There's nothing like a hard workout to boost your mood and make you feel great, inside and out. Unfortunately, hard training can be taken to the extreme. Hard training breaks your body down and makes you weaker. You must rest to become stronger. This recovery period allows your body’s systems (related to muscles, heart, and lungs) to develop more superiorly in order to compensate for the stress you applied during the strenuous exercise. The result is now you’re at a higher level of performance.
If sufficient rest is not included in a training program, regeneration cannot occur and performance plateaus. If this imbalance between excess training and inadequate rest persists, performance will decline.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining is best described as the state where the athlete has been repeatedly stressed by training to the point where rest is no longer adequate to allow for recovery.
“Overtraining syndrome" is the name given to the collection of emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms due to overtraining that has persisted for weeks to months. It’s different from the day to day variation in performance and post-exercise tiredness common in conditioned athletes. Overtraining is marked by cumulative exhaustion that persists even after recovery periods.
Signs of Overtraining
If you're experiencing two or more of these symptoms, take heed.
- Fatigue--the most common sign. This may limit workouts or prematurely end workouts, and may even be present when resting.
- Unusually poor performance in training and competition. Athletes training with a heart rate monitor may notice they cannot sustain the workout at their usual "set point."
- Failure to improve performance despite diligent training.
- Inability to perform better in competition than during practice.
- Decreased appetite and weight loss.
- Insomnia or altered sleep patterns.
- Joint pain and muscle soreness that have no apparent cause.
- Increased incidence of injuries.
- Frequent colds or respiratory infections.
- Moody, easily irritated, or anxiety that may be accompanied by depression.
Effects of Overtraining Syndrome
Studies done on athletes with overtraining syndrome have shown decreased performance in exercise testing, decreased mood state, and, in some, increased cortisol levels—the body's "stress" hormone. A decrease in testosterone, altered immune status, and an increase in muscular break down products have also been identified. The body’s fine balance is disturbed and the body has a decreased ability to repair itself during rest. Additional stress in the form of stressful holidays, and difficulties at work or personal life also contribute.
How to Treat Overtraining Syndrome
The treatment for the overtraining syndrome is rest. The longer overtraining has occurred, the more rest is required, making early detection very important. If overtraining has only occurred for a short period of time (ie: 3-4 weeks) then interrupting training for 3-5 days is usually sufficient rest. After this, workouts can be resumed on an alternate day basis. The intensity of the training can be maintained but the total volume must be lower.
Preventing Overtraining Syndrome
As with almost everything else health related, prevention is the key. Well-balanced gradual increases in training are recommended. A training schedule design called periodization varies the training load in cycles with built in mandatory rest phases. During the high workload phase, the athlete alternates between high intensity interval work and low intensity endurance work. This approach is used by a number of elite athletes in many sports.
Eat a proper sports diet that provides adequate carbohydrates and protein. If a busy schedule doesn't leave much time for cooking, consider a quality protein powder and some sports bars.
Rest is also a vital part of any athlete's training. There is considerable evidence that reduced training (same intensity, lower volume) for up to 21 days will not decrease performance.
Bottom Line: Smart training is the path to faster times, improved strength, and good health.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
Johnson, Mary Black, PhD, ATC and Thiese, Steven , MS. A Review of Overtraining Syndrome-Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms. J Athl Train. 1992; 27(4):352-354.