There is a saying that if some is good, more must be better. All too often, we hear about athletes doing 4 hour workouts, 6 days a week, adhering to the idea that we must be giving 100% effort every waking moment. The truth is, over-training can become a very real problem.
The first fact we need to get straight is that we don't get stronger from exercising, rather, we get stronger by recovering from exercising. Maybe that is splitting hairs, but the takeaway should be that we need to recover. If an athlete works out hard every day, he or she might not be getting adequate time to rest. What really happens when we lift a weight is that muscle tears slightly (very, very slightly). When the muscle rebuilds, that is what allows us to get stronger. If we don't allow the muscle to repair properly, we risk over-training. So, let's take a quick look at what would stop the muscle from repairing, and what the risks of over-training are.
The two most common reasons our muscles don't properly repair are 1) time and 2) nutrition. Obviously, if we don't give the muscle time to fix itself and just attack it again, it will eventually just become a shredded piece of useless tissue. Maybe less obvious, but very current in the news today, if we don't have the nutrients we need to build muscle, we won't recover very well. Getting proper rest and nutrition is crucial to any training regimen, whether it be for aesthetic reasons or sport performance.
The risks of over-training are much more dramatic than we might imagine. Athletes who end up over-training may experience decreases in energy, drastic weight change, decreased performance, excessive fatigue, loss of concentration, changes in sleep patterns, and in some cases even depression and other chemical imbalances.
This isn't to say that we shouldn't push ourselves or our athletes. We need to work hard, but also work smart. How often you can handle exercising each week depends on a number of variables, including the intensity of the workout, current conditioning, age, other activities outside of training, etc. For our athletes, mostly high school players, we would suggest 4 training sessions each week, lasting 60-75 minutes. This isn't a hard and fast rule - some athletes do a lot more in 75 minutes than others do in 2 hours, and some athletes in high school simply aren't ready to handle the workload. But, as a guideline, most high school athletes who are currently training can handle 60-75 minute training sessions (this includes a proper warm up, soft tissue work, movement patterning, etc). When an athlete is in-season, we would back down to about 2 sessions per week.
So the moral of this post? More isn't always better. The body needs both time and nutrition to recover. If you start to feel any of the symptoms listed above associated with over-training, it might be time to re-think your regimen.