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Mind Over Muscle


Woman working out


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Both athletic training and exercise are all about adaptation. Every bead of sweat, every burning breath, every minute tear in muscle fiber — it all adds up to something. Every time the body heals, it grows stronger, more confident, more capable. At least, that’s the goal.

Exercise is vital to a healthy lifestyle and training is critical to athletic performance, but both can be overdone, said Kristen Dieffenbach, associate professor of Athletic Coaching Education and director of the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science at West Virginia University. Coaches, personal trainers and individuals looking to stay fit and healthy need to find that sweet spot.

“Training is inducing stress with the intention of creating change and sparking growth,” she said. “If there isn’t an imbalance, an opportunity to overreach, there is nothing for the body and the individual to adapt to and there is no growth.”

But if there is too much stress on any one area or an imbalance of stressors that accumulate across different areas, it can lead to negative consequences. 

Woman working out

As a professional coach and consultant for more than 25 years, as well as a mentor and teacher to hundreds of future coaches, Dieffenbach has extensive experience in how to support and enhance sport experiences for all people to enrich their lives and help them achieve their personal potential. She has worked with coaches and teams from youth through Olympic level and internationally. In her field, the focus is on “understanding how to best train and prepare individuals within the sport context that aligns with holistic long-term athletic development concepts.”

When working with an athlete of any kind, Dieffenbach aims to tailor their training to meet their individual needs — calling on a blend of biology, psychology, environment and even social awareness. Overtraining or overexercising is a real risk for anyone engaging in physical activity. And it can set an athlete back both physically and mentally if it’s not addressed. But there are ways to heal and to prevent injury. It’s all about balance. 

Tell me about overtraining vs. overexercising. Are they the same thing?

Overtraining isn’t the same as getting into a rut from doing the same workout all the time, although that can also be boring and lead to loss of enjoyment. Overexercise focuses on the physical activity of doing exercise and doing too much of one thing, which is associated with overuse injuries in particular (think tennis elbow, runner’s knee). But for people pursuing goals through sport (running a 10K or completing a marathon) and who are training with achieving a specific goal in mind, which is where I do most of my work, training that is not well-designed, not well-monitored or not balanced holistically can lead to a broader range of physical and psychological experiences. 

What are the negative effects of that imbalance?

From minor injuries to major ones, decreased motivation, prolonged physical fatigue, poor performance, disturbed sleep and loss of enjoyment, to name a few. Unfortunately, the science of under-recovery and overtraining is not one size fits all. The experiences are unique to each individual and will be different based on the contributing factors, so even the individual may have a different experience if they overtrain more than once. I tend to look more holistically at the big picture of training and lifestyle and the experiences associated with overreaching and overtraining.

What are the signs of overtraining?

Individuals who find they are chronically too tired to do their workouts, when workout performance drops for an unexplained reason or when small nagging injuries just wouldn’t go away — you may want to look at your training program. But often only the training portion of the program is considered, the workout side, without considering whether there is adequate recovery (eating right, drinking enough water, sleeping enough). It is also important to consider the training periodization, what are the cycles of training, the work-rest pattern.