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Learning from sport burnout and overtraining
Learning from sport burnout and overtraining

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3 Insight: the health risks of underrecovery

The tendency of those passionate about sport is to train hard. A hard training culture often permeates sport, and proponents of a social perspective of burnout would hold this up as an example of where the sport environment contributes to burned out athletes.

In a hard training culture, athletes may be tempted to avoid recovery sessions. In this section you will see that prolonged underrecovery combined with undereating can have severe health consequences.

Activity 3 Under-fuelled and overtrained

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

British middle-distance runner Bobby Clay had the world at her feet - aged 18, she was hailed as a star of the future for Team GB after taking Gold at the 2015 European Junior Championships. Listen to this interview with Clay who tells a shocking story involving extreme underrecovery. Then respond to these two questions:

  1. Why do you think Clay achieved her best ever results whilst at Loughborough University?
  2. In Session 2 you categorised burnout characteristics under three headings:
    • individual characteristics (i.e. a person’s attributes and resources)
    • prolonged overload (i.e. the stress stimulus and response)
    • situational characteristics (i.e. the environmental and social influences).

    Using these headings as a starting point, what factors most influenced Clay’s overtraining?

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  1. It is likely that a 50% reduction in training volume at Loughborough and a load that was managed through a close athlete–coach relationship was one of the main causes of her lifetime best results (i.e. less is more).
  2. What most influenced Clay’s overtraining was, in terms of physiology, excessive overtraining and undereating. However, you may also conclude that the overload was not due to the training regime but Clay’s personality characteristics as she was obsessional in her drive to train hard through her adolescence. The inability of others to measure her training load before going to university also contributed.

Arguably, though, her individual characteristics of being ‘narrow minded’ and training ‘under the radar’ had the greatest impact. Athlete monitoring is clearly an important part of organisations’ responsibility for athlete welfare. In 2018, Loughborough University released a press release and you may like to view their short film about eating disorders amongst athletes [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] in which a healthy Clay features (this is not a compulsory part of this course).

The National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine (NCSEM) (2017) suggests that ‘eating disorders and disordered eating are common among athletes. Around one in five female athletes and one in twelve male athletes are affected’ (p. 2). Their research supports the potential for the negative impacts of undereating as you saw in the case of Clay. Also, remember Gustafsson et al.’s (2008) burnout interviews in Session 3: three out of five women reported eating disorders. Appropriate re-fuelling is a fundamental part of recovery so undereating can have severe health consequences (NCSEM, 2017). Clay’s example also points to obsessional behaviour being a risk factor in overtraining and burnout.

Earlier in this course you heard of a macho training culture. Next you will hear an example of a modern coach turning this on its head to see how little training athletes can do to still be effective.