Recognizing Overtraining Syndrome
“Overtraining” has become a common catch phrase in the world of physical training, however, few seem to understand what truly constitutes being in an over trained state and the implications that it has on physical performance.
* Note: The word “performance” is used several times in this article, and simply refers to the body’s capacity to carry out a given task. It does not necessarily refer to athletic performance, specifically.
Overtraining Vs. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Overtraining is perhaps commonly confused with DOMS, which may occur 24-48 hours after a training session, resulting in muscle stiffness and moderate discomfort which tends to dissipate within a few days. DOMS generally results from returning to training after extended inactivity, or if a new stimulus (e.g. a new exercise) has been added to an already existing training regimen.
As an individual’s general physical preparedness (GPP) improves, the effects DOMS has tends to lessen; eventually to the point where no muscle stiffness or soreness is experienced post training. To suggest that individuals who are excessively sore for several days post training have “overtrained” is a misnomer. It is much more likely that this individual has simply over exerted themselves.
In comparison to DOMS, overtraining is a physiological syndrome which results from several months to years of placing the body under excessive physical demand with inadequate recovery. Unlike DOMS, over training does not dissipate within days; recovery can last from several months to years, depending on severity.
Lastly, an individual whose body has become over trained will tend to experience signs and symptoms similar to Addison’s or Basedow’s disease; severely affecting the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of the person.
General Adaptation Syndrome
General adaptation syndrome (GAS) describes how the human body responds to stress. General adaptation syndrome can be broken down into three stages: 1) Alarm, 2) resistance, 3) super compensation and/or exhaustion.
When a new stimulus is introduced to the body, the body’s initial response is referred to as the alarm phase, in which the body’s current physiological state is temporarily reduced as it tries to adapt. When given adequate time to recover, the body will return to it’s normal level of functioning, referred to as the resistance stage. Following the resistance stage, the body may super compensate, in which the body adapts to a stronger state than before, or if there is inadequate recovery time, exhaustion will occur.
The three stages of the general adaptation syndrome provide a road map for how overtraining occurs. Simply, a stress on the body is introduced (e.g. training) and if a proper balance between training and recovery is maintained the body will adapt to become stronger. Conversely, if there is inadequate recovery the body’s capacity for handling stress (physical and psychological) will slowly decline, ultimately resulting in overtraining syndrome.
Types of Overtraining
Overtraining can be divided in to two main categories depending on symptoms.
Addisonic overtraining was named after Addison’s disease; associated with reduced activity of the adrenal glands (aka adrenal fatigue). Addisonic overtraining tends to affect the parasympathic nervous system and is difficult to detect early due to a lack of any dramatic symptoms (Verkoshansky 2009). Stagnation or performance deterioration may be the result of A-Overtraining.
Signs and Symptoms of A-Overtraining
- Increased diastolic blood pressure over 100mm/hg during and after physical exertion.
- Impaired coordination
- Decreased endurance
- Low resting heart rate
- Persistent muscle aches
- Slightly increased recovery time
- Slight loss in motivation
- Decreased adrenal function/adrenal fatigue
Adapted from Supertraining, 6th Ed.
Basedowic overtraining was named after Basedow’s disease; associated with hyperthyroidism. Basedowic overtraining strongly affects the sympathetic nervous system, increasing its activity (Verkoshansky 2009). B-overtraining has multiple symptoms and is generally easy to recognize.
Signs and Symptoms of B-Overtraining
- Slight increase in blood pressure
- Impaired coordination with increased reaction time (reacting takes longer)
- Decreased endurance with tendency to easily fatigue
- Increased sleep requirements
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Increased appetite
- Increased metabolism & sweating
- Increased rate of breathing under stress
- Increased head aches & colds; decreased immune system.
- Increased nervousness, unease, decreased motivation, eventual depression
- Increased sympathetic nervous system activity (fight or flight)
Adapted from Supertraining, 6th Ed.
Overtraining Effects on Resistance Training
Beyond the two main classifications, differences in overtraining symptoms induced from anaerobic and aerobic training have been reported, however, anaerobic overtraining symptoms are few. In one study, it was shown that maximal strength levels of regularly performed exercises (e.g. squats) could be preserved with a single day of rest, even when the body is overtrained (Fry 1994). However, decrements were noticed in supplemental exercises (e.g. sprinting, agility drills etc). In a second study, all rest days were removed, resulting in decreased strength levels overall (Fry 1994).
Research has suggested that sympathetic (basedowic) overtraining occurs before parasympathetic (addisonic) overtraining, especially in strength based training (Baechle & Earle 2000). As such, because strength can be preserved in mainstay exercises when overtrained, individuals should look for performance decrements in supplemental exercises, and symptoms related to B-overtraining (e.g. increased blood pressure, heart rate, sleep disturbances, illness, depression etc).
Overtraining Effects on Aerobic Training
The effects overtraining has on aerobic training are numerous. Properly planned cardiovascular training results in reduced heart rates at rest and at exercise, however, increased resting heart rates result from overtraining. Furthermore, the heart loses the capacity to contract rapidly, as such, exercise induced maximal heart rates decrease. Higher diastolic blood pressures have also been reported from high intensity training methods. (Baechle & Earle 2000).
Decreases in muscle glycogen have also be observed, suggesting decrements in endurance and overall work capacity, resulting in reduced ability for the body to buffer (remove) lactic acid and other metabolic by-products (substances that can hinder metabolic processes and affect performance) (Baechle & Earle 2000).
Decreases in testosterone in men and increases in cortisol (a stress related hormone that is used to break down body tissues) have been reported with increased training volumes. Baechle (2009) suggests that “a possible marker of an overtraining syndrome is a decrease of 30% or more in this ratio” (Ch.8, endocrine responses, p. 4) (testosterone:cortisol). Furthermore, decreases in human growth hormone (HGH; necessary for the body to create new tissues and for overall health) have also been observed. Having a blood test performed by a doctor to check such levels may be beneficial for those who suspect they are suffering from overtraining syndrome.
Similarly to overtraining induced from resistance exercises, mood disturbances (frustration, agitation, anger, fatigue, confusion etc) can also occur, along with decreased motivation and depression.
Causes of Overtraining
More often than not, overtraining is caused by over estimating one’s capability to recover from training, which entails poor program design with either too much volume, intensity, or inadequate rest periods. A lack of variety in exercise stimulus (e.g. not varying the intensity) is also a major contributor to overtraining syndrome.
The rate of progression with an exercise or overall program can also lead to overtraining (baechle & Earle 2000). When the body does not have enough time to consolidate advancements in physical performance (e.g. adaptively reconstruct itself/super compensate), exhaustion will ultimately set in.
Poor exercise selection and order can contribute to overtraining. Different exercises tax the body in different amounts (e.g. a bar bell back squat is far more taxing than a seated leg extension) and as result, it’s important to order exercises from the most demanding to the least. As a hypothetical example, if an individual were to perform a bench press, barbell squat, and a bicep curl, the order should be as follows:
Given that the squat has been shown to be more demanding in terms of neural drive (the amount of electricity needed to be generated in order for contraction to occur) and metabolic stress (referring to how much fuel the body has to produce to fuel contraction) than the bench press, it should be performed first. The curl would be a supplemental exercise with the least demand on the body, and should be placed last. Furthermore, implementing too many exercises that place high amounts of stress on the body in a short time frame can also result in large amounts of fatigue (which is why squatting and dead lifting on the same day, or even in the same week is generally not recommended, with some exceptions).
Another factor that comes in to play is equipment selection. Improper equipment selection can result in immediate or chronic injury, increasing the overall stress on the body (the body will have to divert physiological and psychological resources to healing). It is therefore important to make sure that equipment is properly set up and maintained in regards to fitting the trainee’s body size, build etc.
Psychological stress and fatigue play a critical role in developing overtraining syndrome. Implementing intense training protocols for an individual who has not physiologically and psychologically acclimated to such can result in high levels of stress that cannot yet be tolerated. As was stated by Baechle (2009): “… state anxiety can increase prior to short-rest workouts and that anger associated with pain can also occur. Thus, the physiological strain created by the short-rest protocols with higher intensities results in psychological stress and mental fatigue that may result in overtraining syndrome” (Ch. 8, Mistakes that can lead…, P. 11).
Psychological stress from work, school, or poor relationships can also play a role in developing overtraining syndrome. It’s therefore important to take outside influences into consideration when designing a training program.
Overtraining Q & A
1) Are only athletes susceptible to overtraining?
No, anyone and everyone can experience overtraining if they push themselves too hard, too soon, too fast, and for too long.
2) I think I have overtraining syndrome. What should I do?
You should temporarily stop any intense training and consult a doctor. Overtraining will have detrimental effects on your entire life, not just training. It’s important to let your body and mind recover. Blood work done by a doctor can assist with monitoring the healing process.
3) If I have overtraining syndrome, do I need to stop exercising completely?
No you don’t. Softer forms of exercise (e.g. yoga, recreational sports, walking, etc) that place minimal stress on the body which encourage relaxation can actually help recovery. Intense forms of exercise should be avoided, though.
4) How long does recovery take?
It really varies from person to person. Studies that have tried to force overtraining syndrome have had varied results between individuals. From my own personal experience, I had to take ~2 months off to recover from overtraining syndrome, however, recovery can sometimes last longer (e.g. 6 months to a year).
5) I’m young and can heal fast. Overtraining won’t happen to me!
Wrong. If you push yourself too hard, too much, too soon, and for too long, you’ll develop this syndrome. Regardless of age, it’s important to properly balance training and recovery.
6) I train for general fitness. Should I be worried about developing overtraining syndrome?
If your goal is general fitness, then it’s highly unlikely that your training schedule is demanding enough to risk developing overtraining syndrome. Pushing the body in to an overtrained state requires extreme physical exertion on a regular basis, akin to how you’d find a competitive athlete training. The general population who work out for health based improvements have training programs that are far less taxing, physiologically and psychologically.
Having personally experienced overtraining syndrome, I can attest to it’s detrimental affects on physical performance and the overall well-being of an individual. It’s imperative to progress conservatively and cautiously, as recovery can take an extended period of time. If you suspect you are overtrained, I highly recommend taking time off from training to allow your body to recover as continually pushing yourself through overtraining syndrome will only make it worse. It’s better to take two steps forward and one step back than to not progress at all.
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1) Baechle, Thomas R. & Earle, Roger W. (2000) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 2nd Ed., NSCA.
2) Verkoshansky, Yuri & Siff, Mel C. (2009) Supertraining 6th ed, Ultimate Athletic Concepts
3) Fry, Andrew C. & Kraemer, William J. et al (1994) Does Short-Term Near-Maximal Intensity Machine Resistance Training Induce Overtraining? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Retrieved May 24, 2011. From http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/1994/08000/Does_Short_Term_Near_Maximal_Intensity_Machine.11.aspx
4) Fry, Andrew C. & Kraemer, William J. et al (1994) Performance decrements with high-intensity resistance exercise overtraining. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Retrieved May 24, 2011. From http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/abstract/1994/09000/performance_decrements_with_high_intensity.15.aspl