If a little exercise is good for you, more must be better – right? Possibly, but not all the time. In the pursuit of better health and fitness, people often get in the mindset that more is better. However, if exercise is leaving you more exhausted than energized, you might be suffering from overtraining syndrome.
We all love to challenge our bodies with exercise with the goal to make our body adapt. Whether that adaptation is the ability to run a marathon, or lift 500 pounds, exercise has to cause a significant amount of stress to create this adaptation. The time it takes for your body to adapt is dependent on a number of factors. These factors include: volume/intensity of workouts, nutrition, sleep and any other stress in life.
Stress only becomes a problem when you reach a certain threshold. When this happens your body loses the ability to adapt. That’s why in some programs you’ll only see an “overreaching” phase that lasts a few weeks. Then there’s usually some type of deload to allow your body to recover. However, if you push yourself too hard for too long you can’t recover from exercise, and your body responds in a negative way. This is called overtraining syndrome. It’s very real, but an exact definition hasn’t been established yet.
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is of growing concern in an era when athletes push themselves to the brink. It has become clear that proper exercise prescription is important to avoid pushing your body past its limit. The easiest way to avoid this is by periodized training. Simply put, periodization allows variation and includes phases of intense training and planned periods for recovery. This strategy of training applies to elite athletes as well as to individuals exercising for general health.
Nutrition also plays an important role in recovery. If your nutrition is off it will become even more difficult for your body to recover. There is not a specific nutrition program that will prevent OTS, but eating adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat will ensure that your body has the substrates to recover. It is thought that the fatigue and under-performance associated with OTS are partly attributed to a decrease in muscle glycogen levels. Glycogen depletion results in higher circulating levels of catecholamines, cortisol, and glucagon in response to exercise while insulin levels are very low. Such hormonal responses will result in changes in substrate mobilization and utilization. Other than carbohydrate depletion, dehydration and a negative energy balance can make it more difficult for your body to adapt. Thus, to reduce the symptoms and reduce the risk of developing OTS during periods of intensive training, individuals should increase their fluid, carbohydrate, and energy intake to meet the increased demands. Additional carbohydrates should not be at the expense of reduced protein intake because there is some evidence that insufficient protein can also result in increased risk of OTS.
This syndrome reflects the body’s attempt to cope with physiological and psychological stressors. If you find that your strength, size or stamina have plateaued for an extended period it might be that you’re not giving your body enough time to recover.
Often people increase volume in hopes that it will translate to an increase in size/strength, but you can’t increase your volume forever. You must pay attention to signs from your body to know when to reduce volume and/or intensity. The only way to recover from overtraining syndrome is to rest. I think the emphasis needs to be on prevention of OTS and on early diagnosis, which may shorten recovery time. If you find yourself in a situation where your body isn’t responding well to exercise, it might be a good time to taper off or take a break.
The symptoms for overtraining from the American College of Sports Medicine:
Agitation, moodiness, irritability or lack of concentration.
Excessive fatigue and malaise.
Increased perceived effort during normal workouts.
Chronic or nagging muscle aches or joint pain.
More frequent illnesses and upper-respiratory infections.
Insomnia or restless sleep.
Loss of appetite.
Chronically elevated heart rate at rest and during exercise.
1) “Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome: Joint Consensus Statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 45, no. 1 (January 2013): 186–205. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318279a10a.
2) Kellmann, M. “Preventing Overtraining in Athletes in High-Intensity Sports and Stress/recovery Monitoring.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 20 (October 1, 2010): 95–102. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01192.x.
3) Purvis, Dianna, Stephen Gonsalves, and Patricia A. Deuster. “Physiological and Psychological Fatigue in Extreme Conditions: Overtraining and Elite Athletes.” PM&R 2, no. 5 (May 2010): 442–50. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2010.03.025.