Guest Blog: Over training

If you’re a distance swimmer, particularly one who is also into open water training, now is the time that you’ll be really bumping up time and distance in the water. How can you tell the difference between over training and not doing enough? It can be a fine line at times, particularly if you don’t come from an ultra endurance background.

The risk of over training isn’t just for channel swimming or endurance sports. If you take your sport seriously, this is worth a read.

This helpful guide by Paul Massey BA (HONS), MCSP, SRP can be used by you to really understand where that line is.


Over training

The bottom line in sports conditioning and fitness training is stress, not mental stress, but adaptive body stress. Athletes must put their bodies under a certain amount of stress to increase physical capabilities. Where the stress loads are appropriate then the athlete's performance will improve but if the stress loads are inappropriate then a state of over-training/burnout could come about for the athlete. Training principles identifies the need for rest to allow the body to recover and adapt to the training loads, failure to allow the body to recover can lead to a state of over-training.


Signs of Over-training

Symptoms indicating over exertion can be classified in the following way:

Movement coordination symptoms:

  • Increased incidence of disturbances in movement (the re-appearance of faults that seemed to have been overcome, cramp, inhibitions, insecurity)

  • Disturbances in rhythm and flow of movement

  • Lack of ability to concentrate

  • Reduced power of differentiation and correction

Condition symptoms:

  • Diminished powers of endurance, strength, speed. Increase in recovery time, loss of 'sparkle' (competitive qualities)

  • Reduced readiness for action, fear of competition, giving-up in face of difficult situations, especially at the finish

  • Confusion in competition, departure from usual tactics

  • Susceptibility to demoralising influences before and during competition

  • Increasing tendency to abandon the struggle

Psychological symptoms:

  • Increased irritability, obstinacy, tendency to hysteria, grumbling, defiance, increased quarrelsomeness, avoidance of contact with coach and colleagues

  • Over sensitivity to criticism, or increasing indolence, poor incentive, dullness, hallucination, anxiety, depression, melancholy, insecurity

Close observation can help eliminate the possibility of serious effects of over-stressing. As soon as symptoms are noticed, loading should be reduced and recovery pursued. All performance checks and competition pressures must be removed and active recovery put in their place.

Causes of Over-Training

It is possible to categorise certain factors, if permitted to accumulate, which will bring about a state of over-training. They are as follows:

  • Recovery is neglected (mistakes in the build-up of training cycles, inadequate use of general exercise sessions for recovery)

  • Inappropriate increase in frequency of training or extent of loading or density of loading

  • Demands are increased too quickly, so that adaptation cannot be consolidated

  • Too rapid increase of loading after forced breaks (injuries, illness)

  • Too great an extent of loadings of maximum and sub-maximum intensity

  • Too high an intensity of duration loadings in endurance training

  • Excessive and forced technical schooling in complicated courses of movement without adequate recovery

  • Excess of competitions with maximum demands, combined with frequent disturbance of the daily routine and insufficient training

  • Excessive bias of training methods and units


Factors Reducing Performance

Performance can also be affected by the following factors:

Life Style:

  • Inadequate sleep, irregular routine by day

  • Use of alcohol and nicotine

  • Excess of caffeine

  • Bad living conditions (noise, overcrowding, inadequate light, etc.)

  • Over stimulating company

  • Lack of free time or inability to make good use of free time (no relaxation)

  • Nutritional deficiencies (lack of vitamins)

  • Rush and hurry

  • Frequent necessity to adjust body-weight

  • Taking on more stresses when already at capacity


  • Over burdening with family duties

  • Tensions within family (parents, husband, wife)

  • Difficulties in personal relationships

  • Dissatisfaction with career, studies, school

  • Bad assessment and marks in school, in studies, etc.

  • Conflict of attitudes to sport (family, superiors)

  • Excess of stimuli (TV, cinema)

  • Increased burden in one area of environment (e.g. final exams, A levels)


Health Upsets:

  • Feverish colds, stomach or intestinal upsets

  • Chronic illnesses

  • After effect of infectious illness




McNair, Lorr and Doppleman (1971)[3] developed the Profile of Mood States (POMS) Questionnaire for people undergoing counseling or psychotherapy. The POMS was popularised in the area of sport and exercise through the research Morgan & Pollock (1977)[4] and Morgan & Johnson (1978)[5]. POMS, which contains 65 questions, has subsequently demonstrated that it can be used successfully to assess performance status in athletes.

Six mood states are used in POMS: tension, depression, anger, vigour, fatigue and confusion. Subjects are given a score for each trait according to their responses to certain statements which include key words such as unhappy, tense, careless, and cheerful. For each statement, subjects indicate how they feel at that moment, or how they felt over the previous day, few days, or week, by choosing one of the following responses: not at all, a little, moderately, quite a lot or extremely.

Anderson (2002)[1] uses a shorter questionnaire to monitor the performance status of the athletes he coaches. Each morning the athletes assess themselves against the following six questions:

  1. I slept well last night

  2.   I am looking forward to today's workout

  3.   I am optimistic about my future performance

  4.   I feel vigorous and energetic

  5.  My appetite is great

  6.   I have little muscle soreness

They rate each statement on the following scale:

1 - Strongly disagree

2 - Disagree

3 - Neutral

4 - Agree

5 - Strongly agree

If their score is 20 or above then they have probably recovered enough to continue with the training program. If their score is below 20 then they consider rest or an easy workout until their score rises again.


Total Quality Recovery (TQR)

Total Quality Recovery (TQR) is a method that assesses an athlete's recovery as a combination of recovery actions and the athlete's perceptions of recovery (Kenntta 1998)[2]. It is a simple test requiring no invasive tests.


Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE's)

RPE's are a qualitative and simple way of measuring the intensity of training. It takes into consideration mental and physical factors that provide the stresses of training. RPE's are often measured on a scale of 10 but if you use a scale of 20, then you can relate them to TQR or relate recovery to training. The main advantage is that anyone can use them and they can be done daily with minimal effort

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TQR Assessment Process

The assessment is conducted for a 24-hour period. Determine your score for the nutrition, sleep and rest, relaxation and emotional support, stretching and cool down sections below. A total of 20 points are available and a score of less than 13 points indicates that recovery from training is incomplete.

Nutrition (10 points)

  • Breakfast - 1 point

  • Lunch - 2 point

  • Supper - 2 points

  • Snacks between meals - 1 point

  • Carbohydrate reloading after practice - 2 points. (This assumes quality, healthy balanced meals) 

  • Adequate hydration

    • throughout the day - 1 point

    • during/post workouts - 1 point

  • Environmental factors will effect greatly how much is an adequate intake of fluids

Sleep and Rest (4 points)

  • Good night of quality sleep - 3 points

  • Daily nap (20-60min) - 1 point

Quality of sleep would be measured using individual perception.

Relaxation and Emotional Support (3 points)

  • Full mental and muscular relaxation after training - 2 point

  • Maintaining a relaxed state throughout the day - 1 point

Here the goal is to use a variety of relaxation techniques (breathing, massage, etc.).

Stretching and Cool Down (3 points)

  • Proper cool down after each training period - 2 points

  • Stretching all the exercised muscle groups - 1 point


Paul is a chartered physiotherapist and qualified Pilates instructor.  He worked as the Chief Physiotherapist to the Great Britain Swimming Team and attended the Commonwealth Games in 94, 98 and 02 and the Olympic Games in 92, 96 and 2000 in this role.

He is also a physiotherapist to the British Athletics English Hockey team, British Triathlon team and Consultant Physiotherapist to the Body Control Pilates Association.

Paul is a Channel Swimmer.