In All About Overtraining, we discussed common symptoms and causes of overtraining. To repeat, overtraining shouldn’t be feared, but it is important to understand the symptoms and possible solutions to make training adjustments. A lack of understanding of the balancing act of training and recovery can lead to needless frustration. I have experienced it myself, and seen it in other athletes. Times aren’t improving, body mass is decreasing, the constant feel of being sore and fatigued—rather than get caught in the frustrating loop of not knowing what minor training variable has gone wrong, take a look at your training and recovery more broadly. This part will discuss some other training considerations with regard to overtraining.
First, what do athletes who must maintain a certain bodyweight for a weight-class sport do? The subject of lightweights is complicated and made more so by issues of competitiveness at higher levels and college scholarships. I will say that there is a common misconception in many weight-class sports that lighter is always better. I wrestled and rowed lightweight in high school and can tell you that this is not always the case, especially for younger athletes. I would encourage any athlete under 18-years old to compete lightweight for no longer than it is comfortable to maintain that weight. At the point where calorie restriction and weight-cutting measures beyond slight day-of restrictions are necessary, it may become detrimental to performance in both the short and long-term, as the mental and physical cost of cutting weight becomes greater than the benefit of competing in a lighter class.
In the long-term, restricting calories below what is necessary to recover from strenuous exercise can lead to overtraining and stagnant performance by failing to provide enough macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to recover from strenuous exercise. While overtraining may show up as a frustrating plateau for older athletes, there are real health consequences for younger athletes. Athletes 12-18-years old are still in the process of puberty, which brings about a cascade of hormonal changes and often results in rapid growth. Restricting calories during this time frame can result in missing this window for rapid growth and leaving long-term potential on the table, as well as introducing possible health consequences. With the support of the Child Protection Group and the Medical Sub-Committee, British Rowing removed the lightweight category from junior rowing in 2012. In particular, bone growth and bone density is vitally important for athletes going through puberty. Restricting calories, food groups, and certain micronutrients can diminish the body’s ability to create stronger, larger, healthier bones during this critical window.
By college, adult athletes should not only be able to manage their weight more safely, but also more responsible for recognizing when their weight-restriction measures are too extreme. It is also my hope that a college athlete would have greater coaching support and better resources available to help them manage their weight safely. While I know this assumption won’t hold true in all situations, I am much more comfortable with putting the decision in the hands of an adult athlete than a youth athlete still in an active physical and mental growth stage. College lightweights should be aware of overtraining symptoms and take extra steps to improve recovery by non-caloric means, particularly sleep, contrast baths (though research is inconclusive), quality food choices, and at least self-massage via foam rolling or other available options if professional massage is not available. College lightweights should also be aware that they might someday be faced with a decision of continuing to row lightweight to maximize short-term competitiveness vs. moving up in weight to row heavyweight and maximizing long-term competitiveness. This is a personal choice that will depend on a variety of factors including whether or not a school will even allow an athlete to do so.
In general, my best training practice is to ask “why” rather than “why not” when increasing training. Finding the minimum effective dose for athletes is an important skill to learn for coaches who don’t have an unlimited athlete pool. Athletes at the top level of their sport usually have better recovery abilities, whether naturally by genetics or structurally via lifestyles geared around their sport. An athlete who receives extra support from their program for nutrition, massage, and other recovery modalities and who has few other responsibilities and stressors other than training for their sport can afford to train harder and longer than an athlete with work, school, or other life responsibilities. Furthermore, coaches at the very top level can afford to burn through athletes with high volume, high intensity training as there will always be competition to fill the place of an injured or burnt out athlete. While this is not always the case, many upper level programs are characterized by training to survive training rather than training to thrive from their training.
For coaches at the youth, high school, and non-elite college programs, dwindling athlete pools as a result of overwork, injury, and the level of commitment required for the sport are very common. We can either say “well, they just aren’t tough/committed/dedicated enough” and live with smaller teams, or we can find a compromise. Find that point of marginal returns—are 12 practices per week that much more beneficial than 10 practices per week? That answer may be yes, but as coaches, I think we need to be honest about how much time we expect out of our athletes compared to the benefit they will receive from that training.
Finally, I also feel that it is a coach’s responsibility to educate athletes on recovery and emphasize its importance in the overall training picture. Make time to talk with your athletes to explain the balance of training and recovery andprovide them with a few things they can do to be successful. Too many times we wait until something is a problem to explain the solution—the time to talk recovery is before your athletes get injured, burnt out, or fatigued.