Overtraining: One of the Perils of Training

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If you’ve been involved in swimming for long enough you’ll have seen it, or possibly even experienced it.  Overtraining. At best, it usually means the end of any training for many months. At worst, it can bring on injuries and a negative attitude that can end a career.  And yet despite how bad it can be, the swimming world still has too much of it.

What is Overtraining?

Wikipedia defines overtraining as “a physical, behavioural, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual’s exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.

But it is far more complex than simply too much volume and intensity.  I’ll try to explain.

Simply put, we have 3 energy systems within our body that help to keep our muscles working.

  • Phosphagen  (Fast – good for less than 10 seconds)
  • Glycolysis (Medium – good for up to 2 minutes
  • Aerobic (Slow – good for anything longer)

Now, since overtraining involves insufficient recovery, we should know how long each system takes to recover following heavy or intense usage.

  • Phophagen – up to 72 hours following depletion
  • Glycolysis – up to 48 hours following depletion
  • Aerobic – 24-48 hours following depletion

Just to complicate matters a little, swimming training pretty much includes contributions from all 3 energy systems, although coaches can design sets and practices to hit one energy system much harder than others.

The idea of training is to hit energy systems hard, and then let it recover. After all, serious training is not easy. But if this energy system is hit again too soon, the body won’t heal or recover sufficiently.  If you do this consistently over a matter of months then overtraining results, cortisol levels become elevated, and the athlete can experience physical, mental, emotional, cognitive and behavioural problems.  In many cases the season can be lost, with the athlete forced to rest completely before any training can resume.

Every swim team (and serious teams from every other sport) train with lots of volume and / or lots of intensity. Most teams don’t create overtraining problems, and yet some do.  So what’s the difference?

A lot of it has to do with how carefully practices are planned.  It’s all too easy to try to drive the swimmers harder and harder, and forget about whether they are recovering properly.

Handling overtraining is also made much harder depending upon the number of training sessions per week.  Our Senior group have 7 water sessions and 3 dryland sessions per week. This takes some care and attention to orchestrate, but really isn’t too difficult to manage.  Some teams do 10 or more water plus additional dryland per week, and those extra training sessions makes it much more difficult to ensure adequate recovery between practices.

Signs of Overtraining

First of all, it’s rare to have overtrained young swimmers, and almost impossible to have them if they train at our Junior level (or equivalent on other teams) or lower.  The intensity of their practices just aren’t enough to cause problems unless they are also heavily involved in other sports.

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The following are some of the signs of overtraining. But keep in mind that these signs need to persist for weeks or months in order to be relevant. A few nights of difficulty sleeping does not mean overtraining. And mood swings are often common among teenagers.

  1. Cumulative exhaustion that persists even after resting
  2. Inability to finish practices
  3. Performance plateau or degradation
  4. Difficulty sleeping
  5. Mood swings
  6. Higher than normal difficulty handling school work
  7. Getting ill more often than normal
  8. Increased incidence of injuries

Final Thoughts

Overtraining definitely exists, but isn’t rampant among swim teams. Even so, parents should be aware of the signs of overtraining, and be prepared to discuss any concerns with the coach or team president.

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2 comments

  1. This is great, new school vs. old school coaching. Regarding those timelines for recovery of each energy system, they are dependent on sufficient nutrient intake. Without proper nutrition recovery of an energy system can take even longer.

  2. […] Overtraining: One of the Perils of Training […]

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