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“.

Training: Pushing hard and pain vs. soreness

Now that most of us (in the Northeast at least) are in the early stages of winter training, I wanted to deviate from talking about coxing for a minute to go over some training stuff that’ll hopefully help you guys make it through the next few months injury-free.

Related: Do you have any advice on dealing with a coach pressuring you to continue practicing through injury?

Runner’s World posted a great article last summer on the difference between pushing hard and overtraining where they described the goal of pushing hard as “stressing the body just beyond your fitness level to gradually increase the stress loads on your body and ensure recovery”. Their example was that if you’re doing six sets of intervals with three minutes rest, “pushing harder” might mean transitioning to eight intervals or reducing the rest to two minutes. You’re basically putting your body just far enough outside its comfort zone that it gradually begins adapting to the added stress and you, as a result, get stronger/fitter.

The hurdle that a lot of people hit though, particularly younger athletes or walk-ons who might be completely new to sports in general, is not knowing the difference between soreness and pain.

Soreness

Soreness is there but it’s not in your face. It’s mainly concentrated on the muscles so when you’re working out you might feel some tightness in that area but while just going about your regular activities it shouldn’t be more than a dull ache that only really makes itself known if you’ve been inactive for awhile. Standing up after sitting through a long lecture or when you first get out of bed in the morning are when you might feel it the most.

When you’ll feel it the most is around 24-48 hours later, which is why it’s called delayed onset muscle soreness. As long as you stretch or roll out you should be OK to keep practicing, although it might be worth taking a day off from the erg and hopping on the bike or going for a run instead. If you get back on the erg the following day you might feel some lingering soreness but it shouldn’t be anything that actually detracts from the quality of the workout. If it is, spending a longer amount of time rolling out will usually help.

Pain

This is that sharp feeling that hits you all of a sudden in the middle of a piece or when you move a certain way, like bending over to pick something up. Rather than just being focused on the muscles, pain can/will extend to your joints too, which is when you start hearing about a “shooting pain” in the knees, shoulders, hips, and low back.

Unlike soreness which might hang around for a day or two at most, pain can be felt for several days at a time, sometimes consistently and other times off and on, even after taking time off to rest. It’s at this point where you should be making an appointment with the trainers or your doctor, particularly if it’s been a week or more without any improvement.

As your workouts get longer or ramp up in intensity, experiencing some soreness is inevitable but still manageable as long as you’re diligent about going through some sort of recovery sequence after practice. If you don’t have 10-15 minutes to spare because you’ve gotta get to class, make sure you’re holding yourself accountable and finding time to do it later in the day.

Sharp pains or anything that instantly makes you think “this isn’t a normal feeling” isn’t something you should push through because that’s what leads to an injury. Communicating that to your coach is important so that they’re aware of what’s going on and can adapt the workouts as necessary while you recover. Get over yourselves, put your egos aside, and keep your coaches informed if/when you’re not at 100%. 

I won’t lie and say they’re not gonna be annoyed or roll their eyes when you leave the office (sometimes we will be and sometimes we do – it’s our coping mechanism) but I can promise you that no coach who is serious about their job and cares about their athletes will make you work through an injury. In the post I linked to at the beginning I said that if it seems like they’re pushing you to keep practicing it’s usually because they’re skeptical about whether you’re actually in pain or if you’re just mistaking soreness for pain. Knowing the difference between the two and being able to clearly articulate how you feel, what you’re feeling, where you’re feeling it, etc. can go a long way in helping you recover faster because the sooner you communicate with them, the sooner they can give you time off, and the sooner you can start doing whatever’s necessary to get back to 100% (even if that literally means doing absolutely nothing at all).

For the coxswains, there’s obviously not a ton you can do here so my suggestion is to put your observation and awareness skills to the test and just keep an eye on  your teammates. If I see the guys grimacing on the ergs (beyond the usual amount) or get off mid-piece I always ask them if they’re OK and then follow up with them a little bit later or after practice to see how it’s going. From there I’ll pass on whatever they said to the other coaches since they’re not always aware that something’s up. One of our coxswains is really good about this and being that in tune with how the guys are feeling has done a lot as far as helping her connect and develop that trust with them.

Advocating for the rowers in situations like this can also fall on your shoulders. If the coaches are skeptical about what’s going on and/or the rower hasn’t communicated with them then you might need to be the one who says “hey, just so you know Sam’s been having some back pain over the last few days and I think the 30 minute piece this morning made it worse, which is why he didn’t finish it” or “I know we’re supposed to be seat racing today but Dan was pretty sick all weekend and still isn’t feeling well – any chance we can push it back to tomorrow?”.

Again, not gonna promise that they won’t roll their eyes or be annoyed but it’s not your responsibility to care about that. You’re the messenger and sometimes that means getting poked with an arrow when you’re passing along info that the other person doesn’t want to hear. It’s not that big of a deal. What is a big deal though and can help you earn their respect of the rowers is being aware of this stuff as it’s going on and advocating for them when they need it.

Next: Overtraining and burnout

Video of the Week: Coxing 1000m on sliders

Next winter when you inevitably are like “how do I work on my coxing in the winter”, “how do I get ready for spring racing while we’re inside”, etc. think back to this video because this is a great idea. It’d also be a great way to walk through your race plan in the spring if for whatever reason you can’t get on the water the day or two before (weather, someone can’t make it to practice, etc.).