by Arnie Baker
“What drives you to succeed, drives you to screw up.” —Mari Holden, World Champion, Time Trial, 2000
Overtraining is a physical and a psychological or emotional state. It is an imbalance between training and recovery, exercise and exercise capacity. The “training effect” is the body’s response to workload stress. If stress is too great, the body cannot respond and adapt. Overtraining may result.
What We’re Talking About
Fatigue, apathy, lethargy, or staleness in otherwise healthy athletes.
Overtraining is a physical and psychological state. Most psychological states have a physical, biochemical, metabolic, and/or neurohormonal basis.
One of my rules of thumb is this: “When you look at the bike in the morning, are you raring to get on it or do you groan inside about the workout you have set for yourself?”
Overtraining symptoms include the following:
- Poor, non-restorative sleep
- Mood disturbances, including anxiety, irritability, loss of enjoyment, and sadness
- Poor performance with the same or increased training
- Vague or undefined physical complaints
A note about terminology: Overloading is a building or anabolic adaptation to workload stress. Overtraining is breakdown or catabolic response. Overuse is musculoskeletal overtraining.
Sometimes, the trick in maximizing human performance is to perform the greatest volume of intense training without overtraining. Some say: “Put your finger near the fire to know that it is hot, but do not burn it!” Push, yes, but not too hard all the time.
Keep in mind that a range in training volume and intensity may be optimal. The high end of the range may not be better, and a lot more may be worse.
If there is a range in training that will result in the same gains, it is often reasonable to perform the least, not the most, amount of work that will result in the same gains.
Consider this analogy: If your employer gives you $200 for working 6 to 10 hours, would you choose to work 6 hours, 10 hours, or 20 hours?
You need some easy days, some quiet friendly rides, maybe some bike touring. Ignore recovery training, and you may dig yourself a hole that not even a week or two off the bike can cure—then you may really lose fitness!
Remember: It is not training that makes you fitter. It is recovery. Your fitness improves during the recovery from training.
If your weekly volume increases from 100 to 200 miles in a couple of weeks, you may be mentally eager to ride more, but your body may say no.
It is important to have a measured increase in workload to avoid fatigue. If you increase your mileage more than 10% per week, you should cut back on intensity, or you are likely to become tired.
You may be enthusiastic about getting stronger, and read a program on interval training. If you begin a serious program of interval training, even with a good base, it is difficult to maintain such a program without diversity and measurable results, or other positive feedback. If you do the same workouts day in day out, even though they may be physiologically sound, it is easy to suffer burnout.
Stress in Athletes
A combination of training and non-training stresses affect athletes.
Training stresses include:
- Too much volume
- Too much intensity
- Too little recovery
Common situations that result in training stress include:
- Excess competition.
- Attempts to follow training plan when injured or ill.
- Inappropriate increased training in an attempt to make up for rest related to injury or illness.
- Inappropriate increased training in an attempt to make up for poor competition performance.
Non-training stresses in athletes are similar to those in non-athletes and include:
- Excessive work, school, or family responsibilities
- Interpersonal conflict with co-workers, bosses, friends, or family
- Drug problems
- Housing problems
- Money problems
- Legal problems
- Illness or injury in self or others
- Insufficient sleep
- Travel—including jet lap and altitude changes
- Poor diet
Short- and Long-Term Overtraining
Short-term overtraining may be related to local muscle factors, including depletion of glycogen or muscle injury. Long-ter m overtraining involves, in addition, neurohormonal factors in the nervous system, including the brain and the endocrine glands.
Short-term overtraining, also called overreaching or isolated peripheral overtraining, is characterized by the following:
- Development over a few days to two weeks
- Exercise fatigue
- Reduction in submaximal performance capacity
- Reduction in maximum performance capacity
- Short-term inability (desire and physical capacity) to compete
- Recovery achieved within days
- Favorable prognosis
Long-term overtraining, also called overtraining syndrome, staleness, or combination peripheral and central overtraining, is characterized by the following:
- Development over a few weeks to months
- Exercise and non-exercise fatigue
- Reduction of submaximal performance capacity
- Reduction of maximum performance capacity
- Mood disturbance
- Muscle soreness/stiffness
- Long-term inability (desire and physical capacity) to compete
- Recovery requiring weeks to months
- Uncertain prognosis
How Is Overtraining Diagnosed?
Clinical symptoms, athletic performance, and medical tests point the way to the diagnosis. No test is foolproof or perfect. For most symptoms and tests, other medical conditions give similar profiles.
In self-monitoring, the best-known markers to watch for are these:
- Morning weight down more than 3%
- Hours of sleep down more than 10%
- Resting heart rate increased more than 10%
- Mood changes including fatigue, loss of enthusiasm and depression
Research suggests that with overtraining, relative to otherwise healthy adaptations, the following changes may occur:
- Maximum heart rate decreases
- Hormones change. Cortisol: resting and 8 A.M. blood levels of cortisol increase; post-exercise blood levels decrease. Catecholamines: levels decrease in urine at night by more than 50% and increase relatively more for the same intensity of exercise. Testosterone levels in blood decrease. Insulin responsiveness decreases.
- Blood chemistries change. Triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein lipids, and very-low-density lipoprotein lipids decrease. Maximum lactate and submaximum lactate decrease. Submaximum levels may (falsely) give the impression of improved performance. The ratio of blood lactate to perceived exertion decreases. Glutamine use decreases.
- Neurotransmitters change. Serotonin levels in the brain increase.
- Immunoglobins and the immune system change. Immunoglobulin A in saliva decreases.
- Muscle energy and water stores change in short-term overtraining syndrome. Glycogen is depleted, and intracellular stores of water are reduced.
- Individualize training. One size does not fit all.
- Do not increase frequency, duration, or intensity too quickly.
- Allow for recovery. Plan and schedule rest days.
- Build up a good endurance base before undertaking interval work.
- Sleep at least eight hours a night.
- Consider afternoon naps, rest, or meditation.
- Review non-training stresses, and attempt to reduce or accommodate them.
- Avoid overcompensating for time missed from training.
- Avoid overcompensating for poor race performance.
- Adjust your goals.
- Eat a nutritionally sound high-carbohydrate diet to help prevent glycogen depletion.
- Monitor your morning pulse, weight loss, and sleep patterns for self-diagnosis of overtraining.
Medication: Depression and Overtraining
Medical depression and overtraining often share many of the same clinical symptoms. Functioning decreases in both. Medical or biochemical tests show similar changes.
Some believe that overtraining is one cause of medical depression. The converse is also true: Medical depression also lessens the ability to train.
Preliminary scientific investigation suggests that antidepressant medication may help athletes train harder, treat overtraining syndrome, and improve their performance
- More is not necessarily better.
- Stress, both training and non-training stress, can be helpful and strengthen athletes, or if excessive can be harmful and weaken them.
- Increase training volume and intensity incrementally; allow for adaptation.
- Plan for recovery.
- Be alert to symptoms of short-term and long-term overtraining. Do not ignore them.
- Seek coaching or other advice if uncertain about your situation.
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