Overtraining a concern

It has been known for a long time that it is not possible to maintain a physical and mental peak for more than a few weeks at a time.

 A periodised training programme also considers recovery and ensures that there is a optimum balance between training load and rest and recovery. This approach results in predictable performances and a minimal risk of injury.  

With team sports, however, it is impractical to apply this systematic approach to training as the demands of the competition or season requires that the players are at a heightened level of performance throughout the competition or season, which may last for several months. 

Rugby players, in particular, are faced with very specific challenges as invariably they are expected to peak several times a year, coinciding with the playoffs of the different tournaments.  

Most rugby players competing at the top level complete in at least three tournaments during the year. For example, consider that the Super 14 tournament begins in February and continues into May, followed by a series of Test matches in preparation for the Tri-Nations tournament, which runs from July until September.  

Thereafter there is an end-of-year tour to the northern hemisphere, usually ending in the first week in December. The players who do not make the national team are required to play in the Currie Cup tournament, which runs in parallel to the Tri-nations tournament and continues until mid-October.  This is not counting years when there is a Rugby World Cup on. 

The demands on the players are therefore enormous. Any deviation from peak performance will result in them losing their place in the team and for professional players this has financial implications. 

The increased demands and expectations on the players are unreasonable and will lead to shortened careers and an increased risk of injury if the players are not managed properly. 

The complexities of rugby, with competitions in the northern and southern hemispheres, make the synchronisation of seasons difficult. Rugby players are at the behest of their administrators, who are obliged to ensure that the rugby calendar is full. 

Indeed, Percy Montgomery, in 11 years of playing professional rugby, had only had two four-month periods of preseason training (in 1996 and 2007). It is not surprising that the seasons which followed these two four month periods of pre-season training were rated as his best as a professional player. 

However, until such time as the season is regulated, considering both the northern and southern hemispheres and the season has a structure with a well-defined off season/pre-season period, strength and conditioning trainers will have to apply themselves even more to avoiding the risks associated with overtraining. 

Whilst much is known about the physiology of overtraining, this knowledge has to be used in a pragmatic way, considering that the rugby seasons are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. 

This really leaves two options open to the staff managing the players: 

  1. monitor symptoms of fatigue very precisely so that players succumbing to chronic fatigue can be identified and managed, and
  2. coaches will have to learn how to rotate players more efficiently, without detracting from the strength and momentum of the team. The next section will discuss the symptoms of overtraining, the principles of periodisation, and suggest a monitoring program that detects subtle symptoms of fatigue, which may be used strategically to manage the players. It is logical to assume that if the training is adjusted when symptoms of fatigue manifest, that the full-blown symptoms of overtraining will be curtailed.

Defining ‘overtraining’

Many terms have been used to describe the fatigue associated with training and in particular underperformance. Terms such as the “overtraining syndrome”, “staleness”, “chronic fatigue”, “unexplained underperformance syndrome”, and “burnout” have all been used. 

The lack of consistency in terminology describing the condition has constrained the development of understanding of what causes the symptoms of fatigue and the associated impaired performance. 

One research paper suggests that overtraining should be used as a verb, and that a consequence of short-term overtraining is functional overreaching. This describes the normal fatigue associated with a hard training session and which dissipates during the recovery period, usually lasting a few days. 

Often there is a rebound to a heightened state of function and performance (supercompensation) once the symptoms of fatigue disappear. 

Non-functional overreaching is the condition that arises from more prolonged overtraining, and may take more rest (weeks) and reduced training loads for recovery.

The overtraining syndrome, in contrast, suggests that there is multifactorial aetiology causing a situation where performance is impaired, accompanied by an increased risk of injury and illness. Stressors other than exercise may exacerbate this condition. Recovery from the overtraining syndrome may take several months. 

Concern about adopting imprecise terminology for use in the management of South African rugby players, prompted a workshop in November 2005. The goal of the workshop was to probe this condition and derive a working definition to be used in the management of rugby players in South Africa. 

Most of the support staff associated with professional rugby teams (± 100) were at the meeting and agreed on the following definition to describe the symptoms of chronic fatigue that occurs in rugby players: 

“A syndrome in rugby players caused by continuous exposure to a rugby environment and which is associated with underperformance and increased risk of injury and or illness” (SA Rugby, unpublished internal report, 2005). 

The term “rugby environment” includes training, matches, travel and all other activities associated with rugby, and underperformance was defined as impaired performance related to training and matches, and includes decreased psycho-social functioning. 

The physiology of overtraining

Given that training adaptations arise from the balance between repetitive training stimuli and the recovery and regeneration after each stimulus, any imbalance (i.e. too much training and/or insufficient recovery) may cause a maladaptation or failure to adapt.

This problem can be confounded by factors such as inadequate nutrition (energy or carbohydrate), illness (particularly upper respiratory tract infections), psychological stressors (associated with work, team, coach, family, financial matters).

A summary of the symptoms of underperformance as a result of overtraining include: 

• Poor performance

• Severe fatigue

• Muscle soreness

• Overuse injuries

• Reduced appetite

• Disturbed sleep patterns

• Mood disturbances

• Immune system deficits

• Concentration difficulties

Any diagnosis for underperformance needs to exclude factors such as endocrinological diseases (thyroid, adrenal gland or diabetes), anaemia arising from iron deficiency, and infectious diseases (myocarditis, hepatitis, glandular fever). 

In summary, the symptoms of the overtraining syndrome arise from a failure to adapt as a result of an imbalance between stressors (training, nutrition, mental state) and recovery and regeneration. 

No single test has been identified which consistently predicts the imminent appearance of symptoms. Therefore it is logical to assume that if subtle symptoms of chronic fatigue can be monitored and detected before they manifest as serious and persistent symptoms of fatigue, the rugby player will have a better chance of sustaining a high volume of training, without developing full-blown symptoms. 

Monitoring players for overtraining

The fitness trainer needs to be able the answer the following questions on a daily basis: 

1. How hard did the player find the session?

2. How hard was the session?

3. How did the player recover from the session?

4. How is the player coping with the cumulative stress of training? 

While some fitness trainers have intuition and experience, which allows them to subjectively answer these questions by observation and discussion with the players, a more objective approach of gathering information will provide more sustainable success, as training load can then be adjusted in accordance with how the player is feeling and adapting. 

How hard did the player find the session?

A rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is based on the understanding that a player can inherently monitor the physiological stress their body is experiencing during exercise. 

A player’s perception of effort is translated into a numerical score between 6 and 20 in the Borg 6-20 RPE Scale. This table has subsequently been adjusted to a 10-point scale. 

This principle of monitoring physiological stress was demonstrated in a study which found that during steady-state exercise the athletes’ reported RPE correlated well to their average heart rate recorded during the training sessions. It concluded that it may be possible to adjust training intensity by using perceptions of effort. 

This is an extract of Periodisation and Monitoring of Overtraining in Rugby Players by SA Rugby. For the full article click here

Source: Periodisation and Monitoring of Overtraining in Rugby Players  by Mike Lambert, Associate Professor in the MRC/UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and the Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal of Sports Medicine; SA Rugby.

 (Health24, August 2011) 

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