The hazards of overtraining

Have your athletic abilities suddenly plummeted? Are you having trouble sleeping? Do you find yourself not wanting to train or participate in sports activities you normally enjoy? If you have some of these symptoms, the problem could be overtraining - and it's something you have to fix immediately.

Overtraining is an actual clinical condition that happens when an athlete or active person works out or trains so hard the body's energy hormones and enzymes get used up down to a cellular level, and there's no recovery time allowed so the vital chemicals can replenish themselves.

It takes time for the cells to refill with the hormones and enzymes that produce energy and muscle growth. But if you keep working your body without allowing the cells time to refill, they become drained. The energy that helps your athletic activity is diminished or even gone. The result is called "overtraining syndrome."

If you catch it right away, you may be able to recover with a few days' rest. If you try to work through it, the condition becomes more serious.

The symptoms get worse, and the recovery time needed can stretch into weeks, or months. Consider the many famous athletes on top of their game, who then hit an inexplicable slump that took them out of contender status for a season, only to come back stronger than ever.

In most cases, the slump was really a serious case of overtraining syndrome. Once the athlete recovered, he or she returned to winner status.

To diagnose overtraining syndrome in yourself, you need two things: an accurate record of your resting heart rate and a training log. Take your resting heart rate each morning when you wake up, but before you get out of bed. Keep a stopwatch close enough so you can grab it without moving very much.

Take your heart rate by putting your fingers on the pulse on the side of your windpipe where your neck meets the underside of your jaw. Count the beats for exactly 10 seconds, then multiply that figure times six. That number is your resting heart rate, or RHR. It should be the same every morning, plus or minus a beat.

If the number of beats suddenly begins to rise, it's a major symptom of overtraining. It doesn't have to rise much. If your RHR is normally 55, but then it starts being 58, it's time to check for other signs of the syndrome: depression, irritability, sleep problems, lingering muscle or joint soreness, lack of energy. If you have even a few of those symptoms, you need to stop, rest, and allow your body to recover and replenish itself.

A week of rest and a protein-rich diet is usually sufficient if you've caught the syndrome at the beginning. But if you've drained your muscle cells of too much of their energy, they may not even have enough energy to be able to recuperate. In that case, it may be months or more until your body heals from overtraining; which is why it's essential to catch this problem when it first starts.

If you diagnose you're in an overtrained state, you may have to insist on taking time to recuperate despite what a coach or teammates say.

You may have to stifle both your competitive desire and your ego. But if you do, you'll be back to your old form quickly. If you don't; if you keep trying to push your drained body just to the nationals or the playoffs or that race you've been training for, you'll be slumping in the back of the pack for a long time to come.