In order to see results and reap in the adaptations from exercise and training, an athlete or trainee must push their bodies past baseline, past their current limits. To maximize these gains, an athlete must also properly recover from training sessions so they can continue to train in a safe and efficient manner. Aside from adequate sleep, proper nutrition and nutrient intakes, one way athletes recover is by implementing periods of restoration, often called a deload. A deload is when the training stress is reduced in order for the athlete to realize their adaptations and to give their mind and body a well-deserved rest. A similar protocol, called a taper or peak, is when training stressed is acutely withdrawn to improve an athlete's performance measures beyond baseline, usually to prepare for an important sporting event or competition.
Before we dive into the specifics of a deloading or tapering protocol, we must better understand why they're needed in the first place. Part 1 will go over the concept of overreaching, overtraining, and what type of stressors and symptoms an athlete might experience as a result of hard training.
Not all fatigue is made equal
Acute fatigue is characterized by a short term disruption of homeostasis from training, often resulting in slight improvements in performance. However, if acute fatigue beings to accumulate from increasing training intensity or volume without adequate recovery, or without periods of rest, chronic fatigue can occur.
Chronic fatigue can be divided into 2 categories: overreaching and overtraining, where overreaching can be referred to as functional, or non-functional.
Functional overreaching can be defined as a temporary decrease in performance lasting no more than a few days to weeks, while non-functional overreaching is defined by a decrease or no change in performance over weeks to months. If overreaching symptoms persist for prolong periods and performance begins to drop significantly, it is defined as overtraining, sometimes called overtraining syndrome.
I'm sure you've heard of the saying "there is no such thing as overtraining, only under recovery". While this is technically true, there are training volumes and intensities that an athlete simply can't adequately recover from without being in a drug-induced supra-physiological state. But unless you're an elite level Olympic athlete pushing the boundaries and closing in on a world record, or a beginner trainee attempting to perform an advanced training program, it's not likely you'll find yourself in that situation. Instead, overtraining syndrome develops when recovery is neglected whether it be due to laziness, or compromised due to financial situations, work schedules and unplanned life events.
Training and adaptation is a multi-factorial equation, taking into account the inputs (types of movement, intensity, volume, frequency), outputs (recovery, fatigue management, sleep, nutrition) and everything in between (training history, individual response to exercise, genetics).
Overtraining is very real and can occur when the balance between training and recovery is not met.
Types of Overtraining
Resistance-training dominant sports and endurance-training dominant sports have their own respective forms of overtraining. Sympathetic overtraining, often seen in team, strength and power sports, is characterized and diagnosed by an irregular increase in resting heart rates, cortisol concentrations, ECG abnormalities and a decrease in testosterone.
Parasympathetic overtraining often seen in endurance sports is characterized by a compromise of the neuroendocrine system, resulting in reduced responsiveness to stressors and increased sleeping times and increased incidences of depressive symptoms.
Keep in mind it's not the particular sport that causes a certain form of overtraining, rather, the type, volume and intensities of which training is carried in each type of sport. Despite these concrete definitions, overtraining is not black and white. Many sports are mixed in nature (team sports for example), having both resistance and endurance demands, so symptoms are known to overlap, making diagnosis more difficult.
Other Causes Of Overtraining
Overtraining has been hypothesized to come from prolonged periods of high-intensity and high-volume training. However, overtraining can also manifests from a set of complex factors outside of training and recovery. Existing disease or illness, psychological stress, school or work-related demands, as well as expectations from coaches, friends and teammates all play a role in the development of overtraining. While it is a responsibility for coaches to carefully monitor training loads and intensity; one must not forget about the complex biosystem of a human and the impact psychological stress can have on physical performance. Take a holistic approach when preventing and diagnosing overtraining to avoid prolonged periods of stagnation or poor performance.
The best way to monitor and prevent overtraining is to plan ahead. Applying proper periodization principles, allowing athletes to progress and reach peak performance without inducing overtraining syndrome. But things almost never go as planned, so various quantitative and qualitative assessments should be used in conjunction with a periodized plan to monitor stress and exertion throughout any training program.
Below is a checklist used to diagnose overtraining syndrome by Meeusen et al (2013) with The European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine.
The checklist is complex and comprehensive, and most monitoring methods like disease diagnosis and blood work are outside the realm of practicing trainers and coaches. At the elite level of sports, sports scientists have access to advanced-technology, but for the majority of us, we need a more simple way to monitor our athletes.
For my athletes, I created a readiness monitor that gives me consistent and quantifiable insight on my athlete's recovery.
Even though the survey is marked on a 1-5 scale, the readiness monitor itself is very qualitative and subjective in nature. This readiness monitor's benefit is 2-fold:
It helps me gain a rough understanding of how my athlete is recovering and what he or she is experiencing throughout my training program.
It gives them an opportunity to keep a health/recovery diary, making them more aware of their recovery and their habits. Hopefully positively impacting their attention to recovery.
Part 2 will cover the difference between a deload and a taper, as well as specific tapering protocols to peak for various sports and competitions.
Bompa, Tudor. Periodization Training for Sports-3rd Edition. Human Kinetics Publishers, (2015)
Foster, Carl. "Monitoring Training in Athletes with Reference to Overtraining Syndrome." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 30, no. 7 (1998): 1164-168.
Meeusen, Romain, Martine Duclos, Michael Gleeson, Gerard Rietjens, Jürgen Steinacker, and Axel Urhausen. "Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome: Joint Consensus
Statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of
Sports Medicine" American College of Sports Medicine (2013).