Sports scientists often use the term overtraining to describe the condition the player feels tired and is simply underperforming. I am not quite sure if the term “overtraining” is the most appropriate one because of two reasons: a) under performance might not be due to overtraining but rather due to imbalance between training and recovery, and b) coaches do not feel comfortable with the term since it implies that they simply have designed a bad training. For the purpose of this post I will use both terms when necessary focusing on the end result which is under performance. I will also try to summarize the scientific evidence behind the phenomenon and outline a brief plan of actions based on the literature and on my experience.
What is the cause of under performance?
As you understand under performance might be the result of a number of factors like a) poor training, b) inadequate recovery, c) imbalance between training and recovery, d) psychological factors that create excessive stress, and e) poor tapering. In some cases, under performance is due to inappropriate training that leads to overtraining. To implement and effective plan of actions one needs to understand the possible mechanism(s) behind overtraining.
- Excessive muscle stress due to training and inappropriate recovery will result in increased inflammation.
- Elevated inflammatory markers and molecules will negatively affect central nervous system (CNS) function causing lower appetite and sleep disturbances
- Excessive inflammation and stimulation of the CNS will also stimulate the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis resulting in a number of imbalances, like elevated catabolism, suppressed immune function etc.
Figure 1: Summary of the mechanisms of overtraining (Source: Hug et al. (2003). Training modalities: over-reaching and over-training in athletes, including a study of the role of hormones. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab 17(2):191-209).
Can we predict overtraining and under performance?
There is no definite answer. To be able to identify under performance in advance one must follow the same player for long period. Below I have summarized a plan of actions based on my experience:
- Assess players’ performance with valid and reliable tests. Although there are excellent tests proposed in the literature some of them might not be practical and this is a concern. Ideally, a submaximal test which could be part of the warm-up is the best option.
- You might have more than one performance tests. Whatever the decision, tests should be practical, and no time consuming.
- Repeat those tests as many times as possible. The more data you have the better. There are tests you can do once a week depending on your sport science team man power.
- Follow a more holistic approach. Gather as many information as practically possible. For instance, you need to have information from:
- health screening,
- functional movement screening
- quality of sleep and general well-being
- injury and illness reports
- training logs
- Create the pattern (yearly, weekly) for each individual. All players are not the same. Some players show a decline in performance during the winter months (December-January) some other are pacing themselves and don’t show this pattern.
- Look for the cause when test values deviate substantially from the expected ones. The expected values can be the mean for the group +/- 1-2 standard deviations (SD) or, ideally, the mean +/- 1-2 SDs for the individual based on repeated measures.
How can you assist as a sport scientist to avoid overtraining and under performance
This is an outline of the plan:
- Monitor training. This is very important to the whole process. Training monitoring might be done with heart rate monitors or GPS or, when not available, with the RPE scales. RPE scales are good tools and should be used more frequently in training because they are fast, practical and inexpensive. To improve reliability you must familiarize your players before the actual use. Whatever tool you use, ensure that a) you collect enough information, b) understand them before you communicate with coaches. In some cases you might need a season of data collection before you can make safe conclusions.
- Implement frequent performance tests. As said before this is of paramount importance because performance is the key parameter in sports.
- Monitor as many other parameters as possible. Again, serum iron levels and hormones concentration might help. Don’t forget that measures should be as non-invasive as possible. Hormones and immune system indices in the saliva (testosterone, cortisol, IgA) are promising tools.
- Estimate the player’s dietary intake. Sometimes inadequate caloric intake or low micronutrient’s intake may lead to chronic fatigue when not corrected.
- Implement appropriate recovery strategy. For instance, cold water bathing, deep water running during the recovery days might be useful depending on the player.
- Ensure adequate sleep of good quality. Sleep is of paramount importance and should be evaluated at frequent intervals either with small, easy to wear devices that are in the market or with questionnaires.
- Eliminate or manage other stress factors (family, personal matters etc). In this case the contribution of a sports psychologist may help.
For further reading
Coutts et al. (2007). Monitoring of overreaching in rugby players. Eur J Appl Physiol 99: 2313-324.
Meeusen et al. (2013). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and American College of Sports Medicine. Med Sci Sports Exerc 45(1): 186-205.
Nedelec et al. (2013). Recovery in soccer. Part I-Recovery strategies. Sports Med 43: 9-22
Papacosta and Nassis (2011). Saliva as a tool for monitoring steroid, peptide and immune markers in sport and exercise science. J Sci Med Sport 14(5): 424-434.
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