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"Burning bright and burning out can be seen as two potential consequences for athletes driven by passion." (Gustafsson, Hassmén and Hassmén, 2011)
As fitness professionals, we always encourage discipline, and creating and sticking to a healthy regimen; we inspire dedication and stimulate motivation. It is hard to admit that sometimes we risk "over-motivating" a person.
It's all fun and games until things get dramatic concerning mental health. The fire burning in athletes, or simply highly motivated trainees can easily turn the person's energy into ashes. As a result, these individuals who were once driven, end up experiencing a series of physical and mental symptoms related to the overtraining syndrome (OTS).
Before European College of Sports Science would officially define the term overtraining syndrome, many more familiar terms were used to describe the condition. Among those, burnout could probably be the most relatable. Similar to burnout, overtraining syndrome is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, reduced personal accomplishment. However, while burnout mostly occurs in a work-related context, OTS develops among people living a "healthier" lifestyle. Instead of dealing with the weight of responsibilities that are forced upon a person in a work setting, people who engage voluntarily into physical exercise and for whom training is a pastime, move towards the burnout by their own conscious or unconscious choice.
So here comes the question: Is our healthy lifestyle really healthy? How do we know where lies the border? While we often talk about work-related stress, rarely anyone touches upon the dark side of wellness.
Nowadays, the Internet is flooded by pieces preaching about the meaning and the importance of motivation, pushing the limits, training until failure—while the mental risks are completely neglected. You see, there are certain invisible lines separating healthy focus from obsession, and challenge from stress.
Being able to differentiate these phenomena is highly important for the trainees. However, it is a matter of real responsibility for fitness professionals. Athletes and coaches who are more familiar with these matters and underlying psychological processes may be better equipped to prevent the possible negative consequences of too much stress and too little recovery.
Think of a sales consultant who supports a client with a shopping addiction, or a bartender filling up the drinks for an alcohol addict. A trainer encouraging the potentially harmful behavior in a client falls under the same category at these two.
Before we move on, let's elaborate on terminology. As long as the concept of overtraining syndrome is relatively young, there has been quite some controversy around it. There are a few terms related to this topic understanding of which is essential for comprehending the entire complexity of the issue.
Authors Kreher, J. B. and Schwartz, J. B. in the paper "Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide" shed some light on the most important notions. They began their discussion by defining overreaching and so will we. "Overreaching is considered an accumulation of training load that leads to performance decrements requiring days to weeks for recovery." Basically, overreaching that is followed by an adequate rest is the method we usually turn to in case we want to encourage muscle hypertrophy, performance increase or general progress. However, in cases where overreaching is extreme and co-occurs with an additional stressor—overtraining syndrome may result.
Overtraining and overreaching are often considered a continuum. Once OTS occurs, as a result of extreme load, it is accompanied by anxiety in various body systems such as neurologic, endocrinologic, and immunologic, coupled with significant changes in mood. Interestingly, mood surveys are one of the most reliable ways of diagnosing OTS. Common symptoms of OTS can include:
Lack of mental focus
However, the controversy among ideas begins when the conditions listed above are not considered as symptoms but rather as the root cause of OTS. Some researchers hypothesize that triggers are purely biological, while some assume that psychological stressors or even monotony of training could lead to overtraining.
Let's take an example of Tonya, she trains more than 5 days a week with enviable commitment. Never misses a training, always pushes herself to failure, religiously follows a clean diet, and gets severely anxious if for any reason her regime gets disrupted. She does not allow her body to rest even when she experiences symptoms of exhaustion or even when she is physically ill. Ignoring all the usual signs of tiredness, she keeps moving forward. Her coach, instead of seeing a mental issue here, encourages her dedication by further motivating her to keep it up! One day both her body and mind collapse.
One paper would not be enough to include all the possible psychological causes that could explain Tonya's behavior. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, exercise addiction, or eating disorders are just a few examples worth mentioning. Science itself is not very clear yet about the causes of this new-born diagnoses. It logically follows that ignorance, or applying "topical treatments" in these cases can be fatal.
So, what can be done? Here are a few tips you can use as a fitness expert, coach, or trainer to try to prevent overtraining in your clients.
1. Educate your clients on a healthy lifestyle
Understanding where lies the border between healthy and obsessive can be tricky, especially for beginners. People often set unrealistic goals for themselves and then easily get discouraged if they fail to follow the path religiously. Providing a sufficient explanation here is essential, both to avoid early discouragements and to prevent forming obsessive behaviors.
2. Plan training AND resting days
This tip comes from personal experience with a client who struggled in permitting herself to rest without a feeling of anxiety. We took her busy agenda and color-coordinated tasks in her calendar, assigning a different color for each type of a task (example: orange for leisure, green for work). We marked work and training related tasks, along with the tasks associated with rest and pleasure. She started following a new regime and slowly learned how to relax without feeling guilty or anxious. Once she began to enjoy her free time more, her desire to train heavily seven days a week slowly faded and was substituted with a healthier frequency.
ISSA's personal training certification offers an extensive overview of the recommended frequency and intensity of training. As a certified personal trainer, you will be fully equipped with the knowledge to design a customized program based on your client's physical and mental health and goals.
3. Avoid being monotonous
Researchers list monotony of training as one of the possible triggers for OTS. Science yet does not have a definitive answer on what is the mechanism working behind this. However, there is no reason not to introduce the idea of variety and novelty into a training program. Keeping the activities various will not only aid in the prevention of OTS but will also balance the motivation levels for those who feel less driven. It's that one pill that cures all!
4. Talk and listen
Try to stay connected with your clients by allowing them to give feedback and express their emotions freely. Actively listening to them will ensure that you are fully aware of their experiences with training. Thus, you can detect an unhealthy inclination in a timely manner and act upon it.
5. Refer them to a mental health professional
Despite the fact that nowadays personal trainers and coaches often work on many more levels than purely physical, and actively contribute to the mental well-being of their clients, it is important to understand that in some cases we are simply not qualified enough. If you notice that your trainee is experiencing social distress due to their over-dedication, try to refer them to a mental health professional.
The ultimate goal of physical training is the benefit; to develop a healthier body and a healthier mind. Nevertheless, we should remember that just like too much sunshine can cause a drought, too much enthusiasm can lead to burnout. The key is to balance.
If you like the idea of helping your clients develop better habits physically and mentally, check out the ISSA's Transformation Specialist course online.
Bianchi, R., Schonfeld, I. and Laurent, E. (2015). Burnout-depression overlap: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 36, pp.28-41.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (2013). Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association.
Gustafsson, H., Hassmén, P. and Hassmén, N. (2011). Are athletes burning out with passion?. European Journal of Sport Science, 11(6), pp.387-395.
Kreher, J. and Schwartz, J. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 4(2), pp.128-138.