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The first time Amanda Seabra started to think that her training volume might be presenting a problem was not in the pool, not post-run, and not even while foam rolling her cranky quads. It was while she was at the library. “I took my daughter to get a few books, and when I passed by a table with new releases, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I opened a book, much less read one.” Lately, it seemed like she was always either scrolling through something on her phone or watching a video–anything quick and whatever didn’t require more than a few minutes of attention. This kind of change on its own might not be concerning, but coupled with the fact that Amanda was also dealing with insomnia and an unshakeable heaviness in her legs, the inability to focus her attention long enough to read a book became a red flag that she might be on the verge of overtraining.
Your brain on overtraining
Triathletes are aware that heavy training is going to lead to physical symptoms, but many of us are not aware that we may be affected mentally as well. Training beyond our limits definitely shreds the body, but it also compromises our emotions, behaviors, attitudes, and even our ability to make sound decisions. To understand why this is true, we have to take a look at the organ most affected by excessive training–the brain.
Chronic training without adequate recovery will lead to both physical and psychological decline as the brain is flooded with stress hormones. The excess circulating glucocorticoids can alter the brain, shrinking structures like the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. These two brain centers are responsible for things like learning and memory, impulse control, judgment, planning, and reasoning. Over time, red-lining athletes like Georgia may find themselves skipping the book club as they’re less and less able to focus.
Of course, it’s not just memory and concentration that suffer. A chronically stressed brain with altered function is likely to make us more depressed from a lack of serotonin and an increase in inflammation. Athletes may become anxious as the altered amygdala starts to perceive threats coming from all directions. We may also become angrier as the brain dips into the “fight” part of the “fight or flight” response and worse, the stress-diminished prefrontal cortex may encourage addictive behavior.
Physical stress + mental stress = A total mess
The entire cascade of events is exacerbated by the fact that in moments of stress, depression, anxiety, or really any other psychologically uncomfortable state, triathletes are likely to train even more as a way to cope. Unfortunately, the science doesn’t support the idea that more training will help. Beyond a certain point, much of the mentally beneficial effects of exercise can be overtaken by the detrimental effects on the brain and body. In fact, if we train too much, we are actually adding to the overall load of stress, not subtracting.
You know those runners who seem to always be pushing race pace during training sessions or the cyclists with constant road rage? How about the athletes who are so rigid with their overall training schedule that they will not alter it for any reason–not even bad weather or holidays? Or maybe it’s you who is spending more and more time hiding away at the pool instead of hanging with family and friends. Neal Palles, a Psychotherapist with an MA in Sports Psychology, triathlete, and founder of Building Mountains LLC, notes that other behavioral signs of potential overtraining include drinking more alcohol, overeating, undereating, avoiding eye contact in a way that is not their norm, looking disheveled, and showing up late to appointments.
Getting ahead of the red
All of these behaviors can be red flags that can signal a system overload, but the challenge is recognizing where we might be getting into trouble. Palles suggests that athletes get into the habit of adding a journal entry about how they are feeling into Training Peaks or Strava on the private setting. A quick metric on overall stress ranked 0-10 can be used, or even noting low vs. high. He encourages athletes to pay attention to and document situations, thoughts, and self-talk that may demonstrate problem areas. “Reflect on moments like, ‘I just yelled at my significant other or my child or my pet’ ” he says, “and notice how that is leading you away from normally valued behaviors.”
Sometimes it falls on a coach to notice and address these issues since they are often the first to notice and the most likely to be trusted by the athlete. If an athlete is initially reluctant to open up, they will likely find that talking about the red flags with a coach is often a great way to improve performance, not detract from it. “As a Coach, I find that the subjective feedback on mood both from the athlete goes a long way to understanding how the training load is being managed”, says Bevan McKinnon, a former elite triathlete, current triathlon coach, and host of the podcast Fitter Radio.
He has noticed more athletes attempting to train for longer distances and putting a ton of pressure on themselves to manage heavy training schedules along with a 40+ hour work week and family obligations. The only way to be successful at managing everything is to recognize that adjustments in training volume may be necessary. “ If we don’t adjust the training load to help positively balance stress, we may be dealing with issues that are of greater concern than the fear of loss of fitness”, says McKinnon.
For many athletes, it will be hard to accept that these emotional and behavioral red flags will say more about their potential performance than how fast they swam their last 1500 meter workout. The truth is that in order to be a healthy athlete, long-term, we first have to be healthy humans, body and mind. After years of working with top triathletes, McKinnon agrees, “The body has an incredible capacity to continue to perform even when other systems may be breaking down, however mood and emotions are the window into how everything is truly working.”
How to tell if you’re overtraining
What to notice:
- Drinking more
- Lashing out
- Taking risks
- Losing focus
- Struggling with memory
- Feeling down
- Increased anxiety
- Seeking to isolate
- Increased/decreased appetite
- Any behavior that is chronically outside of your value system
What to do:
- Recognize that you’re not alone–many athletes struggle.
- Have a mindfulness practice that includes grounding exercises like deep breathing or journaling.
- Seek the help of a qualified mental healthcare practitioner. (These mental health resources for triathletes are a good place to start.)
- Be prepared to adjust training volume and intensity.