Human nature is to measure and compare ourselves against the world. This is particularly evident watching the Olympics.
Often times, Olympians are no different than the rest of us; they just set the bar higher and wonder if they could be the fastest or the best.
That understandably leads to an almost universal struggle with overtraining.
Overtraining is simply exercising so much that the body doesn’t have a chance to repair the damage before the next training session. Understandably, this results in a training performance plateau, and even deterioration in performance.
As you can imagine, overtraining generates some of the most heated discussions the Olympic athletes have with their coaches. Exercise can be as addicting as any drug.
Exercise does damage, which is how it works. Put enough stress on a muscle and there will be sub-microscopic damage. When the body repairs the damage, the repaired muscle is stronger than when it started.
This is most obvious in a simple maximal strength test – like a bench press. The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift. You will see progress in that number, initially by the week, and with steady training, by the month. That is one of the built-in frustrations of training, the law of diminishing returns, which leads to overtraining.
Anyone who has done some weight training knows the most you can lift – even in a highly trained athlete – can be 10 to 20 percent different. In a highly competitive Olympic competition, the winning number is often only 1 percent or a fraction of 1 percent, above the silver medalist.
Every athlete wrestles with control of the numerous factors that can lead to overtraining. Motivation is the most obvious. How well you perform is directly tied to your intense desire to perform. Hundreds of volumes have been written on motivation alone.
Athletes have a variety of rituals that help them get motivated. We see a lot of headphones on Olympic athletes. We even had a “headphone-gate” in the last Olympics (involving branding). You can bet the tracks being played before competition are not Mozart.
Overtraining is also affected by diet. Does the athlete have the proper amount of amino acids, protein and nutrients to perform and recover maximally? These are the building blocks of muscle repair and can be the weak link in the chain.
Sleep is important for recovery. Imagine trying to get a good night’s sleep with the stress of the highest level of competition! Stress in general can be counterproductive to training and performance.
Who can forget some of the diabolical plots intended to stress-out the competition? These range from trash talking to injuring someone purposely (like skater Nancy Kerrigan was).
Athletes are a superstitious group, and they put great belief in certain objects. Lucky skates or skies seem somewhat rational, but often it is an object in their pocket, a charm that has meaning only for them. A secret ingredient!
Competition at Olympic levels requires total commitment by the athlete. How they exercise, eat, sleep, and rest is all carefully structured. Preventing overtraining is a constant threat and the athlete is monitored carefully to maintain progress.
Normal humans like you and me can get a taste of overtraining by doing a few squats, 5 or 20 might do the job. And then try to walk the next day – not so easy, huh?
And you want to be an Olympian!
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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