We all occasionally have bad days at the gym. Days where no matter how hard you try your performance doesn’t seem to improve. Aching muscles and that general feeling of fatigue may seem to last forever.
Does this sound familiar?
As athletes, we want to push our body as far as we can. We aim for that extra distance on the treadmill, to bench press a few more kilos or even run an extra 10k on the track. We’ve always been told if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.
But too much physical stress on the body can make you seriously ill. If you give your body time to recover, your next run or workout will improve. But if your performance continues to decline and you gradually feel worse, you may actually be suffering from overtraining syndrome.
What Is Overtraining Syndrome?
As the name suggests, overtraining syndrome is a condition when the body is pushed beyond its physical limits by exercise or training. Don’t confuse it with mere tiredness which you expect when following a more physical regime. Overtraining syndrome commonly occurs in athletes who are preparing for a competition or event and push beyond the body’s ability to recover.
Physical conditioning requires a balance between overload and recovery. If you push too hard or don’t give adequate time to recover, you may experience the physical and psychological symptoms of overreaching or overtraining.
The Two Stages of Overtraining Syndrome
Intensified training can cause a decline in performance. But overtraining syndrome will have a more serious effect with a complex assortment of both physiological and psychological symptoms. Definitions from the European College of Sports Science are used to describe the two stages which may lead to overtraining syndrome.
Also known as short-term overreaching, this occurs when increased training leads to a temporary decline in performance. Rest and recovery will lead to an improved performance. It normally only lasts a few days to weeks, with the positive outcome known as super-compensation.
Sometimes this form of overtraining may happen when athletes go on a camp to create functional overreaching. Studies have found the physiological benefits of planned overtraining far outweigh the training-related stress. The problems occur when this intensified training continues for longer and can evolve into a state of extreme overreaching or non-functional overreaching.
This form of overtraining can be more long term with intensified training leading to a longer decline in performance. Once again there will be full recovery but this may take from a few weeks to months. Non-functional overtraining can often be accompanied by many of the physiological and neuro-endocrinological symptoms of overtraining.
While functional overreaching is seen as a key part of any training plan, non-functional training generally has a negative outcome. Symptoms will often lead to a significant loss of training time. The following YouTube video looks at some warning signs of non-functional overreaching which may be a precursor to the more serious overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining Syndrome and Its Effect on Your Health
Overtraining syndrome is consistent with non-functional overreaching but the decline in performance will last longer, usually over two months. Chronic overtraining can lead to more serious hormonal, neurological and mechanical imbalances that not only affect your performance but impact your overall health. It may even put an end to your athletic career sometimes.
The Hormonal Response
Overtraining stimulates a part of your brain known as the hypothalamus which then signals the pituitary gland to secrete more adrenocorticotropic hormone. Sounds complicated but in layman’s terms this causes more of the stress hormone cortisol to be secreted. Higher levels of cortisol will restrict muscle growth, one of the potential reasons for impaired performance.
However, luteinizing hormone released by the pituitary gland actually decreases in overtrained athletes. For women this can cause the loss of body fat and lower levels of estrogen, sometimes even the cessation of menstrual periods. For men it will lead to a decrease in testosterone which hinders muscle building.
Effects of Overtraining on the Musculoskeletal System
Overtraining can often result in a severe plateau of muscle building. When the body enters a state of catabolism through overtraining, the body begins to use the proteins in your muscles for energy. Muscle mass will decrease and so too will your performance.
A more serious effect of overtraining happens as you push your body to work harder and it makes it more difficult to recover. Overtraining in athletes will cause more injuries from overuse such as fractures and tendinitis. Achy joints or sore, tender muscles will also cause your performance to decline as you overtrain.
The Immune Response to Overtraining
Overtraining will make you sick. Increasing your duration or intensity of training suppresses your immune system function for three to 24 hours after a workout. During in this period of lowered resistance, you’re more susceptible to illness, with many athletes especially prone to upper respiratory infections. People often describe milder cases of overtraining as like having the flu, with symptoms like fever or swollen lymph nodes.
Athletes who overtrain also bruise more easily with wounds taking longer to heal.
The most obvious psychological effects are caused by chronic fatigue which leads to irritability, confusion or mood swings. Overtraining can make it harder to sleep at night, resulting in a state of drowsiness throughout the day. Without enough good-quality sleep the body can’t repair tissues, making it more difficult to withstand intense training.
Emotions are affected by overtraining, with people often experiencing feelings of apathy, depression and anxiety. Another side effect can be a decreased appetite which may lead to eating disorders.
Who Is Most at Risk of Overtraining?
Overtraining syndrome is often thought of as the athletic equivalent of chronic fatigue syndrome. You may think it’s only a problem for the elite or ultra fitness junkies running a three-figure milage or in the gym every day. But anybody who exercises can be susceptible to overtraining.
Training without paying due care and attention to nutrition, sleep and recovery or failing to factor in the demands of a modern stressful life could be factors. An important part of the exercise process is the recovery period. Failing to give your body the time or meeting its requirements of recovery will cause a burnout.
Overtraining most commonly occurs among professional athletes, or individuals training for long, high-intensity athletic activities such as a marathon. The people most at risk for overtraining syndrome are those who feel compelled to exercise, almost addicted to it yet still know they do too much.
How Do I Know if I’m Overtraining?
Many of the symptoms of overtraining syndrome will be like everyday illnesses. It’s easy to mistake overtraining for a bad case of the flu, sharing many symptoms like fatigue and fever. Common symptoms that mimic other regular day-to-day feelings include:
- Soreness of the muscles and joints.
- A lack of energy.
- More frequent injuries.
- Increasing incidence of colds or flu.
- A decline in your athletic performance.
- Chronic fatigue followed by moodiness/irritation and apathy.
- Regular workouts seeming much more difficult.
Sometimes a good rest will be all that’s needed. Try taking a week off the running or workouts at the gym. Sleep and nutrition can be a great boost to your recovery.
Symptoms for overtraining syndrome are very subjective, with each case being different. It’s difficult to assess whether or not you’re really overtraining. Two weeks off is a standard period before overtraining syndrome can be diagnosed.
A sign of overtraining can be your resting heart rate. Taking your resting heart rate before getting out of bed in the morning can show whether you’ve fully recovered from a previous workout. If your resting heart rate is unusually high or low, it’s always advisable to speak to your doctor.
Treating Overtraining Syndrome
Correcting your overtraining starts with making important lifestyle changes. Restructure your training program, change your diet and nutrition and try to address all levels of stress. A doctor or sports therapist will advise you on a suitable plan of action.
As the condition suggests, adjusting your training schedule is the key to recovering from overtraining syndrome. Decrease your training time by 50 to 70 percent or more if possible. Cut out all anaerobic training and competitions but include some walking which will gently help develop your aerobic system—the first part of retraining.
Diet and nutrition will help with your recovery. Try to eliminate all high-glycemic foods and eat smaller, more frequent meals to control blood sugar and cortisol. Moderating your carbs can help to prevent further elevating those cortisol levels. Make sure you get the adequate calories and nutrients to allow your body to recover.
Finally ensure you give your body the time it needs to recover. Getting at least seven to eight hours of good-quality sleep is important. Chronic cases of overtraining often require six months or more before returning to effective athletic performance. If you have an event coming up, change or cancel it to allow a complete recovery.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
Getting the right balance between training hard and resting can be a difficult juggling act. You can avoid many of the symptoms of overtraining syndrome by listening to your body and knowing your limits. Try introducing a few days of rest or lower intensity exercise between days of more strenuous workouts.
Ensure your body gets the time to recover and get sufficient good-quality sleep. Eat enough carbohydrates and protein to provide your body with enough energy for exercise and repair during in times of rest. Drinking more fluids and staying hydrated will also help fight off muscle fatigue.
Paying attention to your body and adjusting both your lifestyle and training program are the best things you can do to prevent overtraining syndrome. One bad day at the gym you can deal with, a whole string of them may be your body trying to tell you something.