Do you fall asleep; but wake up feeling as tired or even more tired than when you went to bed?
You train hard but still your pitch performance has seemingly stalled or plateaued?
You go to the gym, but you still can’t drop the fat from your stomach or add any extra size?
You eat well, but your digestion feels really sluggish all of a sudden?
You’re able to have sex but you’re not really sure how badly you want it anymore?
If you answered yes to any or all of the above, you might be close to burning out.
The first step is identify the correct problem as many players confuse over training or burn out with under recovery. As you’ll see, the symptoms and to a lesser degree, the solutions is largely the same; but understanding the nuances is the difference between progression and improvement vs regression and frustration.
If you and I were walking down the street and I said “turn left down here” you’d more than likely turn left.
If I said go right, you would obviously go right.
But what about if you had Gerstmann’s syndrome and couldn’t tell your left from your right. How confident would you be then? Well, if turning left or right are your only two options, you would probably be pretty confident as you still have a 50:50 chance of going the right direction.
That’s kind of what ‘over training’ and ‘under recovery’ is like.
Most players who feel they are over training are actually under recovering and they are generally trying to solve the wrong problem. They are figuratively turning left when they should have been turning right.
Over training vs under recovery – what’s the difference?
Before we explain the difference, it’s important to first understand how stress impacts physical performance. To make progress in the gym, on the pitch or in any training environment, you need to push yourself.
Successful training must involve overload, which mean consistently pushing your body beyond its capacity to elicit the super-compensation effect that any GAA player needs to progress.
At the inter county level, the best athletes have the highest training volumes compared to the average club player. So if you want to make it to the highest level – or go up an notch from under age or junior to senior or club to intercounty, then you need to put in the work. It seems straight forward enough: just add more volume to your training. But it’s actually far more complex than it appears.
The more you train, the greater the likelihood of sleep disturbances. The more you train, the greater your potential risk of cold and flu. The more you train, the more closely you walk the tightrope between healthy and harmful overload, not to mention flirting with the health and performance abyss of over training.
It can be a bit of a slippery slope. How much volume or training can you do before you your progression transforms into regression; and you start to go backwards? This is a vital consideration for a GAA player as you have games and repeated events that occur over and over again throughout the season. Compare this to something like training for a marathon where you have one date in the future you are trying to ‘peak’ for and you can see where the complexity comes in.
That’s why successful training not only includes overload, but avoids the combination of excessive overload and insufficient recovery. The sport science term for the right dose of overload is called functional overreaching (FOR).
Functional over reaching (FOR)
This is when you experience a short term drop in performance toward the end of a training block, but do so without significant adverse effects on your mood, immunity, health, and the like.
GAA players bounce back stronger, fitter and faster after a short period of recovery from FOR. This is what I do with my GAA players in the first six weeks of my GAA Lean Body Program (phase 1) and its generally the ideal scenario for most field sport athletes.
When a footballer, hurler or camogie player fail to respect the balance between training and recovery, things start to go downhill. The fatigue, weakness, and poor performance an athlete would naturally experience during this kind of overload will linger and they won’t get the positive bounce back after the rest.
Their energy levels are low, their muscles ache more than normal and all the weights just feel heavier in the gym. This is knows as non-functional over reaching (NFOR).
Non-functional over reaching (NFOR)
This is when you have pushed yourself too hard, or you haven’t had a sufficient amount or recovery, or in a lot of cases, both!
If you find yourself in this position, as many GAA players normally do at some stage or another, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is it can take weeks to regain your performance if you’ve dipped into NFOR, which could spell disaster if you have a big game or it’s in the middle of championship.
The good news is that its relatively straight forward to address. You back off your training slightly (normally gym based workouts or any sessions whereby you are in control of the intensity level) and you factor in extra sleep for a week or two, generally an extra hour or two each night for 7-10 days.
In the majority of cases, this will address the issue and now you have feedback on what not to do in the future.
Unfortunately, the NFOR is where a lot of GAA players, myself included, go wrong or have gone wrong in the past.
We get so caught up in trying to “confuse” our muscles, changing things up so often that we don’t achieve an effective overload.
There’s a very counterintuitive problem here. When you change things up regularly, you normally see a lot of progress, especially in the initial several weeks.
Most traditional CrossFit programs work off this principle. It’s the primary reason why some GAA players think it works so well. They get the initially benefits: feeling stronger or fitter or building size or losing fat; but then fail to recognise that after several months of doing this, their performance has decreased and they’re slowly moving upwards on the over training spectrum, which we will come onto shortly.
Personally, I used to switch up my workouts EVERY DAY when I was a beginner. I thought that the more I changed things up and the harder I pushed, the fitter, stronger and faster I would become. How wrong I was!
Unfortunately, nearly the opposite is true. The fitter you get, the more specific and calculated you need to be to achieve an effective overload. Simply changing things up isn’t enough, you need to progressively overload your program.
Without that discipline, you simply burn out your nervous system with intense sessions. Going “all out’ in every single session throughout the season will eventually lead to stagnation and symptoms of NFOR. You need adequate rest to balance out the intensity. It’s the basic ‘stress/rest’ response – stress your body, then let it rest and recover.
The better your recovery protocols: sleep and nutrition being the foundation, the more intense you can push it in sessions; but even with that in mind, you need to factor in de-load or taper weeks to really maximise performance.
If this performance rut extends from days to weeks to months, you’ve pushed yourself into the abyss of overtraining syndrome (OTS).
Renowned sport scientist Romain Meeusan, Phd, from Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, defines overtraining as a “plateau or decrease in performance consequent to training too often, too long or too hard, and not resting enough between training bouts” (reference in PEAK page 178 for book) and according to Dr Marc Buss, author or PEAK – The New Science Of Athletic Performance That Is Revolutionizing Sports (AUDILBE LINK) “in practice athletes might be doing all three: training too much, training too hard, and not resting enough”.
As you can probably imagine, this is a disaster in the long run, and its why a good coach or educating yourself on the topic is a crucial piece of the performance puzzle.
Overtraining syndrome (OTS)
Overtraining syndrome is a prolonged period of maladaptation that typically involves biological, neurochemical, and hormonal mechanisms that are far worse than NFOR.
Over training syndrome can last for many months or over a year (I had one client where it lasted over a year because he had pushed it so hard during the previous five years!).
Although there are several biomarkers you can test for – creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) for muscle break down or C-reactive protein (CRP-hs) for inflammation, OTS is pretty easy to recognise in athletes without any lab testing.
OTS normally has the following symptoms:
- Constant fatigue
- Prolonged decrease in performance
- Frequent colds and flu from reduced immune function
- Low poor and libido
- A general feeling of begin unwell.
In a practical sense ,the main difference between non-functional over reaching and over training is the amount of time your body needs to recover in order to bounce back to baseline.
I have more good new though. With the exception of athletes playing with multiple teams – underage county, college or schools AND club, where training is much more problematic as these players have less control of their playing load due to competing for multiple teams; the average GAA player who feels the symptoms above are normally just under recovering – meaning their recovery is much more controllable than they think.
How to maximise your recovery
Before we go into how to eat, sleep and recovery to get you back to your best- you first need to identify where you fall on the OTS spectrum. The earliest sign of athlete stress is acute fatigue, characterised by tiredness and a desire to rest.
Acute fatigue can be both physical an mental but with rest, it dissipates and the athlete becomes stronger. You’ll be most familiar with this during a GAA pre season or the start of a new gym routine. After a week or two, your body adapts to the new load or regimen and you don’t feel as tired anymore. You move from training adaption to training optimisation.
This is an important distinguishment to make as the primary difference between acute fatigue, non-functional over reaching and over training is the duration the negative symptom above.
A lot of people think of recovery as the isolated period directly after a training session or game, and while this is true, there is more to it than that.
Recovery is also a preparation method for the next training session the following day or match later in the week.
When GAA plyers think recovery, they usually think of ice baths, sauna, massage or compression garments and whilst these are definitely useful tools and strategies, they’re not the foundation. They are the figurative cherry on top but if you don’t look at your sleep and nutrition as the foundation, then you’ll be left with a cherry without any cake! Expert sport scientist Lachlan Penfold, former director of performance for the Golden State Warriors hammers home the importance of recovery in his recovery pyramid (see below).
The base of the pyramid is the foundation for successful recovery – nutrition, sleep and stress management (mental-emotional health).
Next up the on the pyramid hierarchicy is the training plan, then comes come monitoring to check in with how your body is feeling, and finally therapeutic treatments and recovery modalities – your cryotherapy, myofascial release from foam rolling and the like. These recovery strategies alone won’t make or break progress; but they are marginal gains and can support the final 5% of your recovery jigsaw.
Unfortunately, many GAA plyers flip the pyramid and major in minor things or prioritise the final 5% instead of the other 95% that would reap the most benefit.
I may focus on these marginal gains in a future blog but for now, let’s stick with the big two: nutrition and sleep.
There are three areas of key interest here. Energy balance, protein intake and carbohydrate intake.
- Energy balance:
This plays the biggest role in the recovery phase. If you goal is purely performance based, you generally don’t want to keep your calories too low or be in a caloric deficit for an extended period of times.
Generally eating around maintenance calories or even in a slight surplus with mostly nutrient dense foods is the ideal scenario. If you have another goal- fat loss, adding lean muscle tissue, then your nutrition needs to adjust in order to reflect that. In this instance, your macro nutrient split of carbs, fat and protein become more important depending on the complexity of the goal.
2. Protein Intake
Amino acids are the building block for life. Hitting adequate daily protein requirements promotes recovery in many ways, and chief among them are muscle repair and improved immune function.
GAA players experience muscle damage from resistance training, and muscle need protein for repair.
The daily recommend protein dose for a GAA player is about 1.5g per kilogram of body per day, which is a figure based on the work of protein expert Stuart Philips, PhD, and his team at Mcmaster University (reference on page 189 of peak). This translates to about 120g of protein per day for an 80kg athlete.
However, this is just the minimum requirement for performance. Depending on your other goals and several other factors, current muscle mass, genetic metabolic speed (if you’re a hard gainer for example) etc, you may go even higher than this.
3. Carbohydrate intake:
Carbs are crucial fuel for recovery from intense training and perparation for future performance in a glycotic* based sports such as football, hurling or camogie where you’re alternating between sprinting, stopping and jogging.
GAA plyers need carbs to fuel high intensity training, to prevent fatigue, to fight off colds and flus (carbs are a big factor in immunity) amongst other things.
If you don’t have an effective carb load, whereby you increase your carbohydrate intake the 24-48 hours before a game or big training session, then your performance is going to suffer when pushing into top gear during a match.
You can be in tremendous physical shape but if you don’t fuel correctly, you won’t get the full benefit. It’s like having a Ferrari and forgetting to put any gas into it. Sure the car looks great, but it can’t actually show you what it can do.
Your body is the same. Your carbohydrate intake varies on a whole host of factors. For example when I’m working with my GAA players who have body composition goals alongside performance (losing fat, building muscle, getting leaner etc) – I’ll normally use a carb cycling method with them. This is where we go with higher carb, lower fat on carb load days and lower carb, high fat on low intensity days such as rest day or active recovery day.
The evidence suggest that the best practice for an efficient carb for team sport athletes is 4-7g per kg of body weight per day which translates to 320g -560g of carbs for an 80kg player. That translates to about 1,280 to 2,240 kcals worth of carbohydrate in your nutritional plan.
That can seem like a lot but if you are in an intensive part of a season, potentially training with multiple teams or in twice a day session (gym in the AM, pitch session in the PM)- then most players will need to hit this target when working purely for performance (reasherac on page 191 peak).
That brings us on to the final pillar of recovery. Sleep.
Sleep isn’t just crucial for your health, it’s a huge pillar for recovery. Regularly pushing through the limit in training and at work or school at the expense of sleep will ultimately compromise performance.
GAA players keen on improving performance often get caught up in the trendy recovery methods I mentioned earlier; but if those players are only sleeping 5 or 6 hours a night, those strategies mean very little.
Not surprisingly, all the experts in the field of athletic recovery put a heavy emphasis on sleep. The general best practice is to aim for eight hours each night but for players in an intensive training phase, that may need to increase to nine or even ten hours so experiment with what works best for you.
If you struggle with sleep, I highly recommend listening to my podcast episode with sleep expert Nick Littlehales who used to Cristiano Ronaldo’s sleep coach during his peak.
Over training and under recovery are two very common problems for GAA players. Similar to going right when you should have turned left, identifying where you are on the spectrum – acute fatigue vs overtraining is important. Once you do that, you can estimate the time scale for recovery. I’d also consider taking a ‘prevention is better than cure approach’ here. If you regularly sleep 8-10 hours, eat mostly nutrient dense foods and roughly hit your calorie and macro targets each day, that will go a long in way in avoiding any chronic issues that could derail your performance.
For more details on this topic or if you have a audial learner, give episode x of my Lean Body Podcast for GAA Players a listen.
Thanks for reading and feel free to screenshot your favourite bits from this article and pop them up on your Instagram story (you can tag me below too) or link the piece to any friends, family member or team mates that you think it may help.