Am I overtraining?

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,

The adjustment from high school to college sports can be a big one, and it sounds as though you have a promising career ahead of you. Learning what may be happening with your shoulder and how to keep it in tip-top shape can help ensure that you have the athletic career that you’re looking for and help you chase those Olympic dreams. One of the best ways to meet the expectations of yourself and your coach is to keep your body healthy and strong. More specifically, taking the time to take care of yourself and learning to differentiate the types of pain you may be experiencing can help you get there.

Feeling pain and fatigue in muscles while training isn’t uncommon. However, it’s key to be able to distinguish what types of pain may help you advance in your training and which ones may lead to more serious injury or health concerns. Muscles get stronger after they've been stressed, and that stress may lead to the burning feeling that people often describe while engaging in physical activity. That being said, pain that helps increase strength is generally short-lived. When the activity ends, the pain and burning feeling typically ends shortly after.

Although muscles get stronger after being stressed, too much stress on the muscles may be harmful. Even if you're regularly physically active, this can still occur if you do a new activity or if you go at your typical routine too hard. When the muscle becomes too stressed, it can be painful to move and it may swell. If this continues to happen, the muscles could become permanently damaged. While muscles can become too sore, the tendons, which connect muscle to bone, can also become over stressed. When they become stressed, they can become inflamed, which can result in pain and swelling called tendinitis. This pain can be felt during and after the exercise, and it can continue when doing activities that use those tendons.

While you may have been told at some point in your athletic career to push through the pain, it’s key to take note of when your pain pushes beyond that which helps your performance improve into that which can become harmful to your body. The types of pain that may be cause for concern include pain that:

  • Affects athletic performance
  • Doesn’t go away with rest
  • Begins to affect activities outside of physical activity, such as walking or sleeping
  • Is constant or increasing
  • Requires increasing amounts of pain medication
  • Awakens you from sleep

List adapted from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Some more serious concerns to consider are if you feel yourself developing numbness or tingling, as that may indicate problems with your nerves. Additionally, if you find yourself with a fever, chills, or sweating at night due to muscle pain, seeking immediate medical attention is recommended.

It's also the case that if you haven’t had adequate rest between training sessions, your muscles may not have had the time they needed to recover. Additionally, some of the symptoms of overtraining can extend beyond the pain that’s felt in the muscles. Someone that has trained too much may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic injuries
  • Increased susceptibility to infections
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Depression
  • Changes in appetite and weight loss
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Loss of menstruation

List adapted from the American College of Sports Medicine.

If the pain you’re experiencing in your shoulder is chronic, you may want to get it checked out to learn more about the root cause of your discomfort. If possible, seeing a health care provider who specializes in sports medicine may be able to help explain the specific causes of your shoulder pain and have a better understanding of the movements you make with your shoulder regularly. You also mentioned that you don’t have a lot of faith in the person training you — is there another person with whom you could train? How much flexibility do you have with your training routine and schedule? If you haven’t spoken with your coach already, it may be helpful to bring your concerns to them. If possible, you could even try coordinating with your health care provider and your coach to create a training program that’s optimized to strengthen your shoulder and prevent future injuries.

Best of luck,

Last updated Aug 24, 2018
Originally published Feb 21, 2002

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