Overtraining Syndrome – Introduction
Why is it important to learn about overtraining syndrome?
Because intense exercise like weightlifting, powerlifting, calisthenics, and even walking can take a lot out of your body.
They deplete your physical, nervous system, and even emotional energy – especially when you push yourself to your limit.
However, with adequate sleep, rest, and food, you should bounce back, feeling stronger than before.
Unfortunately, sometimes training intensity and volume outpaces your ability to recover.
You take more out of your body than good nutrition and rest can put back in.
This can lead to something called Overtraining Syndrome.
Overtraining syndrome can be mild, and your progress slows or stalls.
But, it can also be more serious, affecting your physical and even your mental health.
Chronic overtraining can be hard to get over.
Use the information in this article to help you recognize the signs and symptoms of overtraining, learn to avoid it, and treat it if it happens to you.
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Is Overtraining a Myth?
Before we get into the ins and outs of overtraining, let’s first address the idea that overtraining is, actually, just a myth.
Not so long ago, a lot of weightlifters, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts believed (and some still believe) that there was no such thing as overtraining, and that there was only under-eating.
They thought that, if you were tired and weren’t making progress, all you needed to do was eat more.
While calories and nutrition play a critical part in recovery, just eating more is not the way to deal with overtraining.
Food is only one part of recovery, and you can’t make up for poor sleep, an overly intense training program, or too much stress by merely eating more.
That said, there are degrees of overtraining, from very mild to very debilitating.
If your diet is poor, either in calories or nutrients, eating more and eating better will help.
Still, even a perfect diet won’t protect you from overtraining if you are ignoring the other aspects of exercise and recovery.
So, overtraining is NOT a myth, and you should listen to your body to avoid letting a small problem turn into a much more serious one.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
Overtraining is a condition where your training intensity or volume exceeds your ability to recover.
In simple terms, it’s like digging a hole and then trying to fill that hole back in with insufficient soil.
The main culprits of overtraining syndrome are the stress hormones, namely cortisol.
Cortisol is produced during periods of physical and mental stress and is one of the triggers for muscle repair and growth.
But, if cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods, causing a hormone imbalance, your body is always in “breakdown mode” and won’t enter “repair and recovery” mode.
At first, you might think that the symptoms of overtraining are just laziness.
You may even be able to tough it out and keep training for a while longer.
But, as the gap between training and recovery widens, you will start to notice your performance declining, and will begin to develop other signs and symptoms.
Needless to say, recognizing the signs of overtraining is crucial for its avoidance.
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Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining
The signs of overtraining syndrome vary from person to person.
That’s what the term syndrome means – it’s a collection of symptoms, and you might not experience all of them.
Also, endurance athletes may suffer from different symptoms than bodybuilders or powerlifters.
If you experience any of the following warning signs, you may be suffering from overtraining syndrome.
If the symptoms are mild or have only developed recently, you’ll probably recover quickly after a few easier workouts, maybe a short break from training, and by paying more attention to recovery.
However, if your symptoms are more severe or have been a problem for a long time, you will need a more significant intervention to get you back on track.
Common overtraining signs and symptoms include:
- Reduced workout performance
- Stalled progress
- Several “bad” workouts in a row
- Painful joints and tendons
- Prolonged muscle soreness
- Frequent minor injuries that won’t heal
- Suppressed immune system, leading to cold or flu-like symptoms
- Increased resting heart rate (10-15 beats per minute higher than usual on waking)
- Unintentional weight loss
- Muscle loss
- Lost training motivation
Training should produce increases in physical performance or, at the very least, maintain your current levels.
If despite training hard, you feel like you are moving backward and not forward, you may be suffering from overtraining syndrome.
Also, if you are suffering from overuse injuries, such as tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, runner’s knee, swimmer’s shoulder, or any other common sports injury, you may be in the throes of overtraining syndrome.
Most of these conditions are caused by inflammation and are the result of overuse.
These symptoms should not be ignored because, if you do, they may sideline you for many weeks or months.
How to Avoid Overtraining
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or so the saying goes.
It takes much less time and effort to prevent overtraining than it does to recover from it.
With that in mind, all exercisers should take steps to stop overtraining before it starts.
As an added bonus, these steps will also improve athletic performance – it’s a win-win!
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Steps to take to avoid overtraining include:
7-9 Hours of Quality Sleep per Night
Sleep is when your body gets busy repairing the damage caused by training.
Anabolic (muscle building) hormone levels increase while you sleep and catabolic (muscle destroying) hormone levels decrease, producing the ideal environment for muscle repair and growth.
While you can get by on less sleep, that doesn’t mean you should.
The occasional sleepless night is no problem but, if you are chronically sleep-deprived, you won’t recover fully from your workouts, and your chances of developing overtraining syndrome are considerably higher.
Use Training Cycles
The words “go heavy or go home” might look good printed on a T-shirt, but training at your limit every day, week, and month is a great way to end up overtrained.
Instead, follow training routines with undulating intensities and volume.
This means you should balance periods of hard training with easier workouts and active recovery.
- Week one – moderate training volume and intensity
- Week two – moderate training volume and high intensity
- Week three – high training volume and high intensity
- Week four – low training volume and very high intensity
- Week five – low training volume and low intensity (deload)
- Week six – start over
The terms volume and intensity are open to interpretation and depend on your fitness level, the type of training you are doing, and your training status (beginner, intermediate, or advanced).
Apply this model to your own workouts, adapting them to your personal needs and circumstances.
This style of training creates a volume and intensity peak, backs off, and then builds back up to a new, higher peak a few weeks later.
This creates a good balance between hard work and adequate recovery.
Practice Good Nutrition
Your body needs an abundance of nutrients and calories to support your training.
Things get tricky if you are trying to lose weight while you are also training hard, but, as a rule, you should make sure you meet all your caloric and nutritional needs.
If you are trying to lose weight, you may need to reduce training intensity and/or volume to avoid overtraining.
Avoid Sudden Increases in Training Load or Volume
Endurance athletes use something called the 10% rule to avoid overtraining.
This means they do not increase the length of any single workout, or their weekly training volume, by more than 10%.
So, if a runner does 30 miles per week, and their longest run is six miles, next week’s training total shouldn’t exceed 33 miles, and their longest run should be no longer than 6.6 miles.
While you can’t apply the 10% rule to strength training, you should adopt the spirit of the rule, by increasing training stress very gradually from one week to the next.
Don’t Be a Captive to Your Workout Plan
While following a workout plan can help you make faster progress, your body won’t always be able to keep up.
What looks viable on paper may be too much to recover from.
Listen to your body and be prepared to adapt your plan if you aren’t recovering between workouts.
Go Easy on the Big Lifts
While deadlifts, squats, bench presses and power cleans should make up the bulk of your training, they are also the lifts most likely to cause overtraining.
They allow you to lift heavy weights and stress not only large groups of muscles but your nervous system too.
A hard squat or deadlift workout can really take it out of you!
Because of this, you should use but not abuse these exercises, and don’t train them hard and heavy all the time.
Some coaches even suggest that you squat and deadlift in the same session and only once per week to give yourself enough time to recover between workouts.
While you might not need to do this, it’s important to understand how demanding these exercises are and adapt your workout intensity, duration, and frequency to reduce your personal risk of overtraining.
See How Often Should You Deadlift Per Week – A Beginner’s Guide for more details.
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How to Recover from Overtraining
The overtraining solution is not dissimilar to the steps you need to take to avoid it in the first place.
However, you’ll need to minimize training stress and may even need to take a complete break from exercise to allow your body to fully recover.
This can be hard, especially if you are an ardent exerciser who rarely takes breaks from training.
However, if you are already struggling to recover between workouts, which is an excellent overtraining definition, more rest is only half of the equation – you need to reduce the training stress too.
Light recovery workouts may help, but it can be hard to take it easy when you are used to pushing yourself to the max.
A complete break may be easier to control, as it removes the temptation to do more than you should.
That doesn’t mean you should be completely inactive.
Walking, easy swimming, stretching, pre-hab, foam rolling (self-myofascial release), yoga postures, and other low-stress activities should be fine.
However, you should avoid the type of training that caused you to develop overtraining syndrome in the first place.
How long will your recovery take?
It depends on how severe your symptoms are.
Also, some people bounce back faster than others.
But, the better your diet, the more sleep you get, and the more stress you can avoid, the quicker it’ll happen.
Overtraining Syndrome – Wrapping Up
Exercise, even intense bodybuilding, powerlifting, and weightlifting training is mostly good for you.
But you can have too much of a good thing.
Ironically, the harder you push yourself to achieve higher levels of performance, the more likely you are to become overtrained.
It’s not enough to just train hard, you also need to train smart.
The first step to avoiding overtraining is easing off if you feel that you are not as recovered as you should be.
Checking for an elevated heart rate first thing in the morning is also a good idea.
Don’t be afraid to take an unplanned day off or have an easier than planned training day if you feel you need more recovery time.
It’s better to choose to take an extra rest day than be forced to take one because of overtraining.
And remember, when it comes to overtraining, prevention is always better than cure.
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