What is overtraining? Does it exist or are you just a lazy bastard looking for an excuse?
A lot of people seem to think that overtraining is a sign of weakness or lack of discipline. They believe it’s mental rather than physical. Basically implying you’re not hardcore enough if you feel overworked, fatigued or display any other related symptoms.
These are also the very people frequently suffering from injury, nagging pains and chronic health issues, thinking it’s all “part of the game”. Let me assure you it’s not.
If you train intensely (the only way to train), your body requires periods of rest and recovery. Don’t assume you’re any different. The stronger and more advanced you get, the more you have to prioritize your recovery.
Many “experts” will be quick to recommend additional food intake, especially protein, to compensate for the high physical demand of training. While it might be appropriate in some cases, this kind of advice serves the supplement manufacturers more than anyone.
Overtraining does exist, make no mistake about it. Now the question is,
How do you know if you’re in a state of overtraining?
“Overtraining syndrome is a neuroendocrine disorder characterized by poor performance in competition, inability to maintain training loads, persistent fatigue, reduced catecholamine excretion, frequent illness, disturbed sleep and alterations in mood state.” (MacKinnon, 2000)
First and foremost, your gym performance plateaus (or starts declining even). You fail to get stronger, despite a supposed good nutrition, supplementation and training protocol.
If you have 2 consecutive bad workouts, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. That’s right, failing to progress on two back-to-back occasions should set-off the alarm.
At one point in my training career, I failed to add any additional weight to my lifts for over 3 months. It took me over three months to finally wake up and realize I wasn’t going anywhere with my training (actually, I was going backwards). One night as I was lying in bed, unable to fall asleep (good ‘ol cortisol), I got the message. I took 2 weeks off of training and completely overhauled my routine, cutting back from 5+ to 3 sessions a week. In addition to reducing frequency, I also greatly reduced training volume, focusing on improving my numbers in the gym while not overstaying my welcome.
The results were incredible. My body was running smoother, I was feeling better, sleeping like a rock again and finally seeing some progress in strength and performance after months of stagnation.
Signs of overtraining:
- Stagnating performance
- Chronic fatigue
- Poor sleep
- Decreased immune function (frequent infections/ colds)
- Lack of motivation/ drive
- Irritability/ depression
- Lack of appetite/ ravenous hunger
Is cortisol eating away at your muscle tissue?
Chronic overtraining leads to chronically elevated levels of cortisol, your body’s principal stress hormone. As a result, your sleep, mood, digestion, and general wellbeing will suffer. Cortisol is not the bad guy it’s made out to be, but you want acute spikes, not chronically elevated levels of the hormone.
Overtraining syndrome wreaks havoc on your reproductive ability as well (I guess I have your attention now, huh?). The testosterone-to-cortisol ratio is a fine indicator of your body’s hormonal balance and current physical state. Elevated cortisol will keep testosterone suppressed, leading to mood swings, lack of appetite (or excessive appetite and cravings), low libido and even depression. You are shattering your hormones by constantly overexerting yourself.
“Killing it” in the gym day in day out? Feeling tired, irritable and stressed out? Chances are, you have the testosterone levels of an 85 year old lady.
A lack of muscle tone and “pump” might also signal the need for a layoff. If you feel like you’re regressing despite going hard every day, you’re witnessing your bodies catabolic hormones at work. Initially, you will notice excess water retention due to the hormonal shifts caused by overtraining. But in severe cases, this chronic condition will lead to metabolic slowdown, muscle waste and fat accumulation.
Let me rephrase that for you. Severe overtraining can cause water retention, muscle loss and fat gain. You’re literally running yourself into the ground (and looking like crap while you’re at it).
Athletes also report frequent infections and colds during times of high physical demand. No matter how you look at it, this is a no-win situation.
Yin and Yang: Balance of anabolic and catabolic activity
Physical training is inherently catabolic. You are effectively tearing down muscle tissue during exercise. It is the subsequent rest and recovery period that facilitates anabolism (build-up of new tissue) and restores balance. Breaking this natural cycle comes at a cost. If one of the above elements is lacking or expressed insufficiently, whole body adaptation will be compromised.
If you don’t train with sufficient intensity and/or frequency, you will not initiate the body’s growth response. On the other hand, training excessively while failing to provide enough inter-workout rest, will inhibit your body’s ability to complete the anabolic cycle, leaving you overtrained and under-performing.
How do you get back to your winning ways? How do you go back to smashing records (and your girl..)? Should you de-load, take an additional day off or stop training altogether?
How to recover from overtraining
I’m not going to bore you with (p)rehabilitation, stress management and extensive recovery measures. I simply want you to look at your current routine and be honest with yourself. If you’re training to add muscular strength and size and haven’t seen any progress in recent memory, despite adhering to a sound training (like this one) and nutrition protocol, your body might not be recovering from the strenuous activity. Take some time off, if needed, and modify your training frequency, volume and intensity until you find your personal sweet spot. Work with your body not against it. Take notes, adapt and overcome.
“But I feel good training 6 days a week.”
Let’s get something straight. The majority of people, will never reach a state of overtraining. Their lack of intensity and/or training frequency, keeps them from ever experiencing the aforementioned symptoms. They simply never step on the gas hard enough or long enough to burn their bodies out.
But on the other side of the fence, you have people that never know when to quit. I personally can’t be bothered to train haphazardly. I either train with maximum intensity or I don’t train at all. I also understand most people aren’t like that so they are hardly going to run into any issues related to overexertion.
Being chronically fatigued doesn’t have to be a side-effect of training related stress, however. In reality, it rarely is (read this). You don’t necessarily have to feel low on energy or under the wind. Overtraining might fly under the radar for months, even years as the effects on the human body are so varied (and often contradicting).
Look at your numbers and look in the mirror. A lack of progress is a clear indication that something’s off. You’re either underperforming or in a state of chronic exhaustion.
Focus on de-stressing your body by training less and eating according to your needs.
“There’s no such thing as overtraining, only undereating.”
This is something you’ll often hear when researching the subject in “hardcore” bodybuilding circles. Simply eating more will not solve the underlying problem, however. Digestion is a very energy costly process. Your body has to work hard to break down and assimilate the foods you eat. Yes, you need to provide sufficient quality nutrition, but it’s much less than most people (want to) believe. If you’re eating every 2-3 hours, you’re never giving your body a chance to repair damaged tissue and eliminate waste materials.
The extra protein you’re force feeding (“gotta get those protons”) in hopes of keeping your muscles fueled is nothing more than additional burden on the system. Sooner or later something’s going to give.
Have a sensible approach to training and eating. Don’t spend your days in the gym and don’t follow the standard “athlete’s” diet of 6+ high-protein meals a day. It’s not hardcore, it’s asinine.
In severe cases, complete recovery from overtraining can take up to 3 months!
“Three months?? What am I going to do with myself?”
Forget about training.
Take a few weeks off. Relax, eat good food, sleep like a baby and make big plans. When you feel ready for a comeback, don’t rush it. Use the templates provided on this website for orientation and take your time.
Gradually build up the intensity over the weeks. See how far you can go, without making the same mistakes that got you here in the first place. Understand that you can’t put the pedal to the metal and expect to make it to your destination without ever stopping for gas and snacks.
Thank you for reading
Alirezaei, M./ Kemball, C./ C./ Flynn, C. T./ Wood, M. R./ Whitton, J. L./ Kiosses, W. B. (2010). Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy. Autophagy, 6(6), 702–710.
Budgett, R. (1990). Overtraining syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine,24(4), 231–236.
MacKinnon, L.T. (2000). Overtraining effects on immunity and performance in athletes. Immunology and Cell Biology (2000) 78, 502–509
Urhausen, A./ Gabriel, H./ Kindermann, W. (1995). Blood hormones as markers of training stress and overtraining. Sports Med;20(4):251-76.
Whitworth, J.A./ Mangos, G.J./ Kelly, J.J. (2000). Cushing, Cortisol, and Cardiovascular Disease. Hypertension; 36: 912-916