Video of the Week: Should you workout when you’re sick?

I’ve talked about this before but this video does a good job of explaining how to know if you’re good to continue working out while you’re sick or if you should just stay home.

Related: How to train when you’re sick … as a rower

Like they said, it’s better to lose a small amount of gains by taking time off when you first start feeling sick than it is to prolong your illness by continuing to workout, which can ultimately end up costing you more in the long run.

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“.

10 simple things you can do to be a better athlete

When I was at Penn over the summer, Wes Ng, who is the women’s head coach (and also the women’s U23 coach), came and gave a talk on the simple, ordinary things you can do to make yourself a better athlete.

What’s the plan for the week?

If you’re gonna row at any level, it takes a solid amount of commitment. When you’re a collegiate athlete, rowing needs to be a priority (not necessarily the #1 priority but still a pretty high one) and that will probably require moving your lives around to make it work. Up front communication with the coaches, your professors, etc. about what you’ve got going on is important.

We send our yearly training plan out at the beginning of the school year so that the guys can see what we’re doing each day, when we’re testing, when our races are, when our training trips are, etc., that way they know where they need to be, when, and what the time commitment is so they can plan everything else accordingly. Obviously it’s a given that there’s some flexibility when it comes to academics, job interviews, etc. but it’s made clear up front that frat stuff or other extracurricular activities should not be put above their commitment to the team.

Always arrive early

You’re not prepared if you’re only thinking about performing when you arrive on time. Wes spoke about the U23 women that he’d see arriving early who would spend that time before practice going through their own personal checklists of the things they needed to do to perform at their best, which included warming up on the erg or bikes, rolling out for 15-20 minutes, or just closing their eyes and doing some meditative breathing. Regardless of what each individual routine entailed, they knew that it was worth coming in 30-40 minutes early for because it was setting them up to have a good row.

Rolling into the boathouse at 6:25 for a 6:30am practice might not hurt you but it’s not going to help you that much either … and it could set the wrong tone for the underclassmen who are looking to the senior members of the team to set the example.

“How can we help?”

Rather than being accusatory towards someone who, for example, consistently shows up late to practice, instead ask them how you can help. Wes used this example because they had a rower who said she was having trouble getting up in the morning for their AM rows and the response from the team was to buy her a lot of instant coffee and share their morning routines with her to help her figure out something that would make waking up earlier easier.

It’s really easy to just get pissed at someone who’s showing up late or constantly making the same mistake in the boat but getting pissed doesn’t help anyone and it doesn’t fix the problem. This goes hand in hand with the “don’t punish the symptoms, address the cause” or whatever that adage is.

Take care of the equipment and the environment you row in

This is simple – it’s about pride. If you have pride in the space you row out of, as well as the equipment you use, then you’re more likely to take your training seriously.

Make pre-row stuff light and fun

I loved the question that Wes posed when he brought up this point – “Who are you gonna be? Are you gonna make atmosphere better or wait for someone else to do it?”

Know when to shift gears from fun to intense focus

One of the things I really appreciate about our team is their ability to shift from loose and chill before practice (during which some of the most ridiculous conversations I’ve ever heard happen) to completely dialed in and ready to get shit done the moment they finish their warmup. It makes things easier for the coaches, it gets us on the water faster, and it sets the tone early on (for practice, for the underclassmen, and for the team as a whole…) that regardless of whatever else everyone’s got going on or whatever riveting debate you were having earlier, all of that is put on pause until 8:30am so that we can all collectively focus on accomplishing that day’s goal(s).

Ask questions but don’t ask just to be heard

This is all about maturity. Everybody can relate to this one because we’ve all been in class with that person who says something, not because they actually have anything to contribute but because they want to be heard so they can get their participation points (or just disrupt the conversation). This is an easy trap for coxswains, particularly younger ones, to fall into because they know they’re expected to know things but rather than just asking a question or saying they don’t understand, they blurt out and rattle off a hundred different things that are all wrong and wildly off base because they think that’ll give off the impression that they’re making an effort.

If you have something important to say or contribute then you should absolutely put it out there but don’t waste your or everyone else’s time if whatever you’re gonna say isn’t relevant, is grasping at straws, or is just disruptive to the flow of practice.

“Thanks coach, see you tomorrow.”

Wes phrased this well – “we’re all in this together to try and be the best we can be”. You might not always agree with your coach’s decisions but you’re both working towards the same goal of having a successful season so you should, at the very least, be appreciative of their efforts and respect the time they spend helping you become a better a athlete.

Saying “thanks coach” after they’ve spent time on the erg with you or going over evals or just after a regular practice row … it’s a simple gesture that can strengthen the bond between the team and the coach(es). Some of the moments that have meant the most to me at MIT have been when someone’s said “thanks for working with the coxswains, all the work you’ve put in is really paying off” because it motivates me to work harder to help them get better which in turn motivates them to work harder because they know someone’s got their back. If you put in effort your coaches will too and that’s only going to help you get better.

Use rowing to make your life better

This has been a big topic of conversation this week between myself and one of the other coaches. Everyone gets something different out of rowing but you’re more likely to get something out of it if you’re actually making the effort to get better. If you’re open to being coached and getting advice/feedback from other people, you’ll start seeing that stuff manifest in how you act and carry yourself in your everyday life.

“How can I do my thing better?”

You have to take care of yourself first before trying to help others get better. This is huge for coxswains because you can’t help the rowers or the boat if your own skills are subpar. If you want the boat to get better, look first at what you can do to improve and then find a way to translate the skills you’ve been developing to your teammates.

None of them are groundbreaking but that’s also probably why they’re easily overlooked when someone (rower or coxswain) asks the question of “what can I do to get better?”. It’s the little things…