What is overtraining and how do you prevent it in young athletes?

What is overtraining?

Overtraining is when an athlete trains too often or too hard and doesn’t allow their body to recover. This lack of recovery caused a decrease in performance. Overtraining can lead to loss of strength and fitness. It can lead to injuries. It can cause chronic fatigue. And, it can cause athletes to burn out and stop playing their sport.

Who is likely to have a problem with over training?

Overtraining can happen to any youth athlete. But, there are certain people and certain sports at risk. Individual sport athletes are more likely to have issues with overtraining than team sport athletes. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, team sports offer more variety whereas individual sports may see overtraining because they have a narrower focus on very specific skills.

Secondly, in individual sports overtraining may be more likely as there is nowhere to hide in a tough session. In team sports, you can avoid calling for the call. But, as a sprinter, cyclist, cross country runner, or gymnast there is no place to hide.

What also contributes to overtraining in individual sports is less recovery time. Often individual sports such as gymnastics, combat sports, or horse-riding have a weight control element. This leads to less eating as making weight or appearance is part of the sport and athletes feel the pressure to stay slim. This undereating combined with hard training is a big contributor to overtraining and burnout.

In females, this under eating and overtraining combination is detrimental not only to the athlete’s performance and general health. But, it can also be a contributing factor to reduced menstrual health. This may be in terms of late periods or amenorrhea (missing periods).

Overtraining while harmful to both genders is more likely to occur in male athletes. Why it occurs more often in young males is not fully clear. But, if overtraining has occurred once then it is twice as likely to happen again to the same athlete as it is to one of their peers.

What are the symptoms of overtraining?

The symptoms of overtraining can be both psychological and physical. Generally, the psychological symptoms appear as many as 2-3 months before the physical signs. It may be difficult to track a group of athletes for signs of overtraining if they are not in a professional/academy style set up. But, in local teams making sure the parents are aware can help you monitor these symptoms in every child with help from fellow parents.

Psychological Signs of Overtraining:
  1. Apathy – your child no longer has the same enthusiasm for their sport as they previously had. They will start to show a lack of concern for what goes on during their competition. This may present itself in team/fields sports as being easily intimidated by their opponent. Maybe your son or daughter used fight hard for every ball and now they get easily pushed off the ball. This may be a sign that they are overtraining.

Apathy may also present as a dislike or even a push back towards going to training. Now, some children may always have had a disinterest in a certain sport, that may be normal or they don’t want to go to a particular coach but if they previously loved training and now they don’t this is a sign of overtraining.

It is also important to note that apathy and losing the love of your previous interests can also be a sign of anxiety or depression. If you are unsure whether their apathy is overtraining or part of a bigger mental health difficulty then it is important to contact a professional for help and guidance.

  • Bad mood/ Often sad– again a bad mood may just be typical of teenagers. It may be a sign of worsening mental health. It may be caused by school. But, it can also be a sign of overtraining. It is important to note if you son or daughter is in a bad mood more often than previously. This may be a sign of overtraining especially if it coincides with
  • Lack of confidence in future/competition – This is often very apparent in high achieving young athletes. This may come from having been one of the best in everything they do. And, now that they are overtraining their performance is dropping and they no longer see the chance to make a county team, progress to an academy or make it into an Ireland training squad etc.

Often it can be spotted with individual sports such as boxing where the athlete is overtraining, their performance has reduce but they are placing the blame at the judge’s feet for losses even when fights are called fair. They start to say things like “I don’t want to box the judges always score the other guy wrong or try to cheat me out of wins” even when this isn’t true.

  • Not enjoying training – This is similar to showing apathy towards training/competing. But, slightly different. Rather than not caring about training or matches they simply do not enjoy training. As a result, they might not want to go. Not to be confused with apathy though as with this they may still love playing, they may still have a desire to win but they feel training is a slog
Physical Signs of Overtraining:
  1. Loss of appetite – Of course when you are training hard your appetite increases but when you start overtraining your drive to eat actually lowers. This can be hard to spot as you can’t be with every athlete on your team all the time. Again, this is where you need to elicit the help of other parents. Appetite goes down when youth athletes are overtraining for two reasons.

One, it could be possible that they themselves are over restricting calories in an attempt to lose weight. This may be because of the pressures to make weight or look a certain way for more aesthetic sports. O, it could be social pressures.

Appetite also goes down when overtraining because very often right after working out is the hardest time to make yourself eat. If they are training too often youth athletes just won’t feel hungry. Not eating enough will also contribute to their overtraining as they won’t be getting the energy in the form of calories to actually fuel their training.

  • Often injured – this may manifest not as actual structural damage like a muscle tear. Instead, this will present as many niggles. Aches in the back or knees may be one sign of overtraining. There was no incident, they have good strength but they consistently break down during training or matches.

Now, niggles may also be a sign that the athlete isn’t well enough conditioned. This may be the case if they are doing lots of running and no strength training for example. But, if they are training hard, well-conditioned and then start to pick up niggles it may be a sign that your child is overtraining.

They also may show signs of overtraining by not being able to manage their training load. This may not present as injuries or niggles instead it will look like they are stepping out of training towards the end. Or, maybe just finishing up short of the line in runs they used to complete with ease. Or, even doing less reps for a time in gym sessions. Fewer reps could be a subtle loss of strength from overtraining. The same weight is on the bar but they are consistently performing 1 or 2 fewer reps per set.

  • Frequent illness – most often respiratory illnesses. When you are training hard your immune system is suppressed and makes you more vulnerable to picking up colds and coughs. When overtraining this gets worse. If your child is constantly sick or getting lots of small colds it may be a sign that their immune system is suppressed from overtraining and that they aren’t recovering sufficiently after training.
  • Heavy, stiff muscles – Again this may be a sign of overtraining without actually incurring an injury. This youth athlete may be consistently complaining of stiffness or heaviness in their muscles. They will often be the first one looking for a rub pre game. It may not prevent them competing but often athletes complaining of stiffness aren’t too far from picking up an actual injury. No amount of stretching will fix the stiffness that’s coming from overtraining.
  • Sleep problems – When overtraining despite exercising and needing the recovery youth athletes will often find it more difficult to sleep at night. Losing sleep is a symptom of overtraining. But, it is also contributing to the problem as reduced sleep, reduces recovery which then leads to breaking down and getting injured or burning out
How to prevent overtraining and reduce the chances of youth athlete injuries?

Preventing overtraining from occurring is important as it makes an athlete more predisposed to overtraining in the future if they manage to overcome it the first time. If they don’t manage to overcome their overtraining it may lead to burnout and dropout. And, overtraining can lead to injuries. 1 in 3 youth athletes will experience an injury. The spread of these injuries occurs at the same rates from u12-u18.

1 in 3 young athletes suffering an injury is far too common and we need to try to bring this number down. Of course, some injuries are unavoidable. And, some factors that contribute to injury can’t be changed. But, whatever we can do to help reduce the risks, we must.

The first thing that can help prevent smaller, niggly injuries is to reduce the chances of overtraining….

How do you prevent overtraining?
  1. Reduce repetition and monotony of training

Training needs to have variety in over to prevent overtraining. Overtraining isn’t just about training too often. It can also mean training the same thing too often. If a youth athlete is only training 3 times a week this may seem like a manageable workload. But, if they do the same thing each time then it may lead to overtraining.

An easy example is runners or cyclists. Three runs or cycling sessions a week isn’t too much load per say. But, it is training in the same plane of movement. The athlete is not challenging their lateral movements or change of direction. There is a need to train muscles and movements that aren’t specific to a sport.

2. Make training fun

This feeds into the monotony of the training part from above. Making training fun can reduce the chances of overtraining as boring training sessions that are too focused on one area can be mentally fatiguing for younger athletes.

Making training more fun could simply be variety. Of course, the same warm-up on match days or having a routine is important for older athletes to prepare their best for each game. But, until the ages of 13/14 focusing on functional movements as opposed to sport-specific skills is better for athletic development.

Making training more fun could be the use of games as part of the warm-up. Or having more small-sided games as opposed to skills drills. It could also be changing things by playing a different sport. This doesn’t have to mean having to join another team or sports club. As a GAA coach, you could play 5 minutes of tag rugby. This still teaches change of direction, pass/catch, evasion, tackle timing, and much more that are applicable to GAA. But, it gives the youth athletes some variety within their sessions. Or, you could play Aussie rules. A similar game with similar skills but it might break the monotony.

3. Monitor athlete energy levels

This is a very effective way to determine who is overtraining within the group and how hard you should push people in each session. It can be tough to monitor children in an amateur setting. But, something as simple as asking each child to rate out of 10 how tired they are before training starts could work. Especially if you already have a sign-in sheet to take attendance.

If there is a lot of 8+/10 tiredness in the team maybe you do a light session with a focus on skills. If everyone is full of energy maybe you can adapt the session to have more games and match play.

If you are doing this consistently you will also be able to see any patterns if one particular child is consistently more tired than others or feeling fatigued.

4. Monitor session difficulty

This is an easy one to make sure you aren’t contributing to overtraining. When you plan a session you can rate what you think will be difficult. i.e. are the youth athletes going to be 10/10 tired afterward? OR, will they be 5/10 tired etc…

Then after the session, you ask the athletes to rate the session out of 1-10 for difficulty. If you think a session is easy and they all tell you it was hard then you may be making sessions too hard for the group. Or, doing too many tough sessions in a row leads to fatigue with the group.

This used to be quite common years ago when a team would look unfit at the weekend and then they would be training to the bone and do extra running during the week because “you aren’t fit enough”. But, it turns out they looked jaded or fatigued in-game because of a lack of recovery rather than lack of fitness.

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Tommy Brennan

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