Overtraining & Under-recovery

Kristen Dieffenbach PhD is an assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. She has a Ph.D. in exercise science with an emphasis in exercise and sport psychology from the University of North Carolina – Greensboro and is an Association of Applied Sport Psychology certified consultant. Currently she serves as advisory board member with the USA Cycling coaching education committee and is the cycling psychology editor for Peak Conditioning for Cycling. Her areas of educational, research, and consultation concentration include coaching education, performance enhancement, talent development, and understanding and preventing underrecovery. She has worked on numerous grants, projects, and consultations in these areas for the United States Olympic Committee, United States Tennis Association, USA Cycling, USA Water Polo, Peaks Coaching Group, and Carmichael Training Systems. She has published research articles in scientific journals and has written for applied publications such as Olympic Coach, VeloNews, and Dirt Rag. Kristen has also served as an expert panelist or consultant for features in publications such as Performance Conditioning for Cycling, Runner’s World, Backpacker, Bicycling, and Adventure Sports Magazine, and on the Outdoor Life Network. As a coach she holds an elite level USA Cycling license and has earned a Level II endurance specialization from USA Track and Field. She has coached for over 10 years at the high school, collegiate, recreational, and elite levels. Through her company, Mountains, Marathons, and More, she provides sport psychology consultation and education and she coaches for Peaks Coaching Group. For more information check out www.sportpsychonline.com

or contact her at kdieffenbach (at) sportpsychonline.com.

Podium: Kristen, your doctoral research focused on the impact of overtraining and insufficient recovery – referred to as under-recovery. What exactly is overtraining?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Overtraining is a term used to describe a whole set of symptoms that appear when the physical, emotional and/or psychological capabilities in an athlete’s system are unable to cope with the demands placed upon it. The long term effects of this overtraining process are known to lead to burnout, that unfortunate result that has seen many great talents fall by the wayside and leave their sport.

As a coach, when I’m training an athlete, we’re purposely engaged in a process of pushing the boundaries in the short term, specifically taxing some part of the athlete’s system and following that with a recovery period. This progressive taxing and recovery is what conditioning is all about. We must tax the system or it won’t grow stronger, get faster, or develop that athlete’s potential.

Most people forget that stress is cumulative and comes from all different sources in your life. Athletes don’t train in a vacuum. As an athlete, you bring everything with you to training. You bring everything with you all the time. You experience stress from any number of sources; final exams, the busy time at work, your kids are sick, having a fight with your spouse, all of those things in addition to the load physical puts on the [athlete’s] system. It’s not just those stresses, but also the inability to recover from or cope with them sufficiently that sets somebody up to experience mal-adaptations for a short-term and [if not remedied] longer term problems that can ultimately destroy a season.

Podium: So what you are saying is that the same athlete doing the same training regimen might do just fine one month, but a month later, they get upside down because of some other loading on their system?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Yeah, most definitely. A kid I was working with recently had been doing fine with training when all of the sudden, he started having a whole lot of trouble. I started talking to him about what [was] going on. His girlfriend just broke up with him and he was in the middle of finals. The conversation went like this, “Well, you’ve got 5,000 extra pounds of weight on you right now. Of course, training is not going to go as normal. You’re not sleeping the same way you used to. Your best friend/girlfriend is now gone and not a part of your life. You’ve lost some ability to recover from the training and we might have to scale back a little bit to get stronger again.” This is really foreign to most athletes’ mindsets. You say the words “back off” and it has a very negative connotation to them.

Podium: Can this condition be measured?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Most of the measures of over-training we have right now, the good ones, are biochemical and hormonal markers you do in a lab. You can check different things other than that by [gathering] anecdotal information and watching [performance] numbers, but the lab work provides the only way we know for sure if someone is physically tapped out – true overtraining. Unfortunately, that’s done retrospectively. The [markers in the lab show up] after the damage has been done, and the road back from an over-trained situation for someone on the verge of burnout can take months, even years, depending on how much damage has been done physically. Don’t forget that the changes in someone’s mental attitude and [their] beliefs about themselves can be just as damaging as the cellular damage if not more so.

Podium: So Kristen, you mentioned that the literature identifies 200 different contributing elements that all lead someone toward this over-trained experience, what are the most important ones in your experience that you think we need to be on the lookout for?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Some of the most common signs and symptoms of longer term overtraining on the physical side include sustained declines in performance. When you train hard, you know you’re tired and 2-3 days of decreased performance is usually expected. We do that on purpose. Athletes do that all the time. But when this decline in performance remains over a week or two, or comes at a time when not expected, that’s a [problem]. We just had two recovery days, you should be feeling chipper again, and you should be performing again – both in training and competition.

Prolonged muscle weakness and soreness out of the [athlete’s] normal range or when it is lasting longer than it should [be] can be a sign of trouble. Chronic fatigue, a malaise or feeling very tired throughout your day and throughout your activities [is another]. Depressed immune function, upper respiratory infections or [frequent] colds can be a sign that your system is pretty fragile and that you’ve tweaked something to the point where your [recovery is] maladapted or under-recovered.

Sleep disturbances, having trouble sleeping through the night, waking very easily, or reporting poor quality of sleep can also indicate poor adaptation. Increased resting heart rate is one that’s has been talked about for years. Injuries, and not just the big ones – the little, stupid annoying tendonitis or other aches and pains that are out of the ordinary for the training cycle or ones lasting longer than they should need to be noted as signs of potential problems. Finally, a lot of athletes will report getting headaches when they’re over-trained.

On the other, the psychological side, athletes will become irritable and [we will see] increased anger. People getting [upset] at things that don’t usually bother them. Folks get absolutely frustrated with people for things that normally would roll off their back. The increased irritability is more intense, the “I can’t stand in this line any longer, it’s driving me nuts” kind of irritability. Increased depression is commonly experienced or a downward spiral in mood – not enjoying things that you used to enjoy. Athletes just don’t feel like their normal selves.

Reduced motivation is another and that goes along with not enjoying the training anymore, not really wanting to do it. Mental exhaustion [is another] and noted when people have a hard time concentrating and focusing on things you’re supposed to be doing that require mental acuity. By the time someone is experiencing emotional exhaustion, that’s that point where you’re just too tired to cope with it. “Don’t talk to me now, I can’t deal with this” sort of thing.

One that is often hard for people to see within themselves, but coaches’ family and friends can see it from the outside is a decreased sense of self-esteem, really starting to doubt one’s own abilities. You just don’t feel very good about what you’re trying to do, or who you are, or what you’re accomplishing. It is demoralizing.

Podium: Talk about mental conditioning with respect to this. A lot of what you described sounded like the symptoms of depression; agitation, irritability, sleeplessness, maybe loss of appetite, maybe voracious appetite, one or the other, like where they want to sleep all the time or they can’t sleep, and then obviously, the ripple effect on the quality of relationships that everybody would have. Is there any clear discernable difference between what might be specifically related to overtraining and what might be an example of depression?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Oh, I think that’s a great connection and it’s one that a lot of people don’t really recognize or value very much. When we start talking about overtraining in an athlete, it can become very much a chicken and egg kind of syndrome if we’re not careful. It can take a lot of work tapping into people who have some expertise in these different areas to really define which came first. It can cycle either way, depression leading to an overtraining situation or vice versa.

When we talk in athletics about over-training, we tend to be looking at changes in performance, and we start to see back to back workouts day after day that show a decline. But it is very closely related to depression in that we typically also see a loss of enjoyment. We see an athlete emotionally shutting down or detaching themselves from their performances. Like you mentioned, we see relationship problems also. The two run a very close parallel. But when we’re looking at the overtraining part of things, we’re really looking at physical changes in performance, as well as the emotional side. It can have a snowball effect.

Podium: The level of training, the level of coaching, and the level of intensity involved in the workouts for athlete development have shifted in the past few years. How does this climate contribute to overtraining or proper recovery?

Kristin Dieffenbach: That’s a really good question. Like you noted, we have seen big changes in the way training is done. We’ve got better equipment. Swimmers have special suits, the bikes are lighter and better, power meters and all kinds of training tools are being used. Exercise physiology, which is still a very young science, is just starting to get into it’s heyday with people who understand training psychology. All the different aspects of exercise science are really starting to be better understood in the lab, but also they are doing a better job of getting the information out there. New training books are being published all the time and there is more information available to coaches and athletes. In the 1980’s it was very difficult to get to know the training methods of the elite.

The embracing of periodization training has made it so that every athlete, not just elite athletes, can have access to credible training methodology. The old “put 12 eggs in a glass and drink them down and that’ll make you fast” kind of thing is long past us. Some tried and true [methods] have evolved.

Add to all this, the fact that we’re a very outcome driven society, a very “right now” outcome driven society and the stage is set for overtraining. The expectation of “I put the work in, I should be successful now”, and, “Why would you bother to do it if you weren’t going to be successful?” is prevalent. The pressures abound. Often in our culture, success means only winning and that is the only thing that is rewarded. Otherwise (you know that horrible saying), “Second place is just first loser”, (which irks me to no end, because it doesn’t really honor the true nature of sport and sport participation). All of these things come together to create tremendous pressure, even on athletes just doing it recreationally, not to mention young athletes.

It’s a pretty intense environment even for people just racing recreationally. You spend $3000 on a bike [and] you don’t want to feel like you’re just playing out there. That’s a big investment for anybody. All those things come together and really set people up for feeling the need to do well [like a mantra]…I must do more, I must do more, and I must do more…totally missing the whole idea of self-balance.

Podium: You know when you’re talking about over-training and what it leads to including the number of areas in one’s life that are impacted by it…and then you look at the literature and utilization of sport psychology services, not just by endurance athletes, but athletes that operate at a very high level in several different sports. These athletes don’t seek out sport psychologists to address the emotional side of overtraining until their career is potentially at risk. Sometimes they’ve been injured to the point where they can’t get the aerobic fix and they need something to address the anxiety. The upshot is that it’s often a crisis situation when they finally consult with someone who is a professional in that area. What can be done preventively to address this kind of thing and get these athletes where they need to go, before it becomes a crisis?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Well I think first you have to understand the environment. Most people really do have a very traditional and narrow view of an athlete. Being an athlete means training your body physically. And boom, we’re going to go to the track and we’re going to run hard, or we’re going to get on the bike and go ride miles, get your watts up, get your stride length up, get whatever physical goal, hit your time, hit your mark etc. For most athletes, they don’t even think about it. It doesn’t cross their mind. Addressing the mental side of things is not written into most periodization plans. It’s not even considered most of the time. Unfortunately, it is usually viewed only as, “There must be a problem, if we’ve got to deal with that side of things.” They overlook the fact that when you hit the track or when you get on the bike, you’re not just bringing your muscles you are [bringing] mind, body and soul. They are all going with you and they all play a role. If you had a bad day, it’s coming with you on the bike, unless you know how to leave it behind.

Our tradition of sports and elite sport especially has been a model, not just in this country, but around the world, where you take everybody and you dump them in [the hopper], and those people who survive are the ones that float to the top, and the people who experience some trouble along way, no matter how gifted, may sink.

You hear a lot of old coaches talking that way, too. You’ll hear people saying, “Well he just doesn’t have the head for it,” or “There is something wrong with that athlete”. If they can’t make it, then goodbye to them, we’ll find somebody else who can replace them. I think it’s a really sad mindset, because everybody is born with skills and talents, both physical and psychological. Some people are great sprinters, some people are good hill climbers and some people are good endurance people. Some people naturally handle stress better than others. Some people naturally have the ability to set up good social networks, so that they’ve got support. From the beginning, you need to address all of these components.

Remember that over-training and burnout is not only prolonged stress, no matter where the stress comes from, but it’s also a result of poor recovery and the potential of some sort of deficiency in our ability to cope or handle stress. Instead of just focusing on physical training, we [would do well] to focus on [answering certain questions] like: “How can I balance my time better?” “How can I learn better time management?” “What do I need now?” or “How do I [obtain] better support from people?” or “How can I [develop] better coping skills?”

One of the most important tools I’ve discovered in my research involves a construct called “Dispositional Hardiness”, which was developed by Dr. Salvatore Maddi, from Harvard. Hardy individuals are people who have the three C’s. They have the ability to see things as challenging, as opposed to problem-focused. They have the ability to really hone in on what is within their power to control. And, they have the ability to see things as being worthy of their commitment or time invested. The three C’s, challenge, commitment and control really give us a foundation to approach training and how to approach problem-solving.

Podium: So is the answer a proper recovery, or a strategy, or a fully encompassing training program that incorporates recovery at a significant level?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Yeah. Well the strategy is multi-fold, just like the training is multi-fold, just like the person is multi-fold. You know part of the strategy understands that physical training is not one size fits. We all have different needs. The second part involves understanding that you can only stress your body as much as you have the resources to match that stress.

If you’re good and have the ability to get good recovery it helps. Just putting more hours into the week isn’t going to do it. You’ve got to have matched sleep, matched hydration, and matched everything. It’s also being very aware of what skills you bring to the table. [Again the support questions], “Do I need to ask somebody for help with handling a source of life stress?” Or, “How am I going to improve my ability to handle the different things that cause me stress?”

Remember, stress can also be positive. We tend to see stress as just negative. Stress is anything that forces change or forces adaptation, so a new baby, new house, new job, all positive things can be very stressful. The key thing about this is asking yourself: Are you realistic about balancing stress and recovery? Are you realistic about what your skills are to handle those things?

Podium: A lot of athletes have trouble asking for help, what would you say about that?

Kristin Dieffenbach: I think it’s a really common mindset and a social construct, but we tend to view weakness or perceive weakness as fallibility and as a problem. Asking for help is seen as admitting to some sort of weakness, and this isn’t acceptable to most people, especially if it is in the realm of mental skills.

[It makes a difference] when you can change it around in your mind from a weakness to [a challenge], it can have a huge impact on the ability to grow. It is a subtle mind shift. But because we’re so focused on a weakness, and afraid someone is going to exploit it – [The weakness] becomes a very hard thing to acknowledge.

We have less of a problem admitting a problem when it’s physical because it is more acceptable. If somebody has bad hamstrings, they don’t mind saying, “Hey, you know, my hamstrings are a little tweaky. I need to do something. Can you recommend Pilates, or can you help me with my stretching?” But when we say, “You know my time management skills are really not so good,” or “I get so nervous before competitions it is interfering,” or “I can’t seem to handle the stress at work and it’s impacting my ability to train well or sleep at night,” or whatever it is threatening. We are not very comfortable with the mental side.

So if you can make that mind shift to the three C’s [Challenge, Commitment & Control] it can make a difference. This is something I need to do and improve on to get better. Who’s the best person to help me? I need to learn a skill and turn it from a deficiency to a learning opportunity. That’s what creating hardiness or creating a stronger self is all about. And really trying to view it from a different perspective, because otherwise, you’re just going to continue with what you are perceiving as a limitation, and it will continue to be a limitation. Those things don’t magically go away.

Podium: Can you see a role for Podium serving as an educational resource to the benefit of athletes who are touched by it? Providing support for learning time management, organizational skills, relationship maintenance, stress management, relaxation ability – a variety of concerns that would all play into someone’s ability to manage the physical and emotional stress in their lives and bring themselves into a place where they have such balance in their life that they are really enjoying it.

Kristin Dieffenbach: Oh yeah. Most definitely! It amazes me sometimes that people can do so well in their business world, and then they come to cycling and don’t bring with them all of their skills that helped them be successful. You can’t add a physical training stress to your environment and expect to excel just because you did the hard physical work. Because physiologically, training gains don’t just come from the training. They come from the combination of the training and the recovery. Remember, you are a whole athlete; you’re a multidimensional [person]. You’ve got all these forces pushing on you all the time, and you must match resources to all of them to make a balance – if you can’t recover from the training you do and you don’t have an environment set up that allows that to happen, you are not going to get stronger no matter how much work you do. And even if you do get stronger, you’re certainly not going to be able to reach your potential or even know what your potential is. It doesn’t have to be so complicated, but it does mean you have to have a holistic approach.

When you say how many hours a week you have to train, the real question should be, “How much life stress have I got going on, how much training stress can I add to that, and do I have adequate opportunity to recover from the physical stress of the training to balance life out a little bit.” So instead of going, “Okay, time-wise, I’ve got 20 hours to train this week,” you might back up and say, “You know what, 20 hours is going to stress out my relationship with my spouse and cut out my time with my kids. And at 20 hours, I’m scheduling stuff in with ten minutes in between activities, and I’m only getting six hours of sleep a night.” What if we back off training to 15 hours? We now can get a good eight hours of sleep a night, do some of our other recovery things. Your spouse is happier with you. You spend more time with your kids. You feel like a more balanced person. You’ll get more physical gains from those 15 hours of quality than you would from the 20 crammed together, because you have addressed the whole picture and kept it balanced.

It is really hard to do, because in our society and our training environment – more is better, no pain, no gain, etc. And everybody has got this huge fear of being left behind [thinking] the other guy might be doing more. Unfortunately the emphasis is often, wrongly, on quantity over quality.

Podium: Do you have an assessment tool that you use that evaluates mental needs that an athlete would have for recovery, or for assessing the degree of success that they’re getting from the tools that they’re employing in their recovery?

Kristin Dieffenbach:
Well there’s no one tool that’s out there, because the concept of under-recovery, balance and the whole athlete perspective, called “The Conceptual Model of Over-training and Burnout” by Europeans Kennta and Hasseman is a relatively newer concept.

But Michael Kellmann, a German sport psychology researcher has come out with [a tool] called “The REST-Q”. And together Kellmann, along with sport psychologist professor and consultant, Cal Botterill from Canada, have come up with something called “The Recovery Cue”. Both of those are measures that can be used to help somebody assess their recovery to training.

The REST-Q, in particular, looks at current perceived stress and perceived recovery for both sport and life situations. It can be given repeatedly over time to help somebody monitor how well [they are] responding, and it can help somebody, the coach and/or the athlete, gain awareness and insight, as to how well they are doing [regarding recovery]. It can be a proactive heads up to things somebody might not otherwise see in their own life. The Recovery Cue is a pared down seven question scale that can also be used repeatedly over time and provides valuable information.

When I’m working with somebody on a consulting basis, typically just asking them about the quality of their training, how often are they motivated to train, how much are they enjoying it, how much does it interfere with or cause friction with significant others, spouses, or kids, or work, or things like that – can give me a good idea on how well somebody is balancing things, how much time somebody has for training, and how much fun they still have in their life.

Most cyclists, even at a semipro/pro level, aren’t always doing it for the money, because it’s not like it is a big money sport. And even if it is, you know most people will stop doing something once the joy is gone. You see pro athletes leave all the time and say, “It’s just time. You know it’s time to walk away.” It’s not as fun or enjoyable as it used to be. The pain and hard work just aren’t balanced by the thrill anymore.

So, one of my main questions when faced with someone who is struggling is, “Are you enjoying it?” You do this for fun. You do this because you’re passionate about it. It shouldn’t be a huge source of [stress] or like a lead weight you’re dragging along. You shouldn’t have that entrapment feeling.

You go to some of the master’s races and you’ll see those guys who are just cranky and miserable out there. They’re just overwhelmed. They are trying to do everything and their perspective is pretty off and they’re not enjoying it anymore. Those are people who are typically over-trained and heading towards burnout – and again, over-trained and under-recovered. They’re under-recovered and not very well balanced. You know it has a lot of potential for low performance, but then it also starts to affect how you feel about yourself and everything else.

Podium: How should a coach intervene in this type of situation?

Kristin Dieffenbach: I think the best thing a coach can do is be proactive. I’ll get to intervention, but I think the best thing to do is to be proactive and build into training moments of fun, looking for times to put in what I call “beach days”. Go ride the beach cruiser. Go take grandma for a ride. Grandma never gets to go for a bike ride. Take grandma for a bike ride. You’ll go slow. It’ll be fun. You’ll get to talk to grandma. So build in those kinds of days into training. And be very insistent that athletes do them. Ask the athlete and let them pick their own “fun” days so they will be more likely to comply.

Educate your athlete on what to expect. You know you’re going to get tired at certain times of training – make sure the athlete isn’t blindsided by it. Like I said on the front end, you’ve got to over-train a little bit. Maybe we should rephrase it and call it overreaching, or short-term overtraining. You’ve got to have some sort of stress on the system physically. So, alert athletes as to what to expect so that then, if things start to go too far, they can say, “Hey, you know, I’ve been feeling this way for a while now, and I think it’s longer than we expected.”

Helping athletes put the training into perspective with their life, keeping them mindful of the fact that 20 hours training is not automatically better than 15, if 20 hours means sacrificing something you can’t afford to sacrifice. It’s very different for a person that’s got a 40-hour a week job versus somebody who is an elite athlete. There’s a difference between an elite recreational (who works 40 hours) and somebody who is going for the Olympics. They are both balanced, but their balance is different based on their unique individual life situations.

So, setting them up [properly] and helping them keep it in perspective – and keep it balanced with the big picture. You are a cyclist who has a life, a person beyond what you do on the bike. And keep it very personalized. This is this person’s plan. It’s got to be based on what [the individual’s life is like]. If you’re training a student and its final exam time, [you must] take that into account. If you’re training somebody who just had a baby in the family, keeping that in perspective and helping them do that as well.

From an intervention side, being mindful of working to have the kind of relationship with an athlete where you can say, “Hey, we’re not seeing what we want to see here. Let’s take a look at the big picture. What’s going on here? How are things supporting what you’re doing and how are things interfering?”

Talking constantly about; “What did you do for recovery, how was your nutrition, your hydration, your sleep, massage, active rest, doing things that are very low key, but are just for fun and for movement’s sake?” “How are you able to relax?” “Can you sit down and just read, enjoy a book or let go of stress for a little while, or enjoy some silly movie on TV?”

You can only be as personal as is appropriate for your relationship, but being aware of what that person’s support system is like, and how that plays into it. And saying, “Hey is everything okay? Because I noticed you’re not responding to training the way you have in the past, maybe we’re getting stressed from somewhere else.” You’re not going to solve the problem for them, but offering support and resources to help them figure out how to bring it back into balance, ultimately, that’s what the body is always trying to do. We like balance. Balance is good.

Podium: You know in your case and in other coach’s cases, the relationship is oftentimes an email relationship and you’re putting together training plans for an athlete long distance. How can an athlete, if they’ve got to be more self-driven and self-monitored, how can an athlete prevent overtraining and make sure that they get adequate recovery?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Well overtraining is probably going to happen in everybody’s career to a certain degree, because again, you’re stressing the system and even when careful, cumulative stress can sneak up on us. But the long-term overtraining, the negative stuff, the best thing you can do to avoid it is be very proactive.

Keeping a logbook is an awesome way to stay in touch with your training. Because we tend to have that interesting little habit of either rose-coloring things or forgetting important details, [so] keeping a logbook that has details in it, keeping track of the little nagging injuries, because prolonged nagging injuries can be one of those signs and symptoms of becoming over-trained. Keeping track of how often you get colds, because repeated upper respiratory infections can be one of the signs and symptoms of over training. Keeping notes in your logs about when you feel emotional exhaustion or just complete mental exhaustion, or when your motivation is dropping. Some people will do that with a diary-style [logbook]. Some people will use scales of one to ten. Some people will put happy faces on the good days and frowning faces on the bad days. Whatever works?

But in some way, shape or form, [it’s important] chronicling your training. Not just, the physical parameters that everybody loves so much, “Oh, my watts said this, and my kilo joules were this, and my time was this, and my mileage was this”, but get to the qualitative stuff, too. What was the quality of the experience, because that’s much richer information and it’s going to give you a much better idea of what is really going on. I mean you can do 200 watts and have a great day, and you can do 200 watts and have a miserable day. You can do a 20-mile awesome ride and a 20-mile ride that’s a really bad day and have much more information about what happened through qualitative information you noted than just with the hard facts. So keeping a logbook is an awesome tool. And actually reviewing that data occasionally, looking for patterns.

Podium: How often should they review this?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Usually, when I’m working with people as a consultant, I get people once they’re on the other side and they’re trying to come back. We set up logbooks that we usually review on a weekly basis just to get a snapshot of the week. But we really [try to take a bigger look] at it on a monthly basis.

[Logbooks} are a tool. If you start to feel like there’s a problem, you can always go back to it. But not just jotting things down. Saying, “Last week I had more smiley faces than frowning faces. The quality of the experience was positive.” That’s what I would expect. Or “Hmm – this past week, I had some motivation trouble. I was really tired. I was kind of irritable. But my physical training plan said that this was supposed to be a hard week, so I’m not surprised. Or, things were bad at work, so I’m not surprised it trickled into training.”

Now I can be proactive going into the next week saying, “Well I’m supposed to be a little tired right now. It’s okay. I’ll let it ride.” Or “You know I was really irritable and I think it’s got more to do with work. How can I adjust things so that I stop the trend now, before it goes another week?” [When properly done] you can make micro adjustments to your training on a weekly basis.

Another thing that [athletes] can do is to practice keeping it in perspective. You have to ask “What’s the right balance for me?” If you’re a pro athlete and you’re trying to make it onto the international circuit, your balance is going to be different. To an average person, that might look stupid or unbalanced, but it is balanced for you for the level you are at. You’re the one who has to be okay with it. Your relationship has to be okay with it. You know all of those things that have to be okay with it. If you’re a wife with a job, and two kids, and a husband, and you’re trying to climb the ranks of triathlon on the local circuit, your balance is going to look different than someone who is single and a student.

There’s a lot of self-awareness that has to go into this and the willingness to acknowledge where you need some give and take. Athletes don’t like to do this, they just want to have it all, just like the rest of us. You’ve got to be realistic, because without that realism, you know you’re just setting yourself up for a problem at some point.

Podium: It seems to me that a good percentage of the population is overtrained, certainly those over 50. What do you think of that?

Kristin Dieffenbach: There’s a very fine line between perfect training and becoming over-trained, and it’s all on a continuum. I mean it’s so important to realize that there we operate on a continuum from undertraining to optimal training to overtraining. We go from not doing enough training to bring about changes, to inducing short-term mal-adaptations on purpose to help you get faster and stronger. As we move over on the continuum, we will ultimately bump up training too much so that your system can’t handle it. Since athletes aren’t [kept] in a vacuum, we might have bumped it up too much, or maybe we haven’t even changed training at all, but something else has become more stressful. Either way we need to address our recovery and our balance issues. So it may not even be that the training is wrong. It might be that we’re not adequately balancing the recovery from our training. [The combination] might slide the scale too far over on the continuum to where problems start.

At what point do you cross over from having a good mal-adaptation to a bad mal-adaptation, to a serious problem mal-adaptation? The exact cross over point is going to be different for every athlete. We often don’t have a clue until we’ve hit the red zone. Being self-aware and proactive is key. If you’re going to push the line, be aware that you’re pushing it, so that you can maybe come back a little bit sooner and avoid the red zone, because once in the red zone, it may take a long time to recover, if at all.

Podium: So you are doing great until you’re not.

Kristin Dieffenbach: Yeah and it’s a tricky thing to handle for both the coaches and the athletes. That’s where the power of self-awareness helps and why it is so important talking about the issue like we’ve been doing. The more aware you are of it, the more likely you are to recognize, “Okay, this is normal. I’m supposed to be tired.” Versus “This is not normal, I need to pay attention to some things.”

It’s very personalized work, so you can start recognizing how your training might impact yourself. With my own personal training, there’s a point where I know I’m supposed to be tired and I expect it, and I sometimes warn my spouse, “Hey, I might be cranky the next couple of days, and I’m sorry but I’m pushing the physical limits a whole bunch,” or “I’ve got a lot on my plate and I’m trying to get my training in. I might be a little cranky. I’ll come out of it on Wednesday. I should be fine.” And you sort of proactively set out to balance, because if you don’t do that, then you start creating a situation where you haven’t really thought about it and you’re tired and irritable. And you keep pushing and you get more tired, irritable and boom, all of a sudden, you get sick. Or you’re tired and irritable and you create other problems and situations. All of a sudden you’re in a place where everything is overloaded and you’re performance is going to suffer, or you’re going to get injured.

Podium: Kristen, we’ve talked about two really important things: 1) how to get coaches to be more proactive rather than reactive; 2) when working with athletes in a long distance coaching relationship or in an email relationship, how they can use their logbooks to really help them drive their recovery process to avoid overtraining.

Sometimes coaches need to hold their athletes more accountable. I have experience with athletes who just “can’t dial it back” where they need to on an easy day, because without that it really doesn’t allow them to recover adequately. There is no such thing as a “beach day” for some athletes. Getting these athletes to focus on what it really means to recover, and getting their coaches to hold them accountable. Do you have any recommendations for how to do that?

Kristin Dieffenbach: Like you said, it’s a really complex situation and a lot of things feed into it. Sometimes a lack of education is a factor while other times an athlete may be fearful of what their competition is doing in their training. Coaches need to take a step back and genuinely look at what they value and how they communicate that to their athletes. Do they actually practice what they preach? Do they emphasize recovery as much as they emphasize the hard work? A lot of times we (as coaches) feel we need to push people to work hard. High level athletes tend to push themselves really hard, and so we probably need to flip it around and encourage recovery in such a way that the language used is a clear reminder to recover.

One example that comes to mind is a guy I was working with who took a day off when the coach told him to, but his idea of a recovery day was to do big house projects. He would redo a section of the roof or would do a bunch of log cutting on their 4 acre lot. He would even use a push mower on their 2 acres of grass. Yeah, he would take the day off and not do a workout but he didn’t realize how all the labor impacted him.

The coach needs to emphasize the value of the recovery and educate their athlete as to why it matters and what exactly “recovery” entails. It’s not the day to do the “honey do” list. If the “day off” means the athlete has to work on projects then we need to revamp the schedule a little bit and account for that.

Passive recovery time means you are “relaxing”. Do you have a place where you can sit down and just “be” and not be stressed. Sitting at your desk doesn’t automatically assume you are relaxing. Do you have a quiet place and a good book so that the passive recovery can occur properly? Of course the active recovery tasks of hydration, sleep and fueling the body are better known. Coaches really need to push these things. It’s a huge educational process for the athlete.

Everybody sees all the commercials where everybody is working hard, sweating hard, doing everything they need to do, but you never see anybody talk about all that time that you need for that hard work to take root. Particularly with the popular mindset and the slogans we associate with sport like “go hard or go home” and “no pain no gain”. Nobody talks about the other end. There are no tee shirts with that slogan on it. We tend to associate sitting still with being lazy, which in an athlete’s case is not what they are doing.

A lot of education is required and a coach can not assume that an athlete understands the value of recovery because most of the time they don’t until they get injured or severely hurt. Then they are forced to take recovery, or something happens and for a couple of days they absolutely can’t train, and then they discover they feel wonderful. Those are really teachable moments where you can illustrate the example and point out, “Hey did you see how that happened, maybe not the first day after the week off, but certainly the second day – you were on fire!”

Podium: Understanding this process levels the playing field in such a way that people who have goals, or aspirations, and are challenged by the things they work hard at need to be conscious of these other components because overtraining doesn’t necessarily involve only the elite athlete. It involves everyday athletes in many different situations. That level of awareness of not only what condition my condition is in, but in what way am I conditioning my condition? This has been very helpful. Thanks so much.

Kristin Dieffenbach: Isn’t it amazing how the mind and body are connected yet we try so hard to keep them separate. Thanks so much, I had fun.

[audio src="http://podiumsportsjournal.com/podcasts/Kristen_Dieffenbach.mp3" /]

Here’s the link to the interview podcast.

13 thoughts on “Overtraining & Under-recovery

  • Pingback:Zen and the Art of Triathlon » I am Exhausted

  • January 4, 2008 at 11:29 pm
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    I am 29 years old and until about 3 years ago i was a very active person. It all started when i got a pair of strenght shoes and started running 100 yard sprints and lifting weights hard afterwards. I ran and lifted about four or five days out of the week. At the same time i was experiencing stress on my job and i noticed that it bothered me more than usual. I started to notice that i would sweat a lot and my heart would be racing on and off. Just when i thought things couldn’t get worse i could not sleep at night and after a while of not sleeping my concentration went out of the window. Along with the rest of this nightmare my strenght and sex drive decreased dramatically. Finally i hit rock bottom and checked myself into a mental hospital because i actually thought i was going crazy. I stayed only a week. Being that i always considered myself a very sturdy individual mentally and physically this was just a shocker. Recently i have gotten a little better but i still am not back to feeling like myself. I still can’t exercise without having to sacrifice the little progress that i have made. My question to you is: am i stuck feeling like this for the rest of my life and can you recommend some supplements to aid my recovery.

    Reply
  • February 28, 2009 at 10:09 am
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    Dear Mark,
    Sorry about the difficulties and I’m glad you’re on the mend. Your overtraining experience just illustrates in a graphic way how bad it can get and how long it may take to recover. Be patient as best you can, and focus on relaxation training specifically. Keeping things in balance is more difficult than people think. Just consider the number of work/life balance experts who are popping up all over. I’m not knowledgeable of the supplement field – so I’ll be brief and recommend you get your blood checked out. I’m thinking thyroid dysfunction specifically but there are other factors that might contribute. Good luck – and thanks for visiting Podium.

    Reply
  • June 13, 2009 at 6:15 pm
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    I have found this to be the most indepth, proactive article on over training ever. It has given me some tools I can use to become the fittest and strongest ever. Kristen articulated the issue in a way the condenses all that is said elsewhere, but in a form that gives power to the athlete. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and wanting to back away from exercise, I feel empowered to keep going and to ENJOY rest!

    Reply
    • June 14, 2009 at 10:15 am
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      Hi Kate,
      Thanks for the feedback. Watch for more contributions from Kristen – including a blog entry on Page 1 – “Don’t We Owe Them More?”
      Keep tuned in – we love your input.
      Doc

      Reply
  • June 15, 2009 at 8:18 pm
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    How soon will you update your blog? I’m interested in reading some more information on this issue.

    Reply
    • June 15, 2009 at 9:05 pm
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      Thanks Gary – I’ll put in a request to get another posting on this from Dr. Dieffenbach. There are several factors contributory to overtraining that athletes and coaches rarely consider. Elevated stress levels, competing demands, amped up life activities, inability to manage strong emotions, etc. All these things contribute. Stay tuned for a couple of pieces on Brainspotting – and another key article on Core Competencies for peak athletic performance. Appreciate your support. Come back often and tell your friends. Doc

      Reply
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  • December 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm
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    2.5 years ago my body crashed after a year of severe overtraining. I was 103lbs at 5’6, doing 2-4hrs in the gym, trail running 3 times a week, moutbain biking, kayaking while holding down a landscaping company. All was feeling great until I started bloating and went to a nutritionist to figure out my issue. She put me on an elimination diet while I kept this kind of training up. Within a week I knew something was wrong. I gained 10lbs, stopped sleeping, started having leg pains. By week 3 I removed myself from the diet as I had put on 25lbs (of all fat), had magic depression, acne and lost my menses for 14months, and my thyroid was now under active. Over the next 6mnth tho my diet was super clean my weight climbed to 150lbs. I was tested and they found my dhea, progesterone and testo was low. Cortisol was super high. After 2.5 yrs I’m down to 133lbs but still am too high body fat and would prefer to get to 120-125lbs. No doc or naturopath or specialist one has been able to help me get the weight off of the acne cleared up. I now train 5 days max. Never longer than 40mins. I eat clean but I don’t deprive myself. My calories range from 1500-2000 depending on what I ask my body to do. I walk my dogs a lot for stress relief and take Epsom salt baths. Please any suggestions?

    Reply
    • December 22, 2013 at 5:08 pm
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      Dear Tiffiny,
      Ouch! Really tough go. There is really not much known about the long term effects of overtraining, and there is no doubt that some of what you’ve experienced is residual. Men will frequently take testosterone as an anti-aging remedy monitored by a physician with cutting of weight and a more lean muscle mass as a by product of that treatment. I’ve not heard of that being used for women, but I would most assuredly visit an endocrinologist to assess the situation. You may have already done that. Consider the physiological changes that occur from shifts in behavior – and – how profound some of these changes can be. You’re definitely doing the right thing by looking further. Consider the work of Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy, and her TED TV talk: These shifts in body chemistry from alterations in behavior and attitude are pretty significant. There’s more research on this but this will get you thinking in the right direction.

      My primary concern in all of this is your lack of the “Fun Factor”. Being as active as you were, its alarming that your concern has been over your body’s shape and size….which suggests a different type of problem a “good” therapist can help you with. My advice is that you reconsider your exercise regimen so that its primary contribution to your life is Fun, Stress relief, and basic fitness. Let’s see how things look after an attitude shift in why and how you’re exercising. Good luck girl, you deserve better and I think you might just find it. :)

      Reply

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