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Olympics: Science of the Sporting Life
Posted 26 JANUARY 2006 (Expanded 2006 based on 1996 story)


young woman runsIn praise of fresh athletes
The average aspiring athlete's adage is "train ... and train ... and train some more." Although it sounds logical, it can be a prescription for disaster, says John Raglin, an exercise psychologist at Indiana University.

If serious athletes, like those gunning for gold in Turin, train to excess, they may see a persistent decline in performance. The condition is called "staleness," and can do to an athlete what a night on the shelf does to French bread.

In a recent study, Raglin and a colleague found that high-volume, high-intensity training caused staleness in 10 to 15 percent of young Swedish ski racers (see "Incidence of the Staleness..." in the bibliography). Staleness can afflict most endurance athletes , including speed-skaters, runners and bikers, Raglin says. He describe staleness as a generalized condition with symptoms like:

pervasive loss of performance

sleep disturbances

unusual muscle soreness

a feeling of heaviness

perceptual changes (familiar workouts seem harder, for example), and

depression that's serious enough to need treatment.

According to Raglin, about 5 to 15 percent of elite athletes can suffer staleness each year, and the condition may be growing more common as athletic training gets more widespread and intense. A related but milder condition, called over-reaching, can even bother serious recreational athletes, he says.

Although most athletes recover from staleness, many "lose a season, become very frustrated, or burned out from the sport," Raglin says. The condition can trap an intensely motivated athlete, he adds. "They are very willing to train themselves into staleness, and they don't recognize staleness for what it is." Instead of slacking off, they typically respond to a drop in performance by training even harder.

swimmer comes up for a quick breath during an international meet.Too many hours in the pool can make you prunelike. Too many hours of any sort of training can also backfire. Photo: UK Sport

Calling all couch potatoes!
Part of the treatment for staleness, Raglin says, includes the couch spud's cure-all: rest. Usually, a few weeks is enough, he adds, but "there are published cases where, after six months of rest, there are still hormonal disturbances caused by overtraining."

Staleness has primarily been studied by physiologists, who focus on factors like stress hormones and heart rate, but mood disturbances provide a more reliable signal, Raglin says. When exercise physiologist William Morgan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison began studying mood and training, he found that "depression pops out" among stale athletes, adds Raglin, his former student. "Most are clinically depressed, we have seen some who had to go on medication, with the whole panoply of depression symptoms." Raglin told us that Morgan's original study, published in 1988, indicated that at least 80 percent of stale athletes developed clinically-significant depression.

Two skiers slice across white snow in freezing temps. Our motto: "If you got snow, you might as well go." Cross-country skiing is a great, low-impact aerobic exercise, but if you really overdo it, you could go "stale." Photo: City of St. Paul

Raglin, who spoke with us in 1996 and 2006, says staleness can be assessed with questionnaires that inquire about feeling "discouraged, miserable, muddled, bad tempered, angry or energetic."

Athletes often don't blame staleness on overtraining because exercise usually makes them feel better, not worse. Endorphins -- opiate-like chemicals produced by the body -- usually get credit for this positive feeling, but Raglin says other mechanisms are involved.

Recognizing the relationship between training and staleness matters because the condition can feed on itself, he adds. "The risk of a repeat bout is much higher. ... There are cases where an athletes fails to recover after a year, and their career essentially ends."

Exercise: Can you stick with the program?

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