How Much Is Too Much Training?
This is a question I receive often from athletes, their parents, and our everyday clients. They wonder if they are training too much, or if they should be training more. For our high school athletes, what is really too much training?
My formative story, the one that I give when people ask me about how exactly I became an accomplished athlete (and also the time at which I understood how powerful a coach can be), always starts the same way, “When I was 15 I got steamrolled in a football game, and at that moment I decided I wanted to get better.”
I was like a lot of young athletes, a little undersized, not fast enough yet, and not strong enough yet. I weighed 160 lbs (give or take), but had a real love of athletics.
It was at that moment that I learned that I could take my own success into my hands. I was faster, I was stronger, I stayed healthier.
A simple motto; that took me from not strong enough and not fast enough, to getting recruited by Division 1 schools in two sports, and an opportunity to live at the Olympic training center, was “no competitor will outwork me.”
In the off-season, I did every workout offered by my football coach (5 days per week after school), I was enrolled in a strength training class at school (every other day), I went to my own coach/personal trainers 3x per week, and ran stadium stairs at memorial stadium 2-3x per week, etc.
During the season, I would do my class every other day, attend practice every evening (6 days per week), practice on my own in my backyard when I went home, and go to my trainer/coaches 2x per week. My singular goal was to outwork anyone I could possibly compete with.
It worked out well. I went from 160 lbs, my sophomore year to 215 lbs by my senior year, decreased my 40 yard dash time from 5.2 seconds to 4.5 seconds. Won a state championship in track, was a high school all-American in track, was named all-state in football, and won a national championship in weightlifting.
How did I do it? At the time I just did what I thought was right and listened to the coaches who I trusted. In hindsight working out that much might not have been the best idea, but my body didn’t just hold up, it got better.
Here are the lessons that I see now allowed me to train that much and become a successful athlete:
The current talk in fitness and performance is of the importance of sleep. It’s everywhere. In fact, the recommended amount for adults is 7-8 hours per night, but teenagers need more, 9 hours per night (http://whole9life.com/2015/06/teenagers-sleep-mental-health/). I didn’t know it at the time, but my love of sleep was a huge key to my success. For 8am workouts I was in bed by 10pm with a 7am wake up. Naps between workouts also helped me big time in the summer. Athletes that aren’t sleeping are not recovering.
I wasn’t eating the highest quality food when I was in high school, but I was eating frequently, and I always had breakfast. I’m thankful for my mom who was always willing to make a second sandwich for lunch, or more eggs for breakfast.
I did not specialize in a sport until I got to college. From the time I started high school to the completion, I was competing in 3 sports a year. Not only that, but I didn’t go get specialized instruction for any sport outside of my coaches or outside of the pre-season and competitive season. This allowed me to be excited about the next sport on my calendar at any time. When I wrapped up track season it was time for football, when football was done it was time for weightlifting (or basketball), then baseball or track.
I firmly believe this made me mentally strong and invigorated throughout the year.
My parents encouraged me big time, and were always my biggest cheerleaders. They recognized that I didn’t start out the most talented, and that my only way to get to where I wanted was to work really hard.
They didn’t coach me either, and this is big. My dad was a really accomplished athlete in his day, but I don’t believe he ever told me how he did it in his day, and he never criticized my performance after a meet or game. He was an encourager, not a coach, and he always let me know.
My parents also let me know that if I was working towards athletics, I had to work equally hard in school. This was never lost on me. When I was working out constantly, my free time in the evenings consisted of homework assignments, and it allowed me to graduate high school with a 3.95 GPA, and get accepted and recruited by some really good schools.
So would I tell every athlete that they should do as much as I did in high school? Probably not, but not because I am any different than they are. High school students today have tons of pressures that I never experienced, but it is certainly possible to have a schedule like that.
I do believe with the right mix of sleep, food, multiple sports, encouragement, and hard work can get athletes to almost any goal they set for themselves.