The Pitfalls of Overtraining in MMA

Many fighters find that they always come down with a cold or injury before a competition. This is often attributed to bad luck, but luck actually has very little to do with it. Most of the time these setbacks are due to overtraining, which is defined as a systemic deficit resulting from the stress of excessive training. In plain English this means that training is breaking your body down faster than you can recover from it. The pernicious pre-competition flu, therefore, is due to overly severe training and/or insufficient recovery, reducing the body’s ability to repel infections.

Overtraining nearly killed Junior dos Santos at UFC 155! He was so dedicated to his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, it nearly cost him his life.

MMA: UFC 155-Dos Santos vs Velasquez 2

The former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champion was training so hard prior to his UFC 155 title fight against Cain Velasquez, which took place last December in “Sin City,” that he developed rhabdomyolysis, a (sometimes fatal) breakdown of muscle fibers that releases their contents into the bloodstream. Read full article at

Signs and symptoms that you have overtrained in the past include the following:

A. Best performances occur after short notice. It sometimes happens that a ‘chronically fit’ athlete – someone who is pretty active most of the time – enters a competition on very short notice and does very well. This is often puzzling to the athlete, who has such a work ethic that he believes he needs up to 2 months of gut-busting, balls-to-the-wall, all out workouts to do his best. One possible explanation is that the normal 2 month training regimen does more harm than good. His normal pre-fight conditioning routine may improve some aspects of his fitness, but negatively impacts his health, energy level and mental attitude. In other words, if the athlete is given a lot of notice for an upcoming event he may totally overtrain for it, doing worse than if he had just maintained his normal activity schedule. The current wisdom is that it is better to be undertrained than overtrained.

B. Sickness before competition. In many people overtraining tends to manifest itself as respiratory tract infections (i.e. flus, colds, bronchitis or sinusitis). It is well documented that strenuous competition leads to impaired immune system function. Among marathon runners, for example, almost 15% of them catch a cold in the week following a race, whereas only 2.2 % of runners who trained for the same race, but did not compete, became ill. Obviously really severe training too close to your event could have a similar negative effect on your immune system. You’ve got to train hard to be successful, but the time for hard, burnout training is not the week before the event. Marathoners, for example, begin tapering two weeks before an event, and typically only do easy running for the last 7 to 10 days.

C. Training injuries. Every athlete will have his weak link, the part of his mind-body system that will break down first when exposed to heavy stress/overtraining. For some people heavy training stress manifests itself as lower back pain, for others their knees start to ache, etc. If it seems like you have been injured every time that you have competed then it might be time to rethink your training program to avoid overtraining.

D. Another sign of past overtraining is underperformance. Underperformance is when you don’t live up to your potential in competition. Perhaps you got caught with something that you could counter every time in training. Perhaps you just didn’t feel sharp or on the ball. It should be kept in mind that there are many other reasons why an athlete may not do as well in competition as in training (‘choking’, nerves, overtraining, etc), but overtraining is certainly a major contributor to underperformance. Insufficient recovery and overtraining may have dropped your performance capacity. Proper training and tapering protocols can fix this problem.

E. Another sign that you have overtrained in the past is the phenomenon of delayed peaking. Many athletes report feeling fantastic and energized a week or so after an important competition. Now imagine if he had peaked a week earlier and got to compete in that energized state! This is a prime indicator of insufficient tapering, and the remedy is very simple. If the athlete had a 5 day tapering schedule before and felt great 1 week after the fight, then the next time he should have an honest (i.e. not too strenuous) 12 day taper prior to the next competition

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Signs and symptoms that you are overtraining right now include:

A. Increased resting heartrate. One efficient and relatively objective method of detecting overtraining is monitoring resting heartrate. This is best done in the morning before getting out of bed. The most common type of overtraining (called ‘sympathetic’ overtraining) results in an elevated morning heartrate. If your heartrate is elevated by 10%, or about 5 beats per minute, above your normal rate, then you have a clear indication that you are either overtrained, or sick, or both! Time for an unscheduled rest day.

There is also another form of overtraining, ‘parasympathetic’ overtraining, that is associated with a decreased resting heart rate. This occurs because the athlete has been overtraining for so long that his hormonal and nervous systems become exhausted. This is fairly rare for martial competitors and really only occurs endurance athletes with extreme training volumes.

B. Increased time for heartrate to recover between intervals. An ex-professional football player told me that his most certain sign of overtraining came during sprint work. If after doing sprint intervals (i.e. 100 meter intervals, hill sprints, etc) it took longer than normal for his heartrate to drop between intervals, then he knew that he was overtrained. For example, suppose you normally do repetitive 400 m sprints, allowing your heartrate to drop to 110 before starting your next sprint. Suppose you know your recovery time is normally between 2 and 3 minutes. If you find yourself waiting 4 or 5 minutes for your heartrate to come back down to 110, then you are probably overtrained.

C. Increased heartrate for a given training intensity. There are formal protocols one can use to measure the relationship between heart rate and level of exercise (lactate curves, etc). An athlete might want to use a fairly challenging, 10 to 15 minute session on a Stairmaster or treadmill, and record his final heartrate. Doing exactly the same workout (same speed, same inclination, etc.) every week or two will allow the athlete to track his heartrate in response to a given stimulus. If the final heartrate keeps decreasing then the athlete is getting fitter. If the final heartrate is increased relative to the weeks before, the athlete is probably sick and/or overtraining and should cut back on his training immediately!

Similarly, if you can normally maintain a given pace (e.g. 7 minute miles for 4 miles) or a given heartrate (e.g. 160 beats per minute for one hour) and you find that you can no longer maintain the pace or the rate, then you are probably overtrained. Obviously some common sense is also required: if you did heavy squats on Wednesday, don’t expect to maintain a fast pace on Thursday. Then again, you probably shouldn’t be doing hard sprint work the day after you do heavy squats anyhow, given the intense physiological and hormonal toll of heavy lifting!

These approaches require you to have a given workout that you can use as a gauge of your condition. In the past I have often used a long set of stairs as a personal marker. These stairs are an all-out 2 to 3 minute effort to climb, making them a perfect test for anaerobic capacity (ATP and lactate system). If my stair times are decreasing then I am probably improving; if my stair times are increasing, then I am probably overtrained.

D. Apathy, depression and lack of enthusiasm for training are subtle warning signs that are often overlooked by an athlete in training. These symptoms are very common in an overtrained athlete, but the athlete usually ignores them. Apathy, depression and lack of enthusiasm are not the signs of a weak mind; they are physiological cues that your hormonal and endocrine systems are drained. If you don’t take some rest days or easy days immediately then you are shortly going to get sick or injured and have a concrete roadblock put in the way of your training.

Finally remember that every individual has different training needs and varying ability to recover from training. You need to carefully think about and personalize your training regimen to maximize results and minimize the chances of overtraining, illness, injury and other setbacks. Hopefully this article will give you some clues as to designing the perfect program for you!

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