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Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 8

Ok, this is going to be long but I’m determined to wrap this up  today so I can write about something else on Friday.  Today I want to look at some of the different methods that have been used in an attempt to monitor and/or diagnose overtraining to catch it before it happens and then finish up by looking at what to do if overtraining occurs (even if you did your best to prevent it).  I’d note that the various methods I want to mention in terms of monitoring overtrianing should be used in addition to the general ‘rules’ I talked about in Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 7.

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Monitoring/Preventing Overtraining

Finding ways to determine if overtraining is occurring has been a problem confronting sports scientists and coaches for decades with a variety of technologies and methods having been developed.  Certainly many of them used in either the lab or at the elite level aren’t terribly useful.  The average athlete can’t be expected to measure things like blood urea, the free testosterone/cortisol ratio or CPK levels.   Even some of the things I talked about previously such as comparing lactate to RPE or performance may not be readily available (lactate measurements also require blood to be involved which is a whole separate kettle of monkeys, to mix a metaphor).

So while such things may be useful, they aren’t that practically applicable and I won’t spend any time discussing them.  If readers are interested, they might pick up a copy of Viru and Viru’s Biochemical Monitoring of Sports Training.  It’s very thorough, exceedingly tedious and nearly 100% useless for the majority of athletes; the tech just isn’t available in a cost-effective manner for the methods discussed in the book.

Rather, I want to focus on a variety of more accessible technologies/methods (and this list absolutely won’t be comprehensive) that can be used to monitor and watch for signs of overtraining so that the problem can be stopped before it starts (as noted above, it’s always better to stop the problem before it occurs rather than fixing it after it happens).

These won’t be in any particular order and one thing I’d note is this: a huge problem in the diagnosis of overtraining is that while dozens of things can go south, there is rarely any singularly universal measurement that will turn negative for all athletes under all conditions.  So what might diagnose one athlete may be useless for another.  Using a mixture of the listed methods would be one solution to that; hopefully something you use will pick up a problem before it becomes to serious.

Resting Heart Rate (HR)

Heart rate in various forms has been used to try to monitor recovery and overtraining for decades now and it’s probably one of the easiest and more accessible methods.  I mentioned in a previous part of the series that a fairly large and consistent shift in the relationship of effort (gauged by RPE) or speed/workload and HR are one indicator of a potential problem.  Suddenly the same workloads cause a higher heart rate and this often indicates a problem.

I also already mentioned problems with this not the least of which that one type of overtraining sees a drop in HR that looks like a training effect; as well HR can be affected by a tremendous number of variables.  Beyond that, arguably the main benefit of monitoring HR in some fashion is ease of use.  With either a cheap heart rate monitor or simple finger measurement, you can take HR.

But more than just HR in general, here I want to talk about something more specific: morning or resting HR.   Since this eliminates variables such as work, stress, time of day etc. it’s a bit more accurate than HR measurement later in the day or during training. There are still problems.

First off, and this is actually a key to any of the methods I’m going to describe is that you must take all measurements under identical conditions or they won’t be comparable. In terms of resting HR, at least one implication of this is that morning HR should be taken at the same time of the morning under ideal conditions.  Comparing a measurement at 6am one day to 10am another (when you slept in) can throw off measurements.  Assuming you’re comparing similar times of day, here’s what I recommend for measurement:

  1. Wake up (I was going to say duh but there’s a note below about sleeping HR)
  2. Go pee/poop
  3. Put on heart rate monitor (if using one)
  4. Lie  quietly in bed for 5 minutes
  5. Take HR (start HR monitor or take finger measurement)

This is simply an attempt to a) minimize variables (a full bladder/bowels tends to raise HR) and b) get a more accurate resting value (hence the lie down for 5 minutes bit).  If you use a heart rate monitor, set it to record for a minimum of 1 minute and up to 5 minutes and take the average.

If your watch won’t do that, just watch it and see what value it settles at consistently.  If you take HR manually (finger on pulse), always use your ring/middle fingers (the index finger has its own pulse), and count for a minimum of 15 seconds (30-60 seconds is better) and always start the count at zero.  It’s also better to take HR at the wrist rather than the neck; pressing on the carotid artery causes a reflex that tends to lower HR.  A problem is that it’s not always easy to get a good HR at the wrist.

The rules of thumb on resting HR and training are this: if resting HR is up by 5 beats over normal, take an easy day.  If it’s 10 beats above normal, take a complete rest day.  If you don’t have a HR, you’re a zombie or vampire and have bigger problems.   Basically an increase in resting HR indicates that you’re getting excessive sympathetic tone and need to rest/recover.  It’s fairly crude and you need to have baseline data under fully recovered conditions to compare to but it’s cheap, easy and relatively accurate.

I’d note that it’s still not perfect since the whole waking up, peeing/pooping, lying back down thing can throw off values.  A solution IF you have a HRM that will measure through the night is to wear it through the night and look at true resting/sleeping values.  Of course, your watch has to be able to record for at least 8 hours or so.  It is also possible to cheat the test if you’re good; in my 20’s I would sit in bed and consciously force my heart beat to slow until it got to where I wanted it. Then I’d go train myself into the ground some more.

HR Differential

A related idea to resting HR is to use the differential in lying/seated vs. standing HR.  So you take HR for a minute, stand up and take it again and the difference is supposed to tell you something.  This is presumably a rough measure of the body’s overall sympathetic response since standing up tends to cause sympathetic activity to spike.  I’ve never used this so I can’t comment further on it or give guidelines on its use.  I’m sure they can be Googled.

Blood Pressure (BP)

Presumably the same resting and differential ideas can be applied to BP  Same basic idea, an increase in resting BP or a problem with the differential tells you a problem is starting.  You can find little combo HR/BP cuffs (they usually measure at the finger) if you want to look at that for tracking purposes.   I would mention that blood pressure tends to be very very sensitive to all kinds of random influences and small differences in blood pressure on a minute to minute basis probably mean very little.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

HRV is a relatively new entry (in the last several years) to monitoring training and it’s interesting enough that I will, at a future date, write a full article (or 6) on the topic.  Without getting into two many details, HRV is a measurement of the variability in the time between two R intervals in the normal heart rhythm (don’t worry about this too much).

Fairly simply, more variability is good and less variability is bad (indicating sympathetic overdominance); with less variability correlating with all manners of health problems.  It also indicates when overtraining is occurring or starting to occur.  I would note that, compared to heart rate or blood pressure, measuring HRV requires more expensive equipment.

The Omegawave Toy uses HRV as one of its measurements and will only run you about $10,000 or so. Recently more affordable options have become available; both Polar and Suunto make watches capable of measuring HRV at about $400 apiece.  Polar has the better software but Suunto has a transfer method that actually works more than 3 weeks.  Again, wait until I write a full article on this for details.

Not only can HRV indicate when an athlete is beginning to overtrain (and interestingly both endurance and strength/power athletes tend to show a dominance in sympathetic signalling, indicated by a decrease in HRV), it may also have some utility in actually planning training on a day to day basis.  Again, to discuss this in full will require an entire article and I will write that article in the future so please be patient and don’t ask me for details in the comments section.

Reaction Time

Some researchers have suggested that reaction time may be an indicator of overtraining and some emerging research supports this idea (with decreases in something called psychomotor speed occurring with excessive training loads).  When I was skating we started using a stopwatch to gauge reaction time, we’d do 6 start/stop series and average the values (so you try to start and stop the watch as fast as possible, do it 6 times and take the average) looking for trends in the average.  It wasn’t perfect but did seem to correlate reasonably well with overall recovery.

The skater Richard I mentioned in the No Regrets series did one particularly heavy week and his reaction time dropped about 0.04 seconds (from 0.13 to 0.17), with a few days of recovery, he was back to his previous average. I’d mention that this needs to be done under standard conditions (i.e. either before or after warmups, always compare like to like) and it is possible to cheat the watch by changing how you start and stop it.

I could get better values by pushing from both sides with both hands rather than just my thumb.  There is also a bit of a learning curve to hit the button consistently, I’d tend to throw out exceedingly different values on a day-to-day basis (e.g. if my norm was 0.12 and I got 0.22 it was usually because my finger slipped and I’d throw out the value)

I’d also mention that there are other variants on this type of thing that can be used.  I know of coaches who have used finger tapping tests (count the total number of taps in 15 seconds or what have you as a measure of movement speed) or drop tests (mark a stick and drop it from a standard height and see how quickly the athlete can catch it by measuring how many of the marks pass through his fingers) to do the same thing.  Cheap, easy and probably relatively accurate.  Again, you need to have baseline data under completely recovered conditions but assuming you do that, you can look at trends to monitor overall recovery.

Various Power Tests

Various vertical and long jump tests have been suggested as an indicator of overall recovery but I’m not sure this is a fantastic idea.  Doing a maximum test of any sort on a consistent basis, even if it’s just one or two repeats seems to be at odds with some basic training tenets (e.g. not going to maximum every day).  But this may be another valid approach, especially for strength/power athletes.

So after a standardized warm-up, test a maximum jump or three and take the average and compare it to values determined when the athlete is rested.  A big drop in performance would indicate a need for a rest day and some cutoff would need to be used to make that judgment.  It would be important that the athlete have experience with the movement for this to be valid.

Questionnaires

A variety of questionnaires have been used over the years to try and monitor for overtraining.  Probably the most common is the Profile of Mood Score (POMS) which tends to show a characteristic shift (called an Iceberg profile) in overall shape in scores when overtraining starts.  But it’s not perfect and doesn’t seem to pick up all cases of overtraining.  Probably because it wasn’t originally developed to be used for such.

More recent tests have been developed and validated such as the Recovery-Stress Questionnaire these are discussed in some detail in the otherwise worthless book Enhancing Recovery: Preventing Underperformance in Athletes by Michael Kellman.

There is apparently a full book on the questionnaire now as well, I haven’t read it and haven’t used either of the tests with myself or my trainees so I can’t comment further.  Whether accurate or not, perhaps the biggest drawback to this approach is time, since the questionnaires take time to fill out and score.

It’s not time athletes or coaches always have, certainly not on a day-to-day basis.  And while infrequent use might be useful, this may not pick up problems when they are starting; by the time the athlete takes the test, it may be too late.  In contrast, taking HR for 5 minutes in the morning (even HRV only takes about that long) or using a reaction time test can be done much more rapidly.

Sleep/Appetite/Mood

As I mentioned in a previous part of the series, a common occurrence with overtraining is a disruption in things like sleep patterns (usually sleep is impaired), appetite (generally the athlete loses their appetite) or mood (motivation suffers, the athlete doesn’t want to train, etc).  These are due to the inflammatory response from too much pounding on the body and the rest of what’s going on (e.g. excessive sympathetic drive).

Oddly, and no I don’t know why this is the case, often the mood changes occur before the performance deficits are seen.  So when athletes start to lose motivation, report problems with sleep or appetite, or just start to report feeling generally beat up or inflamed (there is often this sort of sub-chronic soreness that occurs, this is due to muscular inflammation), that’s often an indication that problems are beginning to start.  Unless the explicit goal is overreaching and they are supposed to feel beaten up for a couple of weeks, this is when its time to schedule a recovery week or two.

Of course, that assumes that the coach takes the time to ask the athlete about such things and the athlete is honest about it which brings us to….

How Are You Feeling/What Does the Coach see?

Having read basically every review paper ever written on overtraining, I always smile when I get to the end and, having discussed every aspect of overtraining, the authors conclude something to the effect of “Despite 30 years of research into trying to diagnose and prevent overtraining, perhaps the most accurate method available is for a coach to ask the athlete ‘How are you feeling?’ prior to training.”  Yes, that’s right, 30 years and god knows how many thousands of dollars dedicated to research and ‘How are you feeling?’ is the best we can do.  It’s no wonder athletes think sports science is useless.

Of course, this approach assumes that the athlete

  1. Has a coach in the first place.
  2. Has a coach that isn’t totally incompetent (e.g. is more than a glorified rep counter, stopwatch holder).

But assuming those two things are true, this is a valid approach.  Assuming that the coach actually is willing to pay attention to the what the athletes report (e.g. alter their perfect training program), this is not only a valid approach to monitoring recovery but perhaps the easiest.  I always ask my trainees “How are you feeling?” when they enter the gym.

I want to know how they feel overall (springy, tired, depressed, moody) in addition to anything specific (are old injuries acting up, did they have a long day at work) that might impact what I do with them in training that day.

Then after they lie to me about it….ok, I’m actually not just being obnoxious about this.  If there is a drawback to this approach to monitoring training it’s the same basic one that I discussed in Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 7 when I talked about listening to your body: people can rationalize.  Athletes don’t like easy days, they don’t like easy workouts, they don’t like being sent home if they are looking ragged.  Even if that’s what they actually need.

So when the coach asks ‘How are you feeling?’ they will usually say what they think the coach wants to hear so that they can go get pummeled.  That means saying that everything is great, sleep is good, mood is great, they are ready to hammer.  They’ll say this even if they feel terrible.

Please note that this isn’t universally the case: some athletes are more honest than others.  Usually these are older athlete who spent long enough injured and overtrained to know better now.  Most only learn the lesson long after they are past it being of the greatest use.  Younger athletes who are driven and psycho…expect them to lie to you.  I’m not usually one to assume the worst but in the case of overmotivated athletes, you have to assume they are lying until they prove to you that they aren’t.

And that’s why you can’t necessarily listen to what they say, this is when you actually have to be a coach (e.g. not just be the guy holding the stopwatch and counting the reps) and pay attention to what’s going on.  Using other more objective methods like reaction time or HR is helpful here, if their words don’t match the data, there’s a problem.

But this is where, as a coach, you have to watch their warm-ups, watch their technique, how is their movement speed, what are you seeing them do.  If they tell you they feel great but they look like dogmeat during warm-ups, you now know two things:

  1. They are going to lie to you about how they actually feel.
  2. That they probably still need an easy day.

And both are good data points.  Once you realize that an athlete is going to not be honest about how they are feeling, you can pretty much stop asking; they won’t be straight with you so don’t waste your time unless you just like playing games or think you can browbeat them into being honest.

In that situation, use other methods to monitor them.  HR, HRV, reaction time whatever.  But their verbal reports are useless until you get them to stop playing games and start telling you the truth.  Good luck with that.

But if they are actually being honest (e.g. telling you they feel bad when they are), this method can be very useful.  As noted in Part 7, there are still times when you have to make them man up and work through it (and you often teach a valuable lesson about what they can actually accomplish despite fatigue) but don’t do it all the time.  Ignore their self-reported data (if it’s accurate) often enough and you will dig them into a hole that may take weeks, months or longer to dig them out of.

Which, at long last, brings us to the final part of this series (you’re probably over-reached just reading it) which is:

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What to Do if You Overtrain

Rest.

Seriously, that’s it, that’s the exciting conclusion to this series.  If you’ve screwed up and trained too hard for too long with inadequate recovery and dug yourself in, the solution is rest and recovery for as long as needed to get out of the hole.  It might be weeks, or months or longer depending on how deep a hole you dug.  But you must rest.

And nobody can say up front how long it will take.  It doesn’t really matter.  You rest and recover until you’re rested and recovered.  You can’t force the process and all you can do is be patient and let it happen.  But now you wonder, what should you be doing during that rest period.

It’s would be ideal to start with 5-7 days completely off from training.  Brisk walking tops during that time period and nothing more intense.  Just go rest and sleep and eat and recover.  Get some massage if you can afford it, at least foam roll.  Epsom salt baths, relaxation, the stretching you’ve been skipping the last months.  Watch your nutrition.  Whatever you need to start the recovery process, now is the time to kick-start it and a full 5-7 days totally off will do that.

But what about after that?  During the rest and recovery period, you should keep training light, basically near the active recovery zone and limited in both duration and frequency.  But keeping intensity down is really the key here.  It should be kept at active recovery levels as described in the article Active vs. Passive Recovery.  Certainly no harder (endurance athletes might push up into the low aerobic zone, like 130-140 HR) and frequency should be kept down.  Maybe 3-4 days/week.  Duration, an hour tops.  Maybe.

Of course, athletes hate this.  They feel that time spent resting is time lost, won’t their fitness decrease?  And the answer is that yes it is and yes it will in that order.  But once overtraining has occurred, there’s no other choice.  The athlete can either recover now or recover later.  But they’re going to have to do it eventually.  The longer that they keep themselves from recovering by trying to train too much or too hard, the more time they lose.  The sooner they recognize the problem and fix it, the sooner the recovery will be taken care of and they can get back to real training.

But if they spend the next 2 monts training half-assedly (still too tired to do any real work but able to keep themselves from recovering completely), that’s another 2 months lost.  And they still need the weeks or month to fully recovery anyhow.  In fact, if they dig the hole deeper, they might need longer now. So that’s even more time lost.  So rather than ‘losing’ 2 months at the front end, by continuing to train, they’ve not only lost those 2 months of training but now need at least another 2 months (or longer) to fully recover.  So that’s 4+ months lost.  That’s stupid.

Oh yeah, athletes also worry about getting fat during the recovery period.  Some try to diet.  Do not do this.  In the same way that you can’t build muscle out of thin air and wishful thinking, you’re not going to recover from overtraining by restricting calories.  They need to be at maintenance or maybe slightly above, eat sufficient carbohydrates to keep hormones good and glycogen restocked.

Do some around workout nutrition with your recovery training to get the nutrients to your muscles to help with repair.  You may gain a little bit of fat but, too bad, you need to maintain an anabolic state to recover.  Dieting will just prolong the recovery process if not stop it completely.  The fat comes back off when you ramp training back up after recovery has taken place anyhow.  This is not the time to be neurotic about body fat levels.

And be patient.  In the same way that athletes are always in a hurry to get back into intense training after an injury, they try to rush back to training before they have truly recovered from overtraining.  Monitor some of the things I talked about above: HR, overall mood state, HRV if you have access.

Wait for it to get to 100% normal and stay there a week or two.  There’s no hurry and if you’re not 100% recovered and rush back in, you’ll just dig the hole again and lose more time.  The week or two you wait now is 4 weeks you don’t lose later by falling back off the edge.

And, finally, once you’re recovered, once the overtraining and underperformance syndrome is gone there are two things you must do:

First, ease back into training.  If you took 6 weeks off or whatever, your fitness will be down, your work capacity will be down.  But muscle memory is real, fitness always comes back faster than it was developed in the first place.  How long?   My rule of thumb is that it will take twice as long to get back to your previous levels as you had to rest.

So if you had to rest for 6 weeks, expect to take 12 weeks to even approach your old training levels.   Plan your training along those lines; work backwards from where you expect to be at 12 weeks and where you can reasonably start at week 1 AFTER the recovery process is done.  So if you had been doing 12 hours/week and you’re currently doing 3, plan a progression to get back to 12 hours (actually less than that) from 3 hours over that 12 week span (maybe adding an hour of training every 2 weeks or something).  Don’t think you can jump straight back in without breaking yourself and losing even more time.

Because if you jump back into your old training load, you’re done for; you’ll redig the hole and just have to lose more time recovering.  Spend a month or two building training back up towards the old levels (actually a level below what overtrained you before).  There’s no hurry and there’s everything to lose and nothing to gain by going too fast.  If you just spent 3 months recovering and overtrain yourself immediately again, you lose that much more time recovering again.  Don’t do this.

Second and far more importantly: LEARN from the experience.  Look at what you did that got overtrained in the first place.  What was wrong about your training, too much intensity, too many hard days, too much volume, was your recovery lacking for some reason?  Diet, sleep, recovery modalities, what was lacking?  Diagnose the problem and fix it going forwards.

Because otherwise you’ll just do it again.  Athletes repeat these cycles of training too much (and getting overtrained and/or injured), spending a month recovering and then doing the same thing over and over again.  If a given workload wasn’t tolerable 6 months ago and nothing has changed, it won’t be tolerable now.  So don’t think you can handle it this time around.  Don’t be an idiot, learn from your experiences.

Otherwise you’ll find yourself years down the road having wasted the prime years of your athletic career going through the classic cycle of overtrain/get injured, recover and then do it again without ever having seen your true performance capacity because you were never rested, always a bit over the edge, slightly injured.  It’s one thing to make the mistake once but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing more than once and expecting a different result.

And finally, I’m done.

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