In today’s world of sport, much is made of overtraining. Seemingly every day, coaches, parents, and athletes are warned of the nasty effects associated with training too hard or too often.
In youth baseball, pitch counts are treated like gospel while the number of jumps is meticulously tracked at volleyball practices. We’ve certainly turned 180 degrees from the “Start counting when it begins to hurt” mentality.
For the most part, these barometers are beneficial. Many athletes need protection from themselves, and coaches should be aware of how much is too much. Making sure life has balance, especially for youth athletes, is vital. However, what’s also important is seeing the fruits of your labor.
An athlete seeing improvements in their performance is paramount. Without noticeable improvements, motivation to train takes a dip, which in turn can cause further waning of performance or burnout. This cycle can become vicious quite quickly.
So, if results are suboptimal, where do we turn? After all, dedicating hundreds if not thousands of hours to a craft builds character, but what about building performance on the track, in the weight room, or on the field. Well, the answers to these situations are largely individual. However, there are some broad, scientific variables to understand related to the phenomenon we refer to as undertraining.
What is undertraining? What variables are associated with it? If you are undertrained, where should you go from here? If these questions pique your curiosity, allow these words to shed some light on the topic of undertraining.
What is Undertraining?
Undertraining refers to a declining or stagnation of performance due to insufficient training frequency, volume, or intensity1.
Practically speaking, though, undertraining means you simply aren’t working hard or smart enough to make the appropriate improvements you desire. As it pertains to team sports, it’s much easier to view undertraining from a “run faster and jump higher” point of view than via batting average or free throw percentage. This is because the latter examples are indicative of far more than speed or strength.
For example, a 14-year-old volleyball player who wants to improve her vertical jump from 22 inches to 24 inches will need to train to make that happen. That much is clear. What’s murkier is how much and how often training is needed. If her vertical jump continues to stay at 22 inches, or worse, it begins trickling down. A few questions then need to be asked.
How to Know if You are Undertraining
This is probably the most important and literal sign of undertraining. Though there are many reasons performance may not be progressing, undertraining is certainly on that menu. If your body isn’t given an appropriate training stimulus, it sees no reason to respond to it. Of course, this is an overly simplistic view, but the principle is sound. A master of taking the easy way out, the human body needs to see adaptation as a must, not a luxury.
To ensure consistent gains, you must follow the holy grail of training, which is progressive overload. Progressive overload basically means the amount and intensity need to be consistently overloaded to force the body to respond with the results you desire. So, if you notice your workout performance is at a stalemate, whether that be sprint times, jump height, or otherwise, consider the fact you may be undertraining.
As you may imagine, there’s much more research on overtraining than undertraining. Therefore, these last two points will be more anecdotal in nature. Boredom is as much a concern to long-term progression as anything else, especially for youth athletes. As a physical therapist myself, boredom with a given exercise program is something, I monitor religiously because both compliance and sufficient effort are more likely when it’s enjoyable.
Therefore, coaches’ and athletes’ varying workouts are essential. It’s not that the “old workouts” won’t work. This is no foray into the muscle confusion rabbit hole. However, imagine performing the same speed workout for ten consecutive weeks—effort and concentration wane. Sometimes, human nature is the toughest nut to crack.
Unable to Break a Sweat
Again, this is largely anecdotal, but unless you’re resting 5 minutes between each sprint, you ought to be breaking a sweat and increasing your heart rate while training. Oftentimes, those same people convinced their body is unable to sweat the same folks spending ample practice time handwringing instead of using time efficiently to train. Do yourself or your athletes a favor, and start sweating.
1. Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.