Mitigating the Pain of Overtraining

In college our cross country coach would often tell us to run an easy 60 minutes on Sundays after our Saturday races. The temptation to run further, just to see how long I could go, was too much and I’d often be out there for 2 hours (not to mention a few times I got lost and was frantically trying to find my way back to anything that looked remotely familiar). Ten hill repeats turned into 15 or 20 and taking a rest day meant cross training. My quest to become better and love of training meant I put in “junk miles” – miles that probably didn’t help me race faster and could have actually hampered my recovery and therefore my performance.

Athletes must learn to walk the fine line between training enough to facilitate improvement while not doing too much. In addition to the sheer stress on a person’s body, practice, games, races and time in the weight room all require mental energy as well.

Overtraining can present itself in a variety of ways but there are two main type:

Overreaching: Acute overuse

Acute overuse is the most common type of overtraining. It causes short term drops in athletic performance which may last days or weeks. Symptoms range from muscle pain to a more serious condition – rhabdomyolysis, severe muscle damage which can lead to kidney failure and even death.

Overtraining: Chronic overuse

Chronic overuse is associated with longer term drops in performance which may never be restored.

How can you distinguish training to gain (better performance) from overtraining? Here are several common signs and symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased body mass
  • Problems sleeping
  • Emotional instability
  • Early onset fatigue
  • Decreased resting heart rate
  • Decreased blood pressure

Currently there is no perfect test, equipment, or methodology that can predict overtraining or create an optimal workout. Athletes must know the early signs and symptoms of overtraining, understand the way their body reacts to training, conduct appropriate nutrition practices to ensure recovery, properly deal with stress, and adjust based on results.







Sleep – a Critical Component to Sports Performance

Years ago hitting the gym and throwing around some steel was considered the most critical aspect of sports performance training. However, in more recent years a more comprehensive model of performance has developed based on decades of research on nutrition, sleep, psychology and several other critical components of an athlete’s training regimen. As a sports dietitian with an Exercise Science degree and CSCS, I focus mainly on food & supplements though I sometimes discuss training. But lately I’ve found that I’m also talking about the importance of sleep with my athletes. This topic comes up once I realize they are too tired to plan and prepare their food. Days of sleep deprivation also leads to poor food choices. If an athlete is tired and hungry, caring about good nutrition will be thrown on the back burner while finding food fast becomes the main priority. Quick and cheap turns into a double cheeseburger with fries. And, aside from failing to implement all aspects of their nutrition plan, skimping on sleep also interferes with an athlete’s training and performance. Studies show chronic sleep deprivation leads to:

  • decreased sub max and maximal lifts in the weight room
  • delayed visual and auditory reaction time
  • slowed decision making
  • impaired motor functioning
  • reduced endurance
  • increased fatigue, decreased energy
  • exercise feels harder than it normally is (increased rating of perceived exertion)
  • less efficient glucose metabolism
  • reduced leptin and increased ghrelin
  • decreased growth hormone secretion
  • increased risk of injury
  • elevated cortisol levels which may interfere with tissue repair and growth
  • impaired insulin sensitivity in fat cells = more fat in your bloodstream (over time this may contribute to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease).
  • decreased production of leptin, a protein produced in fat cells that tells your brain you have enough energy (fat) stored away so there’s no need to gorge yourself on food. Low leptin = you get hungry and eat.

According to research presented by Cheri Mah,a Stanford University sleep expert:

  • one night without sleep is the equivalent of being legally intoxicated
  • 4-5 hours of sleep for 4 days = 24 hours awake = legally intoxicated
  • 4-5 hours for 10 days = 48 hours awake

Mah’s 8 Strategies to Improve Sleep and Recovery:

  1. Adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep. Athletes need 8-10 hours of sleep (and getting in bed at 10 and waking up at 6 doesn’t mean you are getting a full 8 hours since it takes a while to actually fall asleep).
  2. Establish a consistent sleep schedule.
  3. Sleep like a caveman. It should be dark, quiet and cool. All electronics should be off and silent (or program in numbers for emergency calls only and set your phone for these emergency calls). All small lights on electronics should be covered up as these can interfere with sound sleep.
  4. Adults should only sleep when tired. If unable to sleep after 45 minutes, it is wise to get up and do a non-stimulating activity for 15 minutes (reading) then return to bed.
  5. Establish a 20-30 min routine before bed that includes non-stimulating activity. No computers, TVs or video games.
  6. Refrain from alcohol which impairs your sleep quality and fragments sleep preventing the deep sleep that is so critical for recovery (this is why people complain of being exhausted the day after they drink).
  7. Avoid heavy food, any foods that could cause heartburn, spicy foods etc.
  8. Take 20-30 minute power naps and pre-game naps (unless these interfere with the ability to sleep at night). Mah has found this improved alertness by 54%, improved performance by 34%

Matthew Edlund, M.D. takes it even further with the notion of morning people performing better during the day, night owls performing better at night, and both having to combat jet lag (each 1 hour time zone change takes a person 1 day to adjust; this is why West Coast teams beat East Coast NFL teams on Monday Nights). Check out Edlund’s article here. Sleep affects several aspects of training and performance (as well as body weight). Any athlete who wants to feel their best and reach peak performance should take a comprehensive approach to training which includes sound sleep habits.

Looking for the Best Nutrition Bar?

Nutrition bars fit a need: they are convenient. Portable nutrition at it’s best, no stopping, no drive throughs and your hunger pangs are taken care of in an instant.

So which bar is best for you? That depends on your particular nutrition needs. However, most people are looking for one is either low sugar or low carb, high protein or gluten free. Find out what bar is right for you by checking out this article on Superstar Bars.

Or, if you check out bars by allergens, take a look at this bar chart (and if you have a bar that is free from typical allergens, please comment so I can add it!).

Thanks to dietitian Leah Holcombe for her work on this!

Disclosure: I consult with Clif Bar and KIND Healthy Snacks.

Fighting Food Cravings

It’s 4:30 pm and you’re staring at the computer but can’t seem to read the words on the screen. Instead you are completely immersed in the thought of a light and fluffy cupcake topped ever so gracefully with swirls of sweet light yellow buttercream icing. The plan of action is simple and swift: as soon as 5pm strikes you’ll dash out of the office to the corner bakeshop before they run out of these freshly baked delights. If food cravings make you feel like a hostage to your obsession with a specific food or flavor, you may be wondering what causes them and how you can overcome them.

Just last week dietitian Leah Holcombe and I were talking about food cravings and we both came up with a number of reasons why people get them and how you can overcome them, based on our combined experience. From our perspective, you may be craving a certain food because:

  • You simply haven’t eaten enough calories. Before you cave, sit down and eat a meal or mini-meal, wait and see if you still want to dive into that gallon of ice cream with a ladle. As Leah said – when you are full on healthy items it is hard to overeat.
  • You skipped a meal. Meal skipping is a surefire ticket to overeating and making bad food choices. If you are hungry, your brain is running low on glucose, the first thing you’ll want is sugar or a calorie-dense food (fat). Perfect solution: that cupcake.
  • You crave comfort. One lady I counseled years ago ate extremely large amounts of shelled, roasted peanuts (and she was very specific, they had to be shelled, salted and roasted). Turns out her father brought these home for the family on occasion when she was a kid. She and her siblings dove in with delight. So, it wasn’t necessarily the peanuts she was craving but the fond memory from childhood that she wanted to relive as an adult.
  • Habit. Sometimes we simply eat out of habit. Maybe you are used to ordering fries alongside your hamburger or getting a large sweet tea every time you visit a restaurant. If you eat out of habit you need a reason and willpower to break that habit. But, it can be done.

Well, it turns out that food cravings activate a reward center in our brain according to this article published in the Wall Street Journal. And, interestingly enough, studies show that food cravings involve social, emotional and psychological factors. For more on what the research says, click here for the full article.

What to Feed Your Young Athlete

I get quite a few questions from parents who ask what they can feed their kids to keep them fueled for sports yet happy at mealtime. After all, no parent wants to hear their child complain at mealtime (or stubbornly sit at the table for hours like I did, refusing to eat my peas). So expert dietitian Leah Holcombe put together this fantastic document with several ideas for kid-friendly lunches.

Healthy Lunches for Kids with kid-friendly lunch ideas.

For other meal time ideas, check out:
Meal Makeover Moms website

Cooking Light Kid Friendly Recipes