Earlier this month, three Division 1 college football players were hospitalized following a series of grueling strength and conditioning workouts with their team. One of the players complained of having very sore arms and was diagnosed with a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. Others also complained of discolored urine, a symptom of rhabdomyolysis.
Rhabdo, for short, occurs when damaged muscle tissue breaks down and enters the bloodstream, potentially causing kidney failure. Sports Illustrated’s Jamie Lisanti wrote:
“A lot of rhabdomyolysis cases are seen when people have taken a few weeks or months off and jump right back in, [Dr. Michael M.] Joyner [expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic] says. Inexperienced exercisers need to use caution, but even skilled, elite athletes who are coming off a vacation or extended break from fitness—also known as detrained athletes—are at risk if workouts aren’t adjusted according to the current state of fitness.”
The players had just returned to school after a month-long winter break, during which they were left to work out at their own discretion. It had also been a full six weeks since the team had trained together.
From Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com: “A source told ESPN that the workouts consisted of circuits including 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups, 10 body-weight squats and two planks (30 seconds each) on a timed count. … The source said the team had been split up into three groups — based on class schedules — and if one player in the group failed to make the time, the unit started over from the beginning of that rep.”
OregonLive.com reported some of the players tested for high levels of creatine kinase, a common indicator of rhabdo. However, there were also members of the team who felt the conditioning exercises were not out of the ordinary.
A similar incident occurred five years ago, when 13 players from one school were hospitalized with rhabdo after a strenuous workout on their first day back from a three-week break.
These are just two recent examples illustrating a much broader issue, according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports:
“College football has never been more dangerous. This is not a hot take. It remains a fact, a reminder. Since 2000, at least 21 players have died basically from overexertion — not from a blow to the head or a hit that left anyone paralyzed.
They died because they were run/exercised to death in the offseason or in practice. Usually without pads or hitting. And not in games. Overexertion remains the leading cause of football-related death this century.”
When the topic of overtraining comes up, it’s often in reference to an athlete failing to peak at the ideal time, or suffering setbacks due to injury. Potentially life-threatening consequences rarely enter the conversation. What is it about the college football environment that lends itself to such perils? The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman offers this explanation:
“While few fans can name their team’s strength coach, he’s perhaps the most important person on a school’s coaching roster besides the head coach. An NFL strength coach doesn’t matter as much: Everybody on his team is already a grown man. A college strength coach has to turn high schoolers into grown men as quickly as possible. If you’ve got 19-year-olds who are as strong as another program’s 21-year-olds, you’re gonna win some games.”
The team mentality also plays a major role. College football rosters can have as many as 105 players. That’s 105 different bodies with 105 different physiologies, not all of whom are capable of handling the same level of Strain. If every athlete is asked to undergo the same workout, it may be just right for some, but too difficult for others–possibly even dangerous.
By monitoring each individual’s Strain and Recovery, coaches can avoid pushing players beyond their capabilities and much of the risk can be eliminated.