Why Undertraining Is A Stressor


Why Under-Training Should Be a Concern

Over-training has always been a concern for coaches of dedicated athletes. The mantra of “no-pain, no gain” and the practice of “Run ‘til you drop” have resonated well over the years.

Stress-related injuries, either acute (too much, too soon) or chronic (too much over time) are the result of athletes striving to be their best, as well as those afraid to take a break.

The advent of sports science has brought a keen understanding to most athletes of the potential disasters that arise with over-exertion. Pushing the envelope can be worthwhile. Pushing the envelope until it tears defeats the purpose.

It makes perfect sense: if you over-stress a person or a body part, it will eventually break down.

Recently, trainers are paying attention to another training risk. It is the risk of under-training or setting the envelope on the table too long.

Measuring Stress Response

Researchers in Brazil recently completed a study of stress levels in response to training intensity. Their subjects were professional women soccer players from around the country. Their goal was to see how over-training affects immune responses and potential for injury.

For the study, the researchers worked with questionnaires used in previous stress studies. These included measuring the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) after each training session or game. They compared the RPE with answers about cold symptoms and other stress-indicators, such as patience, appetite, and ability to sleep.

An objective standard was also introduced in the form of a simple saliva test called a SIgA level, which is an indicator of a person’s susceptibility to upper respiratory infections, the most common first response to excessive stress.

Expectations were that increased training intensities and stress would lead to higher incidences of upper respiratory infections and other stress indicators. For the most part, they did.

But There Was a Surprise Result, too!  

Along with the expected response to increased stress, researchers expected that responses to other levels of training intensity would provide a parallel line of data. Slightly disproportionate stress-response levels were possible, but they did not expect the graph lines to cross.

Instead, the data showed a notably skewed line of stress reactions. Times of low stress or missed workouts resulted in significant increases in the athletes’ stress responses, quite often to levels that matched the highest intensity days.

What this meant was that too much rest or recovery stressed out the subjects as much as days where training was very hard.

Should They Have Been Surprised?

We should give the Brazilian researchers a bit of a break. It was not that they expected a complete lack of stress response on off days. What surprised them was how much the stress responses spiked.

Data already showed us that too passive a life style over-stresses the human body. We are built to be stressed.

People who have osteoporosis, a weakening of the bone structure, are not told to rest. Instead, doctors tell them to start lifting weights and be active. That is because we know that weight stress generates bone growth.

This is why astronauts lose bone density after long trips to gravity-free space.

The most stress-free persons in the world appear to have a physically stress-free lifestyle. Gurus will tell you, however, that they live to be old, wise men after repeated sessions of kneeling, standing on their heads, and other forms of positional stress. They also feel periods of fasting and isolation exercise their guts and brains.

Stress plays vital roles in psychology and learning, too. Humans who avoided stressful situations in their youth tend to have difficulty dealing with life as an adult. Confusing the mind with new facts and puzzles is the only way to increase intelligence and reasoning.

Finding that Happy Median

What does this mean for athletes and their training coaches? There is a risk to doing too much or too little. While the easy answer is to find the middle ground, the truth is that elite athletes probably want to find some ground a little closer to too much.

Science and experience show us that the body needs some insult or stress to grow and improve itself. The biggest gains in building an athlete are made by alternating high-stress workouts with recovery periods.

Most coaches and athletes have found the maximum tolerable stress from which they recover quickly and effectively. It will also remain a goal to increase that maximum stress level out over time without having to endure a breakdown.

The thought process that coaches and athletes might consider investigating is about the recovery time. Certainly, the tried-and-true stress and recovery cycle should continue, but the recovery cannot be so restful that the athlete has a significant stress response.

There is no research that tells us exactly what that looks like. Perhaps a weight-training athlete should perform range-of-motion exercises on his recovery days. Maybe a distance runner would benefit more from a leisurely three-mile run than complete rest.

It is a thought that this data on under-stressing gives athletes to play with. Serious coaches may consider replicating the Brazilian study on their charges to see how varying training intensities affect their charges.

Regardless of anyone’s methods or reactions, it is a matter worth monitoring. Finding the perfect level of training to optimize performance certainly did not get any easier with this new information.




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Nathan Flear

Elite Endurance Coach and International Athlete


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