The hype of recovery, overtraining, and burnout or please don’t work too hard

Yesterday, I took a couple of my players through a new resistance training routine.¬†As we talked, recovery came up, and one player said, “You don’t really believe in recovery, do you?” This after talking about the importance of sleep and nutrition after the previous practice and handing out the 24-hour athlete handout earlier in the season.

I answered that I believe strongly in recovery. However, recovery does not mean that you need 2-3 days off between resistance training sessions. Instead, recovery, to me, means three things:

  1. Sleep
  2. Nutrition
  3. Mobility/Flexibility (generally taking care of your body)

Now, if an athlete takes care of these three things, and still feels fatigued or has a loss of motivation or is getting sick all of the time, then we can talk about the need for day(s) off to recover. However, as I told my player, don’t tell me that you need two days off from lifting weights because you sleep five hours per night and drink two bottles of soda every day. We need to take care of the important things first, and if there are problems once we have the important things in order, then we may have an issue of overtraining.

The topic was fresh on my mind, as I read Squat Every Day by Matthew Perryman over the weekend. Whereas it sounds like a workout book, much of the book is about recovery – the ability to work out daily. As Perryman noted, if Olympic weightlifters lift 10-12 times per week, why does a recreational lifter (or 19-year-old basketball player) need two days off between sessions?

Perryman wrote, “Paraphrasing Vladimir Zatsiorsky, the idea is to train as heavy as possible and as often as possible while staying as fresh as possible.” Of course, in Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John wrote that in team sports, strength training cannot interfere with the team’s practice or games. The goal in team sports is not to be the strongest team, but to be the best at the skills of the sport, and strength is one piece of a much larger puzzle.

My goal, as a strength coach, is to combine those two ideas: lift as heavy as possible as often as possible without forgetting that the sport and its skills are most important.

Perryman wrote, “Strength is a skill, teaching your brain how to handle a movement and maximum weight, but it’s also about building your body’s capacities.” For this reason, when we look at strength training in terms of recovery or preparing for the next practice or game, the recovery has to be as much about the emotional and psychological as the physical. As Perryman wrote, “Staleness is a problem of intensity: weights are too heavy and athletes are pushing too hard, emotionally, to lift them.” It’s not the physical fatigue – it’s the emotional fatigue from pushing at maximum capacity for too long without a break.

Last season, as a strength coach, I followed similar ideas to those that Perryman expressed. We lifted with reps and sets that would appear to be focused more on maximum strength – doubles and triples – but we used a slightly lighter load (closer to 80-85%). The goal was not to lift until failure – the goal was to lift as heavy as possible, while also leaving a repetition or set in the bag.

In my mind, we avoided fatigue because we cut down the volume (10-12 total work repetitions; 5×2, 4×3), and we did not strain emotionally to max out on lifts. We maintained high levels of strength because we lifted reasonably heavy weights. Many programs that worry about fatigue back off the intensity during the season, but add repetitions (3×10, 60%). I believe it is the volume, not the intensity, that leads to physical fatigue (As a basketball coach, on the day before a game, do you have a long, easy practice or a short, intense practice)?

I did not have access to HRV or any of the other new toys to measure fatigue. Instead, I asked players how they felt. If they had a hard practice before lifting, we reduced some things, usually the plyometrics and/or squats. If a player felt really tight or like he or she was getting sick, we did more mobility stuff with that player and reduced the lifting. It was an old school way to monitor fatigue and prevent overtraining – individual relationships.

Through the year, we had no real injuries on either team, and some of the guys commented that they felt their verticals improved incredibly. One player went from barely dunking to throwing down 360s. There were numerous factors, but one was the ability to lift heavier weights with lighter volume to lift as heavy as possible, as often as possible while staying fresh and not adversely affecting practice or games.

Of course, the players who had to back off more often than the others were the ones who were sending tweets at 3 in the morning rather than sleeping or the ones who ate crappy food. The players who slept, ate well, and took care of their bodies almost never had to back off even though they lifted harder and heavier and played more minutes than their teammates.

Recovery is important. However, recovery is not taking two days off to sit on the couch. As I told my player, he should be able to lift three times a week without any adverse consequences on practice or games. However, that is dependent upon him doing the other things to recover. If you manage the stresses on your body, you can push your body harder. However, if you do not manage these stressors, you will break down. This is when we hear about overtraining syndrome and emotional burnout. These are real problems; however, I believe for most people (non-elite and non-endurance athletes), these are overblown, and many problems can be alleviated by being proactive in terms of sleep, nutrition, etc.

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