What you’re getting yourself into:
Approx 2000 words, approx 13-15 minute read
1. Overtraining can happen to anyone at any time and in most cases to professional athletes
2. Physiological, psychological, and nutritional factors or deficits can lead to overtraining
3. Intensity and volume seem to be the biggest culprit behind programming
4. You can self monitor yourself and understand where you need to rest or autoregulate
5. There are no reliable tests to measure overtraining; most symptoms are subjective, no ‘sole’ symptom
6. You can develop musculoskeletal injuries if unchecked – not just a lack of desire to train
7. Rest & Recovery protocol is the best solution to intensive training
For many athletes and endurance warriors, fatigue is a part of everyday life. Overtraining is the status and time period where energy and performance levels start to decline and it gets to a point where you are left looking for answers with so many questions. Recently, I had developed a training program like no other. It made Crossfit look like a 80’s dancing group exercise video. Compound movements four times a week (variations on deadlift and bench), circuits with one being four sets, demanding repetition ranges, and a bit of bodybuilding in it. Six weeks in, I was coasting, even with five hours of sleep a night and clients in the morning. All of a sudden, week 7 of 8, I lost it. I couldn’t perform, had no desire to train, on the last training day of week 6 I even tweaked my right ankle (is injury riddled) to the point where I thought I had tarsal tunnel syndrome. I pushed my body to the limit and it started to push back – regardless of the fact that I had made some gains in my deadlift and flat bench.
I wanted to break down for everyone what overtraining is. Take the myths to the test, see whether reported symptoms hold any water, use peer reviewed and scientific articles and research from multiple standpoints, and use viewpoints from organizations from NASM, ACSM, ASEP, & ECSS (European College of Sports Science).
Let’s get these bad boys out of the way. De-bunking overtraining can be useful. Some YouTuber’s like Mike Rashid & CT Fletcher (individuals who had immense strength but very little face-value education of kinetics, physiology, and the general human movement system) who just yell and bark orders claim there is no thing as overtraining. They are misleading people to not know the difference between overtraining and overloading (during training sessions).
According to IDEA Health & Fitness Jan 2015, Kreher & Schwartz (2012) reviewed previous published research and summarized seven hypotheses (IDEA Fitness Journal,35):
#1. Autonomic Nervous System Imbalance
An imbalance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Balance can be regained after a week.
#2. Oxidative Stress
Leads to muscle damage and fatigue. It is a disruption between production of free radicals and antioxidant defenses in the cells that neutralize free-radical buildup. Oxidative stress can cause damage to mitochondrial proteins (energy source), cell membranes, and even DNA.
#3. Glycogen Depletion
Glycogen depletion can alter synthesis of central neurotransmitters involved in fatigue.
#4. Central Fatigue
Overtraining often disrupts mood, sleep, and behavior. This hypothesis proposes that the CNS is not providing adequate drive to recruited working muscles. It occurs from physiological changes (changes to levels of tryptophan – essential amino acid in protein biosynthesis), decrease in BCAAs, and increase of serotonin in the brain.
#5. Glutamine Depletion
Important for immune function, Glutamine plays a role in DNA synthesis, acid-base balance and gluconeogenesis – making new glucose or energy for exercise. Low plasma glutamine concentrations have been reported in overtrained individuals (Halson & Jeukendrup 2004).
#6. Increased Inflammation
This is a physiological adaptation to excess stress initiated by an imbalance between training and recovery (Smith 2000). Those who train at a very intense level for long periods of time without adequate rest may enter a state of chronic inflammation with high levels of cytokines. This chronic inflammation has been highly correlated with overtraining syndrome (Smith 2000).
#7. Dysregulation of Hypothalamus
Cortisol, Testosterone, and other hormones may be altered when endurance exercise clients are overtraining.
Analysis of Overtraining
“Overtraining can affect both athletes engages in exercise endurance as those involved in strength and speed training programs.” There are a number of evidence-based studies that point out detailed reasons behind overtraining. The first one being the Injury, Inflammation, and Cytokine cycle. According to Smith, It is now known that these adaptive tissue microtraumas (MTA) naturally occur during the execution of certain exercise, and their recovery depends on an appropriate training program, characterized by adequate rest (Smith, 185-193).” Eccentric movements, exercises with high metabolic demands (cycling), & high repetitions have been linked with higher rates of MTA. Adaptation of the MTA is the body’s natural response, but this recovery is not achieved by performing high volume and/or high intensity training and that small and local acute inflammation can develop into a chronic inflammation: cytokine (Rogero, M. M., Mendes, R. R., & Tirapegui, J.).
The second analysis will fall on the role of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal glands & relations to overtraining. The crucial role of the hypothalamus correlates strongly with performance due to the gland’s duty & “coordination of neuroendocrine functions, controlling blood concentrations of stress hormones and gonadal hormones such as testosterone and estradiol (Maier SF, Watkins LR., 83-107).” Cytokines that are proinflammatory have an affect on liver function by promoting maintenance of blood glucose levels by engaging gluconeogenesis and creating acute proteins & leading the body into a hypercatabolic state aka losing gains.
The depletion of glycogen is our next stop. First off, carbs are our friends. The reason behind the failure of the Atkins diet was because of toxicity and the lack of carbs. THEY ARE AN ENERGY SOURCE PEOPLE. Now, carbohydrate levels are vital to the reinforcement of nutrient distribution. Here is where the community is highly critical: the apparent decrease and depletion of glycogen can occur in any level of athlete, even with normal levels can be symptomatic of overtraining (Rogero, M. M., Mendes, R. R., & Tirapegui, J.). My head is shaking on this one.
Glutamine levels are the next area of analysis. “During intense and prolonged physical activity, metabolic route of glutamine seems to be changed, with a greater flow of this amino acid to the liver and kidneys; these tissues, glutamine performs functions relevant to the continuity of the exercise, such as glucose synthesis by gluconeogenesis (liver) and regulation of installed acidosis (kidneys) (Rogero MM, Tirapegui J. 23-30).” The level of glutamine levels of Olympic athletes after competition have also been registered lower than normal values and continued to stay low even with light training and/or rest.
The eye of the tiger; Central Fatigue Hypothesis. Here we need to understand that during intense and prolonged physical activity that uptake of tryptophan by the hypothalamus, increases synthesis of serotonin, and afterwards trigger fatigue. The symptoms of overtraining syndrome have been associated with decreased performance, persistent fatigue, sleep disturbance, changes in mood & heart rate, and depletion of muscle glycogen stores – the same of increased concentrations of serotonin (Rogero, M. M., Mendes, R. R., & Tirapegui, J.).
In 1999, “the British Olympic Association met to redefine overtraining syndrome (BUDGEH, R).” as the “unexplained underperformance syndome.”Physiological elements and measurements are very conflicted in many research studies. There are mix reviews with resting heart rates for example in quite a few studies. Other measurements like maximal oxygen consumption are rarely reported but none recorded with athletes symptomatic of overtraining. Both measurements are therefore not great or reliable controls that can easily assess an athlete and their level of “overtraining.”
Athlete or not – symptoms do no change: disturbance of sleep, self-perception (do you even lift, bro?), mood factors (Wyatt, F. B., Donaldson, A., & Brown, E.). More subjective symptoms include sore muscles, loss of competitive drive, loss of libido, headaches, excessive sweating, loss of appetite, and nausea (BUDGEH, R).” What is not up for debate are musculoskeletal injuries as a result. Damaged tissue simply does not have time to recover and that is why we see athletes being thrown back into the game only to have more season ending or worse, career ending injuries (see NCAA football, NFL, NBA recent injury list).
Combatting The Issue
There has to be a real look in the mirror at this point. You have to know the intensity and volume of any work program that you take up. The only exception is if you go to a Crossfit gym and take those idiotic WOD classes that serve no purpose to athletic performance (the actual Crossfit athletes that are on TV don’t do your WODs, they olympic lift for a living).
Being said, you have to monitor daily and auto regulate if you do increase intensity and volume. Measuring “your perception of stress, fatigue, quality of sleep, muscle soreness may be effective in identifying susceptible athletes before the appearance of other symptoms (Hooper SL, Mackinnon LT, Gordon RD, Bachmann AW.).”
Caloric intake can be the source of overtraining as unrelated to the topic it has been so far. Nutrition – the involvement of micronutrients and macronutrients are extremely vital to recovery. I’ve mentioned earlier the role of carbohydrates as a source of energy, more so complex carbs are important. With today’s e-tech and tracking with nutritional labels, you can control this vital variable.
The athletic community lives on supplements. When you push your body to the limit, sometimes the protein, micronutrients, etc just does not cut it. With overtraining, there are a few vitamins which can help. The following was pulled out of a study of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (overtraining) & Adrenal Gland Recovery from Athletic Therapy Today (Lee):
• Vitamin C can be considered the most important dietary supplement for adrenal recovery. It is essential for synthesis of adrenal steroid hormones and the adrenal cascade. Increased secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands in response to stress increases the need for vitamin C.
• Vitamin E eliminates free radicals produced by the process of synthesizing adrenal hormones. Uncontrolled levels of free radicals can cause damage within cells, slow down enzymatic reactions, and eventually cause physical damage to the adrenal cell structure.
• Vitamin B6 is a co-factor in several of the enzymatic reactions of the adrenal cascade.
• Calcium has an effect that calms the nervous system, which benefits adrenal recovery.
A joint article developed between the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) listed a myriad of nutritional and physiological factors to overtraining. Now they place overtraining syndrome at the far end of the spectrum with identifications as acute fatigue being the first stage of four. The recovery for overtraining could be months to this report – which I subjectively will disagree. The prevalence of OTS is 7-21% of collegiate swimmers, 33% in non-elite runners, and 34.6% of young athletes (13-18 years of age) (Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Foster, C., Fry, A., Gleeson, M., Nieman, D., & … Urhausen, A.).” Regardless of all the acute variables that lead to overtraining, researchers found no ‘sole’ cause of OTS. We need to train smart, recover better, and understand our bodies more.
7 POSSIBLE CAUSES OF OVERTRAINING. (2015). IDEA Fitness Journal, 12(1), 35.
BUDGEH, R,, ET AL “REDEFINING THE OVERTRAINING SYNDROME AS THE UNEXPLAINED UNDERPERFORMANCE SYNDROME.” BRITISH JOURNAL OF SPORTS MEDIONë. 3d, NO. 1 [2000): 67-68
Hooper SL, Mackinnon LT, Gordon RD, Bachmann AW. Hormonal responses of elite swimmers to overtraining. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 1993; 25: 741–7
Lee, D. J. (2010). Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, Part 2: Adrenal Function and Overtraining. Athletic Therapy Today, 15(2), 28-31
LL Smith Cytokine hypothesis of overtraining: a physiological adaptation to excessive stress? Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000 ; 32:. 317-31
LL Smith. Tissue trauma: the underlying cause of overtraining syndrome? J Strength Cond Res 2004 ; 18:. 185-93
Maier SF, Watkins LR. Cytokines are psychologists: implications of bidirectional immune-to-brain communication for understanding behavior, mood, and cognition. Psychol Rev 1998 ; 105:. 83-107
Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Foster, C., Fry, A., Gleeson, M., Nieman, D., & … Urhausen, A. (2013). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: Joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). European Journal Of Sport Science, 13(1), 1-24.
Rogero, M. M., Mendes, R. R., & Tirapegui, J. (2005). Neuroendocrine and nutritional aspects of overtraining. Arquivos Brasileiros de Endocrinologia & Metabologia, 49(3), 359-368.
Rogero MM, Tirapegui J. Overtraining – Excessive training. Tariff Nutr 2003 ; 11:. 23-30
Wyatt, F. B., Donaldson, A., & Brown, E. (2013). The Overtraining Syndrome: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal Of Exercise Physiology Online, 16(2), 12-23.