Training: Overtraining vs. Burnout

Now that we’re approaching the midway point of the winter training season, I wanted to follow up on the previous training post on pain vs. soreness and talk about overtraining and burnout. Today’s post is a super brief overview of what both are so that as we continue through the winter months you (rowers and coxswains) can be aware of the signs + symptoms and hopefully catch yourself (or a teammate) if you suspect you’re experiencing one or the other.

Overtraining

The simplest definition is this: overtraining is the result of working your body too hard and putting it under more stress than it can handle. It occurs when you go through a period of high intensity training and fail to give yourself enough time to properly recover and repair the damage done to the muscles. Since overtraining happens over time rather than with a sudden onset it can be tough to nail down whether or not that’s what you’re actually experiencing – an easy way to tell if that’s what’s going on (or if you’re trending in that direction) is if you experience “unexplained underperformance for approximately two weeks even after having adequate resting time”.

When you push your body despite it telling you that you need to back off, your performance is gonna suffer (or the very least plateau) because muscles that are this fatigued aren’t able to work as efficiently or respond as quickly as muscles that are receiving an adequate amount of rest post-workout. (This is another reason why it’s important to know the difference between pain and soreness.)

Related: Training: Pushing hard and pain vs. soreness

It can be easy to explain away the more obvious physical symptoms of overtraining (having trouble finishing workouts, having low energy, insomnia, etc.) but one of the stand out symptoms is an elevated resting heart rate over the course of a few days post-workout. Tracking your resting heart rate is good practice in general but it can be really useful in instances to help you identify what’s going on with your body.

If in the two to three days following a hard workout you notice that when you wake up in the morning (i.e. after a sufficient period of rest) your RHR has increased from its usual average of (for example) 52 BPM to 60 BPM, that can be an indication that your body hasn’t fully recovered from that workout. Keep in mind too that RHR is pretty variable – a fluctuation of a couple beats is normal but what you’re looking for in this case is an increase of 5-7 BPM above what your normal average is.

Now, obviously one data point isn’t enough to declare yourself “overtrained” but if you continue tracking your RHR in the mornings and see that over the course of two or three weeks it continues to rise, it’s likely that you are overtraining and need to take a step back to give your body more time to recover between practices.

Burnout

Burnout and overtraining tend to get used synonymously but where overtraining is a type of physical stress, burnout is a type psychological stress that’s characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion. You tend to lose interest and motivation in your sport (before developing aggressively strong aversions or resentment towards it if you continue trying to train), your energy levels are pretty low, and there’s this nagging feeling like you’re fighting a losing battle because regardless of how much (genuine) effort you put in, you’re not satisfied with the results you got and/or you’re not achieving the ones you want.

One of the things that leads to burnout is not having any semblance of balance between rowing and your actual life. There’s a big difference between “loving” it and being so obsessed with it that you become what’s known as a “24 hour athlete”, where you essentially live and breathe crew to the point where you have no time for anything else (social or otherwise). The resulting loss of your internal motivations leaves you with only external “obligations” to continue on with the sport – the big one that we’ve all probably experienced at some point is not wanting to let down our coaches, teammates, or parents.

Another factor that can lead to burnout is one I struggle with and know other coxswains will relate to as well: self-imposed unrealistic expectations. This leads to the same loss of energy, motivation, and interest in participation that I mentioned before because you’re consistently failing to meet standards that go beyond what would be considered reasonably achievable in any normal situation. When you hit that tipping point (which is different for everyone but you know it when you experience it), you find that you’re just exhausted trying to process everything to the point where all you want to do is … nothing … and even that can seem like it’s too much effort.

The process of recovery here is a little more complex thanks to the scales being tipped more towards the mental wellbeing side than the physical side. That’s not to say there isn’t a physical component, it’s just not as prevalent as with overtraining. When it comes to burnout, an extended period of time off is usually the first step, mainly because it helps you clear your head which in most cases is what’s needed the most. Another step is reevaluating your goals … or if you didn’t have any concrete goals to begin with, developing some so that you’ve at least got something to work towards rather than just aimlessly going to practice each day without any actual reason to (beyond those external obligations).

Recovery from burnout isn’t a quick process. With overtraining you can take a week or two off to let your body sort itself out but with burnout … burnout gnaws away at you over a really long period of time which means the time it takes you to get back to 100% isn’t a matter of weeks but rather a matter of months. I took five years off from rowing (and sports completely) before I felt like I was mentally and emotionally stable enough to jump back into it. When you consider that burnout is usually coupled with anxiety and/or depression too, it makes sense why taking an extended time off is the healthy and necessary thing to do … it’s just a matter of convincing yourself that it’s actually OK to do that, which in my experience is the hardest part.

There’s a lot more that goes into overtraining and burnout than what I’ve listed here so I’d definitely recommend doing some research on your own so you can educate yourself further on the signs + symptoms (and dangers) of both. Between the horde of exercise physiology and sports psych classes I took in college, I read a ton of papers on this so you’re interested in reading some actual peer-reviewed research, let me know and I’ll dig out the links to the ones we spent the bulk of our time discussing. If you wanna read something a little less dense, Wikipedia and the NCAA both give a solid overviews, as does this article from The New York Times called “Crash and Burnout“.

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