How to successfully overtrain

“No pain, no gain”, an expression so deeply engrained in our Western culture has a great part to play in overtraining, and it should be unsurprising to you that on health focused blog, a title like this one is nothing more than shameless trick or clickbait to get you to read this article.

“There are no medals for going hard in training”

I could really summarise this entire article with that simple piece of advice, but it turns out I have a bit more to say about the topic.

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Let’s define overtraining first, and I think Dr. Phil Maffetone described it very well by using the expression: overtraining syndrome, defined as an imbalance in the equation: Training = Workout + Recovery. This manifests in very large variety of ways, like hormonal, nutritional, mental/emotional, muscular, neurological and others imbalances, which then cause fatigue, depression, decreased performance, injury, and so on. But to put simply, if you overtrain, your performance will decrease. This is why having functional performance testing in your training routine (like a low heart rate loop on a track) is a great tool to diagnose overtraining.

The three stages of overtraining syndrome.

Stage 1: Functional

Stage 2: Sympathetic

Stage 3: Parasympathetic

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1. Functional overtraining

Usually marked by hitting a performance plateau, or a decline in performance, this phase is most often caused an imbalance between aerobic and anaerobic systems, or an excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates at the expense of healthy fats and protein. The imbalance can be tested in a lab, but it’s usually easier to do a MAF test monthly and have aerobic exercise take a bigger share of overall training, while excess carbohydrates can be managed through a banting protocol.

Adrenal gland dysfunction (as part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), very common in overtraining, usually begins in Stage 1. In addition, it typically parallels the start of aerobic deficiency. As this stage progresses, athletes may begin to develop fatigue, sleeping irregularities and abnormal hunger or cravings for sweets. They may be unable to lose that extra body fat, get sleepy after meals, and have an uncanny craving for caffeine.

Common problems in the first stage of overtraining include:

  • Back, knee, ankle, and foot injuries.
  • Hormone imbalance through elevation of cortisol and lowering of testosterone and DHEA.
  • Premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms may be secondary complaints for women, but amenorrhea is a common problem.
  • Sexual dysfunction (for both sexes), leading to reduced sexual desire and sometimes infertility.
  • Mental and emotional stress, including mild or clinical depression and anxiety is not uncommon.

When overtraining is not discovered and corrected, all these signs and symptoms merge into the second stage of the syndrome.

2. Sympathetic overtaining

As overtraining progresses in its functional phase, the sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive, causing an increased resting heart rate, often associated with restlessness and over-excitability. Measuring your morning heart rate, or training with a monitor is a good way to spot this.

Hormone dysfunction also progresses during sympathetic overtraining. Specific adrenal problems include various hormonal imbalances, most commonly cortisol, which rises to abnormal levels. These hormonal problems will usually highly impair your ability to focus, but high cortisol levels have a catabolic effect on the system, similar to physical exhaustion.

High cortisol can also increase insulin levels. Aerobic training usually suppresses insulin production during exercise, whereas studies show that maximal training intensities can increase the insulin response. This further raises the sympathetic nervous system activity and adds to the overtraining condition. In addition, elevated cortisol lowers testosterone and DHEA, both important for muscle recovery (waking in the middle of the night and not easily falling back asleep is typical of have high cortisol levels.).

Fortunately, these hormone imbalances and other problems are easily corrected through diet and lifestyle changes, like revising the training and competitive schedule. If these corrections are not made, the door is left wide open for the third stage of overtraining.

3. Parasympathetic overtraining

This is plain and simply chronic overtraining, it has serious health consequences and occurs when the sympathetic nervous system becomes exhausted, and most if not all hormone levels are significantly reduced, including cortisol.

It will be accompanied by a string of mental effects accompanied by the lack of desire to compete (and sometimes train), depression, significant injury and most notably exhaustion. Performance may diminish considerably and many athletes in this state consider themselves “sidelined”.

This condition is associated with abnormally low resting heart rates and low heart-rate recovery from interval training or competition. (Some continue to misinterpret the low heart rate as a good sign.) The hormonal problems may result in increased sodium loss due to reduced aldosterone and may increase the athlete’s vulnerability to hyponatremia—a serious condition of low sodium (although this can also appear in Stage 2).

Athletes in this third stage of overtraining are seriously unwell. Recovery and return to previous optimal levels of performance is a very difficult task.

So how do we get out of overtraining?

If this were a magazine, I would be about to offer a one size fits all answer, but the real world doesn’t work that way. That doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions, but the problem must first be properly assessed, and there are several ways to do this.

1. MAF test

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When properly performed, the Maximum Aerobic Function Test is a powerful evaluation tool to assess overtraining in its infancy as well as its chronic stage. Hormone tests are also effective, such as the simple and accurate salivary cortisol, DHEA, and sometimes others as needed, such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.

2. Data tracking

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It may seem trivial, but a good training log can go a long way. Keeping a good record of health and performance data, taken by a coach, a family member, or most accurately by a health care professional. The important questions that pertain to mood, energy levels, sleep quality, performance and infections are important to answer honestly.

3. Dietary behaviour

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Dietary behaviour, and the balance of macro- and micronutrients is quite often a direct reflection of your overall health, and should always be examined when assessing overtraining. Nowadays these can be done free of charge online, via mobile apps, or for a nominal cost through a health professional.

How to fix it

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Correcting overtraining begins by immediately restructuring the training schedule, modifying lifestyle factors including diet and nutrition, and addressing all levels of stress. Finding a professional who can help is also a valuable adjunct.

Adjusting the training schedule is key in an athlete in any stage of overtraining. This should be based on the individual’s need. Some specific suggestions include:

  • Decrease training time by 50 to 70 percent, or more if necessary.
  • Immediately cease all anaerobic training and competition.
  • A helpful remedy for an overtrained athlete is walking, which can gently stimulate circulation and aerobic muscle fiber activity, and offers mental benefits much like those of meditation. Walking also helps redevelop the aerobic system—the first phase of retraining.
  • Retraining, that is, building the aerobic base, should last three to six months and does not include any anaerobic training or competition.

Diet and nutrition are important factors in the overtraining syndrome. While individualized nutritional recommendations are ideal, some important suggestions should be considered:

  • Eliminate all high-glycemic foods, especially sugar and other refined flour. Moderating carbohydrate intake overall can also be helpful as high carbohydrate diets may further elevate cortisol levels.
  • Consume smaller, more frequent meals to help control blood sugar and cortisol, especially for those with symptoms of depression, fatigue, hunger and poor sleep.
  • Adequate caloric intake is very important—never get hungry. Include moderate amounts of protein (especially eggs and meats) and healthy fats.
  • Overtraining may disrupt the normal balance of fats in the body, which help control inflammation, one reason why inflammatory-related injuries are common. Eliminate the intake of omega-6 vegetable oils (soy, peanut, safflower, canola, corn), which can promote inflammation. EPA (fish oil) supplements can help reduce inflammation. (If serious inflammation exists, reduce all dairy fats too, including milk, cream, butter and cheese.)
  • Caffeine consumption may be contraindicated for overtrained athletes. Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate (beware of caffeine-containing, over-the-counter and prescription drugs).
  • Zinc may help control the abnormally high levels of cortisol, but timing is important when supplementing with zinc. Cortisol should be measured throughout the day to determine abnormal peak levels; then the zinc supplements should be taken two to three hours prior to cortisol peaks.

When committed, athletes can often recover rapidly from the overtraining syndrome. In this first stage, modifying the training schedule, and making appropriate nutritional and dietary adjustments often provide improvements of symptoms and even training within two weeks. This rapid progress will be demonstrated in the MAF Test, including reductions in injuries and mental stress.
Athletes in the first and second stages of overtraining also respond quickly to proper recovery. Most important is obtaining at least seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Those with upcoming competitions may be required to modify or cancel those events to allow for a more complete recovery from overtraining. Building an acceptable aerobic base will take at least three to six months.

Athletes who are chronically overtrained—those in the third stage—generally respond much slower. They may need to cancel their next competitive season and spend time building the aerobic system, reducing stress and improving their nutrition. These athletes will require six months or more, and sometimes a year or two, before resuming effective competition.

Overtraining is a serious problem, and one that can be successfully remedied. More importantly, it’s easily prevented.