Overtraining Syndrome - what is it?
“Overtraining syndrome is a significant problem in the equine athlete with striking similarities to the syndrome in humans”
McGowan & Whitworth, Comparative Exercise Physiology 2018
There is an interesting phenomenon in highly motivated athletes called overtraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrome results in chronic fatigue and poor performance and is most often seen in those individuals driven to put in the training hours and work as hard as possible. Fatigue is quite different from general tiredness and encompasses both mental and physical weariness as well as a decreased ability to work. Interestingly, research suggests that overtraining syndrome is also a significant problem in the equine athlete with striking similarities to the syndrome in humans where it is often precipitated by external stresses such as a monotonous and grinding training routine, illness or social pressures. Some or all of these may also play a part in overtraining syndrome in horses where, in addition to the physical demands of training, a lack of turnout and forage, the inability to move about for most of the day and the loss of the natural herd structure may all contribute to external stress.
Racehorse trainers often use expressions like staleness or sourness to describe this pattern of poor performance, failure to recover from exercise and prolonged fatigue that doesn’t recover for weeks or even months. Week 28 of a training programme appears to be the critical time for the onset of overtraining and the most consistent change in overtrained horses (those with a reduced performance) was behavioural. These behavioural changes occurred up to 2 weeks prior to a physical diagnosis and were a consistent and early marker of overtraining syndrome.
Spotting overtraining in the human athlete
Aside from illness or lack of adequate nutrition, in human athletes overtraining is caused by prolonged or intense activity and is defined as an imbalance between training and recovery. The combination of physical and mental stress often coupled with emotional stress and anxiety can lead to:
· Loss of body weight and decreased appetite
· Muscle soreness that is slow to recover
· Susceptibility to coughs, colds and stomach upsets
· Frequent small and niggling injuries
· Poor quality sleep
· Elevated resting heart rate
· Uncharacteristic lack of motivation
Spotting overtraining in the equine athlete
“Believe your horse when he says he’s having a bad day. If he shows a sudden change of personality, the answer isn’t more leg. There could be a medical reason underlying the behaviour”
Barrie Grant, DVM, Equus Magazine
In horses, overtraining is generally characterised by reduced performance, irritability and an unwillingness to train. You may also notice a small decrease in body weight, although feed intake and appetite may be unaffected. Other signs include:
Head strong behaviour
Reluctance to exercise or refusal to continue to exercise
Tossing / swinging head around
Fractious behaviour after exercise
Suddenly stopping without warning when working at speed
Reduced co-ordination and muscle soreness
Be on the lookout for signs that you or your horse may be heading towards overtraining syndrome. Self-reported ratings of fatigue, muscle soreness and sleep disruption are now accepted as the most consistent predictors of the onset of overtraining in human athletes. If this sounds like you, try to restrict the amount of work (both on and off the horse) you do on a daily basis and incorporate more rest, recovery and sleep into your routine. If you notice a change in your horse’s behaviour, personality or willingness to work it might be time to back off the training for a couple of weeks and increase the amount of time the horse spends hacking, in the field and with companions. Be particularly observant around the 28 week mark of your training programme and perhaps plan in some downtime, as this is when the research suggests horses are at the highest risk of overtraining syndrome.
Prevention is the key
For most horses (and humans) it’s beneficial to have time away from the mental and physical stresses associated with training, travelling and competing. In the days of long format eventing it was quite common for horses to have their shoes removed and be turned away between October and the beginning of January. There is some debate about the advantages and disadvantages of letting a horse down completely in this way, particularly if they are sound and injury free. Ultimately you will need to decide based on your own situation and the individual needs of your horse. The alternative to complete “roughing off” is to incorporate a period of active rest. This involves reducing your horse’s workload and feed gradually over a couple of weeks and then maintaining a base level of fitness by performing workouts twice a week but at a reduced intensity and duration. The benefit of this approach is that it takes less time to bring your horse back up to competition fitness than if they’ve been turned away and unlike humans, horses lose very little fitness after a short layoff of up to a month.
The key message to all of you highly driven and motivated riders out there is to plan and prioritise a period of rest, recovery and reflection into your training programme in order to avoid the possibility of overtraining – it’s for your own (and your horse’s) good! For those of you who already take time out but have a tendency to feel bad about it – know that rest and recovery are as key to good performance and success as is hard work and this applies in your life outside horses as well as in your riding.