Thursday, September 4, 2008

When Training Backfires: Hard Work That’s Too Hard

“Overtraining is the downside of training, the trap that can derail an athlete’s success. It’s a real physical condition caused by pushing too hard for too long. It can happen with too much exercise, too much intense exercise, or both. Its hallmarks are poor performances, exhaustion and apathy. ‘You just feel bad,’ said Dr. William O. Roberts, an internist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in treating athletes and is a former president of the American College of Sports Medicine. ‘The spark is gone.’ It can come on so insidiously that before athletes know it, they find themselves trapped in a downward spiral. The harder they train, the worse they do. But there’s another trap — the overdiagnoses of overtraining, said Dr. Steven Keteyian, the director of preventive cardiology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Dr. Keteyian, who has written textbook chapters on the condition, cautions that it is quite rare. But many athletes worry about overtraining every time they fail to perform as well as they think they should. If overtraining has occurred, ‘it’s a long road back,’ Dr. Keteyian said. The only cure is to take weeks or months off. There is no definitive test for overtraining. Instead, the diagnosis is reached by exclusion. Besides slower times and fatigue, Dr. Keteyian and others say athletes may notice that their muscles are weaker and that their coordination is poorer. Overtraining is an unintended consequence of the only known way for athletes to improve — by pushing their bodies and stressing themselves by deliberately going faster or longer than feels comfortable. Elite athletes and their coaches are acutely aware of overtraining, said Frank Busch, the head coach for the University of Arizona’s swimming team and an assistant coach for the United States men’s Olympic swimming team. Now coaches and swimmers know that there is a point of diminishing returns. Coaches look for signs that their athletes are doing too much. Performance is one indicator, of course, but so is something as simple as a swimmer who has stopped smiling, Mr. Busch said. ‘That’s usually a sign that they are dreading practice or there is something else going on. Maybe they are exhausted around the clock.’”

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