be a change of personnel – eg getting one of the players or assistant coaches to take a session once a week; or it could be a change of drills – basketball or five- a-side soccer being good alternative conditioning games for rugby players, for example. This sort of variation depends on advance planning and should be maintained even during a losing streak.

If the training environment is a cause of stress, the athlete needs to take a break from this environment. Coaches like to talk about ‘team building’ and ‘team players’, which is great on the pitch, but not every player wants to spend 24 hours a day with his team mates. A good coach will recognise the individual needs of players in terms of both training and recovery. Some players need the team environment and don’t like to be left on their own, but allowing some discretionary time in training camps allows players some space to ‘do their own thing’ to suit their own needs.

A break away from a coach, however inspiring, is also a good thing since it allows athletes to recover emotionally and mentally from the stress of training. However, the coach needs to have confidence that his athletes are responsible and will not engage in silly activities like bungee jumping on the day before a competition!

A complete break from sport is a necessity every year, although this is not always easy in sports with long seasons, such as football and rugby, which impose high physical demands on their players and operate within competitive league structures, with the added problems of cup matches and representative matches.

This break can take the form of an annual vacation, but should not involve an additional source of stress. Having two weeks away from the sport to sit university exams, for example, will not allow for effective recovery. And if your holiday includes long-haul travel, with the additional complication of overcoming jet lag, two weeks may not be enough.

Becoming self-aware

An athlete experiences stress in physical, mental and emotional forms, and different recovery strategies are needed to address each of these areas. However, you must be sufficiently self-aware to pinpoint the real source of stress (4).

For example, on returning home after a day at the office, you may feel tired and lacking in the energy you need for your planned training session. But the likelihood is that you are emotionally and mentally rather than physically tired, so a quick mental and emotional break – eg walking the dog, playing with the kids or doing some housework – before training is what you need. Without this break, your mind may not be on the job during training and your performance will suffer in consequence. Conversely, a low-intensity, low-skill training session is often seen as a great stress reliever for a lot of athletes after a hard day at work.

Self-awareness is an attribute that allows you to recognise how you are feeling physically and mentally and how that affects your reactions to others. Are you getting irate with other people over apparently trivial matters? Is your neck stiff? Do you have trouble concentrating on simple tasks? By identifying your current relaxation status you can determine and implement the appropriate recovery strategy.

Cognitive recovery

A period of adjustment is needed between the experience of a stressful situation and the start of emotional or mental recovery. How many of us can simply ‘switch off’ after a hard day at work? Everyone has some sort of coping mechanism that allows relaxation to occur, but unfortunately the popular coping mechanism of sinking a couple of pints or glasses of wine may not prove an aid to effective training! This period of adjustment has been described as ‘deactivation’, and it is necessary to prevent the stressor from one situation (such as work, coach, family) impacting on another situation (eg competition, family dinner, school exams) (6).

Sleep, for example, is an aid to mental as well as physical recovery. But without an intervening period of deactivation, sleep can be disturbed, leading to further mental and physical fatigue.

How then can we deactivate? The first point to make is that it takes time and has to be an active, positive process (7). Simply trying to switch your thoughts away from the stressor without addressing it will simply defer rather than banish those thoughts.

How do you react after a bad performance or training session? Do you analyse what went wrong and what you can do next time to put things right? Or do you concentrate on the consequences of what went wrong and blame yourself for your lack of ability? Guess which method allows you to deactivate. If you get caught in the negative loop of self-doubt and self-blame, recovery cannot begin.

Deactivation is particularly important when you are at a training camp or in a situation that involves travelling home with the rest of the team. Often there will be a team meal and a rush from warm- down to shower to give people time to eat before getting on the coach. The physical recovery is taken care of to a certain extent, but an individual deactivation and cognitive recovery strategy is still necessary (see table 2, below).

Table 2: the cognitive recovery process

  1. Deactivate – list what went wrong, and why, as well as what went right
  2. Plan how to change the things that went wrong
  3. Review all the things that went right and throw away the list of things that went wrong
  4. Start another activity of your choice – eg social activity, low-level physical activity, reading, listening to music, movies etc, relaxation tape or script
  5. Sleep

Having relaxing music or a relaxation script on hand (see example below) can help to create a sense of personal space, which allows for deactivation without isolating you from your team mates. Using a script takes practice, however, and you need to get used to relaxing on your own in a quiet familiar environment, such as your bedroom, before you try to do it in more stimulating and stressful situations.

Sample relaxation script

Let your mind wander to the scene of a beautiful country garden. Look how it is laid out – the lawns, the trees and the flowers. It is a summer’s day, just after a light rain shower. Smell the fresh air, feel the damp and moist atmosphere on your skin. Can you smell the flowers, imagine the scent of lavender, or honeysuckle? The grass has just been cut – can you smell it? Now walk down the path into the shade of the trees, look at the texture of their bark and feel how cool it is. Now walk back into the sunlight, feel its warmth on your face, see the butterflies on the shrubs and hear the distant sound of a lawnmower…

Similar scripts can be found in most self-help sport psychology books, but it is best to write your own script based on a very relaxing environment that you have experienced personally. You can then record this onto a tape or CD and listen to it when travelling.

Physical recovery

Physical recovery should start as soon as the session ends, with warm-down, refuelling and showering taking priority. The other methods in the toolbox, listed in table 3, opposite, can be used as desired before the start of the next training session. Note, though, that while sleep is listed as a physical recovery strategy, it is not strictly necessary for physical recovery. The absence of movement is sufficient to allow the body to heal physically; sleep is more essential for mental and emotional recovery. An athlete who is tired from lack of sleep can still train physically; it is just that the motivation to train is reduced by sleep loss!

Table 3: physical recovery strategies

  1. Light aerobic activity – less than 50% of VO2max
  2. Stretching
  3. Massage
  4. Contrast showers – alternating 30 secs hot with 30 secs cold for 4 minutes
  5. Sleeping or lying down still
  6. Cold/ice baths – up to 5 mins
  7. Food
  8. Hydration
  9. Whirlpool baths

Emotional recovery

Some stressful situations are primarily emotional, but the inability to cope with these stressors can lead to a greater perception of stress and a consequent reduction in physical health and performance (8). The stressors that affect athletes in this way can arise either outside the sporting environment – eg relationship problems – or within it – eg selection issues. Wrisberg and Johnson have defined these respectively as primary and secondary social functioning (9). If social functioning is going well, an athlete is better equipped to deal with the physical and mental stress of sporting life. If it isn’t, the ability to cope with stress is inhibited, leading to inadequate recovery and consequent performance decline.

Let’s consider the hypothetical example of two university football players who go home for a much-needed Christmas break after playing twice a week for the last 13 weeks. Both have to prepare for exams in January, which they have to pass to stay on at university.

The first player is looking forward to the break because he enjoys Christmas with his family and catching up with old friends. He enjoys his time at home and is able to study for his exams.

The second player dreads Christmas because his parents are divorced and he has to try to balance time with both of them, as well as working to pay off some debt. He ends up driving for most of Christmas Eve and Boxing Day and is too tired after work to revise. When soccer training resumes in January, the first player is refreshed and looking forward to training, the second player is tired and can’t concentrate during training because of exam worries.

The primary social functioning, involving close family members and friends, is a support system. This support can be expressed in emotional, financial or practical terms.

Think of a young tennis player who is trying to make her way up the junior county rankings. She has to play lots of matches to gain points and will win some and lose some. Her parents have to provide emotional support when she loses a match, financial support by paying for the entry fees, equipment and coaching, and practical support by making sandwiches, driving to the venue, washing kit etc.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, at a very high level of sport, some athletes have an entourage to help with practical matters (eg the touring party of the British and Irish Lions) and may also be paid. Nevertheless, they will still need the emotional support.

Secondary social functioning is about the athlete’s ability to deal with team mates, coaches and the media. This comes down to individual preferences, with some athletes liking a social atmosphere and others needing some personal time. If an athlete experiences conflict in this area, his ability to recover will again be hampered.

The demands on an athlete’s time are huge at most levels. These demands are both internal (striving for perfection, the desire to succeed) and external (eg exams, expectations of coach and team mates). To allow for balance and full emotional recovery, time must be spent on enjoyable activities outside the sporting arena. This needn’t – and probably shouldn’t – involve staying out all night drinking with your non-athlete friends. Instead, activities like going out to dinner, watching a movie, going for a walk or listening to music will all allow you to relax and recover emotionally without having a detrimental effect on your health and performance.

Table 4: emotional recovery strategies

  • Spend quality time with close friends and family
  • Make sure you have a support network in place to provide financial, emotional and practical help
  • Spend time away from the sporting environment – eg pursuing another hobby
  • Spend some time with team mates outside the sporting environment
  • Spend some time on your own for reflection

In summary...

This article has identified some recovery strategies that may help athletes deal with physical, emotional and mental stress. The important thing to remember is that, as with physical training, an effective recovery strategy must be customised to an individual. While certain requirements are common to all athletes and can be offered in a team situation – eg food, water and physical rest – most recovery activities are a matter of personal preference and depend on individual circumstances, including home and work life.

Athletes should be aware of what works best for them, and also of their current recovery status – ie whether they need a complete break or just a bit of time to do something enjoyable. Coaches, for their part, should give the members of their teams some discretionary time every day to allow for individual recovery needs to be expressed.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI runs Excelsior, a sports training company

References

  1. US Olympic Committee Sport Science and Technology Report 1998
  2. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 1999; 38:188-193
  3. ‘Overload, fatigue, performance, incompetence, and regeneration in sport’ Lehman et al (eds), 1999, New York: Planum pp1-6
  4. Sport Psychology 1989; 3:63-71
  5. Hanin (2002), in Enhancing Recovery (ed Kellman)
  6. Motivation and Emotion 18:317-334
  7. Beckman (1998), in Personal Control in Action. Cognitive and Motivational Mechanisms (eds Kofta, Weary & Sedek) 259-278
  8. Lazarus & Folkman (1984), Stress, Appraisal and Coping
  9. Wrisberg and Johnson ‘Quality of Life’, in Enhancing Recovery 2002 (ed Kellmann) 253-267

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