“It’s better to undertrain than to overtrain”
This phrase is ingrained in every coach’s mind. It’s cliché to say, but like many clichés the truth rings loudly.
Take a glance at our modern world: early specialization, 10,000 hour rule maxims, emphasis on miles run per week or number of gut-wrenching intervals completed. It’s no wonder we are worried about overtraining. Couple the enormous training loads with the lack of time and recovery we all feel, and the ticking time bomb of overtraining surely awaits.
We all know what overtraining looks like; too much, too soon, with not enough recovery. We envision the insane workouts, the glossed over eyes we see in our athletes, the general feeling of malaise that infiltrates the team. Any coach worth their salt, can glance at a training program and give a reasonable guess on the risks of overtraining. Spot four days a week of intense interval work and red flags go up. See back-to-back hard workouts too often and alarm bells ring. We all know what overtraining potentially looks like.
If I presented the following training program to an experienced runner training for the mile, would you be concerned with a potential for overtraining?
Monday- 2mile warm up. A few sharp sprints
Tuesday- 2 mile warm up- 3×400 at 800m pace. Walk 400m between each
Wednesday- A few 50-100 yard sprints
Thursday: Warm up
Sunday: Leisurely walk
The answer, of course, would be no.
A Brief History of Overtraining:
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this isn’t a modern training program. It was the training performed by Glenn Cunningham, the indoor world record holder in the mile (4:06.7) in the 1930’s. In the phenomenal book How They Train, published in 1959, in Cunningham’s section it gloats “It is estimated that during his great career the mighty Kansas ran in excess of 10,000 miles including training.”
Despite the brevity of his training schedule when compared to modern ones, athletes like Cunningham were fearful with overtraining. If we look back in history, the fear of overtraining is deep.
In the 19th century, with the rise of athletics as a leisure activity, we see a rising concern over training. Sport is coming out of its leisure mentality, where training for it was considered a concern in itself. So when athletes started to implement training programs, their norm was minimal defined training. Coaches and athletes were born out of the mindset of a building a base consisting of taking long walks, not today’s model of running large numbers of miles per week.
As Nicholas Bourne declared in his thorough dissertation on the history of training, “One of the primary reasons why athletes were discouraged from overexertion and overtraining was a condition dubbed the “athlete’s heart.” The post-Civil War growth in games and athletics raised activity beyond the expectancy and expertise of most physicians.”
Take note of Bourne’s mention of expectations. The rise in training of any kind was above and beyond what society was used to. In other words, it was a departure from their norm.
In 1898, the head track coach at Minnesota, Ed Moulton, proclaimed he would have his athletes “rather train too little than too much.” Moulton’s echoing of our cliché coaching maxim wasn’t a mistake. He made a point to emphasize avoiding overwork.
As we made our way into the 20th century, Dean Cromwell was the head coach of USC and deemed the “Maker of Champions.” A man who won 12 NCAA titles and coached 12 Olympic Gold medalist probably deserved such a nickname. Cromwell, like Moulton before him, was concerned with overtraining, stating “you can’t hurt a boy by undertraining him.”
This sentiment on training by Cromwell, Moulton, and numerous others all occurred during a time frame when training, compared to modern methods, was minimal, at best. It doesn’t mean the training was bad, it just means the volume and intensity of work is very low.
Can we overtrain?
Is there a physiological point of overtraining? Absolutely, without a doubt. Thanks to experimentation by athletes like Zatopek and coaches like Lydiard or Bob Timmons, we got to see athletes approach the extremes of volume and intensity.
Yet, perspective matters.
Training doesn’t take place in isolation. We are not lab rats where if we apply a stimulus we get a standard response. Instead, when it comes to training, or in actuality any stress, our interpretation matters. Our expectations govern whether we see a workout as difficult or not, which in turn influences the marshaling of our stress hormones. Perceive the workout as a threat? Bam! Our body and mind, are flooded with stress hormones. It doesn’t matter if the coach thought the workout was easy on paper. Expectations matter.
There’s an innate link between how we perceive the environment around us and our physical reactions. As coaches, we are taught to take a ‘scientific’ approach and program based on only the physical response.
I don’t doubt that Coach Moulton or Coach Cromwell were truly concerned with overtraining. And I have little doubt that these expert coaches actually saw their athletes overtrain. How could they off of so little training?
The athletes and coaches thought it was hard. In their mental framework, running 5 days a week, completing a few 400’s that put them out of breath, was enough to push them over the edge. Why wouldn’t it be? These athletes were ‘training.’ They were reaching a degree of voluntary fatigue that people didn’t do during those days?
It’s obvious to me that Glenn Cunningham, an athlete who ran 4:06 for the mile in the 1930’s, could handle much more training. It should be obvious that Walter George, a man who ran 4:12 for the mile in the 1880’s off of training that consisted of most lifting his knees in place, could have performed more work.
Yet, to them, they were performing hard work. That’s all that mattered.
Where your norm lies matters. How we see training, whether it is hard or easy, matters. How our coach frames each workout, “This is going to be a see god day” versus “This workout should be a piece of cake”, matters. We form anchor points based on expectations and experience.
As a coach, we play a large role in manipulating where those anchor points are and what an athletes’ norms are. Sometimes we need to shift them higher, and sometimes we might need to tamper down their eagerness to push the boundaries.
It shouldn’t be surprising that another coach fought back against the fear of overtraining, and likely ushered in the era of high volumes of intervals most days of the week. Which ironically, may have demonstrated that this was too much in that direction. As illustrated in Bourne’s dissertation:
“Stampfl disagreed with the notion that concentrated and repeated training led to overtraining or “staleness” as it was then termed. He argued that ‘it is a belief that finds no support in other fields of endeavor. The child learning to write, the pianist who practices for six hours a day, the bricklayer laying bricks—the work of these people does not deteriorate as a result of constant repetition of the same movements.’
Stampfl felt that staleness could be avoided by a gradual build up in the volume and intensity of training, by sufficient competition and by athletes not losing sight of their desires or goals. Accordingly, Stampfl professed that ‘most athletes suffered from too little training.’ “