Am I over-training?

Originally Published: February 22, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 12, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I am a college athlete. I have the potential to go to the Olympics. I throw javelin, a track and field event. I have been very prone to injury in the past, so I have a lot of fear about getting hurt in the future. During my past four years of high school, I have not had to train very hard for javelin, but now that I am in college, it is all I train for. My shoulder is really in a lot of pain; it crunches when I lift anything above my head. It is very stiff, and it gets weird feeling it. I want to know how to make sure that I am not over-training. I do not want to be a wuss, but I do not have a lot of faith in the person training me. How do you know when you have had enough? This is very important to me. I want to meet the expectations of my coach, but I do not want to end my career. What is a good pain and a bad pain?

—Thrown for a loop

Dear Thrown for a loop,

Congratulations on the skill you have developed. Throwing the javelin can be hard work, and it sounds like you're already experiencing some training-related pain. First of all, getting a professional opinion on your shoulder is a good idea. As a college student, you may need to start with your student health service (students at Columbia can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator for an appointment). If possible, it would be advantageous to see a sports medicine expert, or an orthopedist who specializes in shoulders.

The pain you've described maybe a result of increasing the intensity, frequency, and/or the duration of your training too quickly.  Throwing the javelin takes a lot of strength, engaging the shoulder, back, and arm muscles. If your muscles don't have time to rest, there is no time for muscle repair. If you increased your training quickly, the ligaments and tendons may not have become strong enough to support your new workload.

As for your question on good and bad pain, well, pain really isn't a good thing. There are three kinds of pain associated with physical activity. One is immediate — pain that may be caused by an exertion, and quickly passes. The second is delayed, known as delayed-onset muscle soreness. This is a natural adaptive process. It usually begins 24 to 48 hours after exercise, and decreases after 72 hours. The most recent research points to microscopic tears in muscle and connective tissue causing the pain. This type of soreness usually resolves when a person adapts to the exercise. The third type of pain is continuous, which occurs when insufficient time is allowed between exercise sessions for rest, also known as over-training. The potential for injury is greatest here.

Once you've had your shoulder examined, and you are medically cleared to continue training, it's probably time for a conversation with your coach. You could request a detailed training schedule, which would map out your training days, rest days, goals, and dates by which to reach them. You may want to include a strength and conditioning component to help you increase your strength specific to your sport. Perhaps there is a strength and conditioning coach at your school who can help you with this.

In the mean time, be sure to follow a healthy eating plan. This also means you are taking in sufficient calories to meet your energy demands, drinking fluids to stay hydrated, and eating plenty of carbohydrates to fuel your activity, along with getting sufficient protein for repair of muscle tissue.

Given your accomplishments and hard work thus far, you could hardly be accused of not trying hard enough. If athletes and their trainers don't respect and take care of themselves, their bodies may end up breaking down — letting down themselves, their coaches, and others for good, or at least for a few games — Olympics and otherwise.

Best of luck,

Alice