Overload, not overkill

During my recent presentations I got the same question a couple of times: “Why wait until the athlete supercompensates? When the athletes are ready (all systems recharged or back to at least baseline level, you don’t get an overload on the system.”

Now I have heard a misunderstanding about the word “overload” many times before. By coaches who think that if the athlete did not throw up after the workout or if the athlete still can et out of bed without muscle soreness, the training has not been good enough because there was no ”overload”. The expression “no pain, no gain” still got stuck in their brains somehow. For me when an athlete throws up, apart from having eaten to close to training, means the training hasn’t been good at all. It was more than the athlete could handle at that moment, but worse is that the athlete has to train tomorrow or even later that day again. Chances are the athlete indeed will not recover or recover completely by that time.

Have you ever eaten something bad, some seafood, or eaten or drinking too much of something that didn’t land well in your digestive system? And indeed the best way to get rid of it was to throw up? How long did it take you to be able to see, to smell leave alone to eat that food again without feeling that queasy sensation in your stomach? Sometimes it might takes years, it seems your stomach an our brain did not forget what this kind of food did to you (of course you did it to yourself, since you put it into your mouth).

The same thing happens in training, the body-mind starts to subconsciously resist training and that particular kind of training. I have done it as an athlete, running 500 meters in 62.3 feeling nauseated, headache, pounding in my ears, the light too bright for my eyes, etc. It feels like having run a 400 meter competition fast enough. I even found an old picture of myself after becoming national champion in the 400 meter. My friends look a lot happier than I do, for a reason.

after final race National Championships 400 meter indoor
after final race National Championships 400 meter indoor

And then two days later: running 300 meters in 33-34.
I had to overcome a huge barrier since every cell in my body resisted the upcoming workout. If I had to do that for a couple of weeks I would have quit. And of course, sometimes I caused that to my athletes as well. If there is enough time in between doing lighter workouts the body-mind “forgets” or “forgives” you and you can do another one of these killer sessions.
So this is not “overload”, this is “overkill”!

It might be cool to be tough, or believe in a Spartan concept, but it is much cooler to win than to lose or not to appear in competition at all. Or maybe you have an inexhaustible pool of talent and resources, where only the strongest will survive and they will indeed be very strong. But in most cases we are not able to destroy many potential champions, burn them out before their time and to continue with the “next batch of cannon fodder”. We have to be more careful with the material we have.

Overload just means that my training stimulus has to cross the threshold of adaptation, it will lead to an adaptive response. You won’t become an Arnold Schwarzenegger by carrying your heavy shopping bags, no matter how heavy it feels. You won’t be winning an international marathon, no matter how often you walk the dog or stand up and walk to the coffee machine. Since in all of these cases the exercise is not raining and certainly not crossing the threshold for an adaptive response of the body. The range of overload is pretty large, dependent of your where the lower threshold is the training stimulus that creates an adaptive response, even if it is a small one, in other words: a positive training response. The higher threshold is where you start to create inhibition, overstrain, overtraining or structural damage to the body-mind, in other words: a negative training response. Like in many cases the optimum training response is somewhere in the middle of the range, even though I personally always look for the highest response with the minimum effort and/or risk of injury.

In the short term, going over the optimum level will certainly bring results, in the long term, let’s say 6-12 years, being more careful will lead to much better results, because your athlete don not waste for rehab, loss of trainings because of limitations or injury, they will always be “sharp” in training and so get more out of their workouts. They will also not suffer from being “flat” or having “heavy legs” in competition.

Important: I believe in “overload”, but not in “overkill”.


  1. Lorne Morrow

    Another well written post! Thank you.

    It is interesting that the idea of “rehearsal” is common-place in the performing arts, but less so in performance sports. So many people – athletes & coaches – keep looking for intense loading opportunities rather than other interventions that better promote adaptation.

    A “good” session could be a visualization period with light drills and regenerative movements. In fact, for some talented athletes, a day at an amusement park could be better than loading them with more repeats.

    I really appreciate your perspective. The “mountain & valley” image of your previous post was also very insightful. Thanks!

    1. Hello Lorne, Thanks for your comment. I agree to most of what you wrote. I even believe that some coaches do not prepare their athletes optimally, mentally, physically and emotionally on (major) competitions. They look at their stopwatch and look at last weeks times or distances and think they athlete is ready to go, since their times were good. Rehearsal, visualization, whatever we call it, is indeed more often practiced in the performance arts, like ballet, theater, etc. But also fighter pilots rehearse their combats flights or bombing raids in their preparation. Now at the other side there are also many athletes who use an naive form of visualization to prepare themselves, and quite a few even dream about their races which is kind of rehearsal too.
      I also found that for some athletes, it’s better to take a walk in the park, make a short visit to the zoo, or find some other distracting and entertaining activity, that does not cause fatigue. It is preferable above playing cards in the lobby for a few hours, playing computer games that fries their brains, go to the dining hall at the Olympics to stuff themselves, or go to do some workout just because …..

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