Overtraining: Recognizing and eliminating symptoms for lasting training progress
As soon as performance stagnates and nothing at all wants to progress in the area of training, many strength athletes are easily inclined to try all kinds of things to escape the performance plateau. Usually, this can be achieved with a slight adjustment of the training schedule, a gentle increase in intensity or by taking additional high-quality nutrients or supplements. However, if none of these established methods work, many amateur athletes are at their wit's end. At this point, not only is good advice expensive, but also the potential to make serious wrong decisions is particularly high.
Without a doubt, the most common misguided decision in this context is to increase training intensity even further by adding volume or increasing training frequency in order to force the body to adapt. However, this often ignores the fact that the body may already be overloaded and therefore no longer capable of developing its performance and generating progress in terms of strength and mass gain. This state of overtraining is not only annoying, but can sometimes become a permanent problem, as the continuous stress does not allow the organism to regenerate adequately, which also increases the susceptibility to infections and injuries.
To the dismay of many athletes, they realize all too late that they are overtraining, which is often due to the fact that with regard to the aforementioned terminology, there is a lack of clarity in large parts of the fitness community as to what overtraining actually is. To shed some light on the subject, this article looks at all facets of the issue and helps recreational athletes recognize and address the symptoms of overtraining.
What is overtraining?
But before we delve deeper into the topic and how the signs of overtraining can be detected at their onset and the occurrence of overtraining can be prevented, let's look at the terminology in detail. The term overtraining is on everyone's lips in the circle of strength athletes and is used just as inflationarily as the term hardgainer. In detail, there is a symptomatic connection between these two terms, which we do not want to discuss further in this article. Let's turn back to overtraining, which is difficult to grasp in its semantic meaning.
The reason for this is that overtraining is simply a description of a state in which the organism is no longer able to recover reasonably until the start of the next training session as a result of intensive training. At what point the body is so overwhelmed by the training intensity of an athlete that it tends to perform regenerative processes permanently suboptimal, is unfortunately not definable in general terms. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to recognize the warning signs of the body early on and, what is even more important, to take them seriously. It is obvious that difficult to grasp terms such as overtraining are not necessarily conducive to understanding the underlying issue. Consequently, the following example serves to make the term overtraining appear more vivid and to free it from its nebulous corset.
It may help to think of the organism as a generator responsible for providing energy for all activities, including training. In this simplified example, the generator represents the central nervous system (CNS), which, like a generator, is responsible for the energetic control of the motor units of the musculature. As long as the power demand placed on the generator remains within the range of its maximum possible power capacity, the organism functions like Swiss clockwork.
However, if a lasting significant overload occurs, the efficiency of the nerve impulses sent to the muscles via the spinal cord decreases. This means that they can no longer perform their tasks adequately, which can lead to a sharp drop in performance, among other things. To illustrate this state of overload, we again use the image of the generator. This runs smoothly as long as it is under voltage in accordance with its maximum output. However, if too many energy-hungry devices are connected to the corresponding power source at the same time, this leads to a short circuit, which in a figurative sense also affects the central nervous system. And since the CNS is literally central in the overall concept of the organism, a short circuit in the central nervous system has serious consequences for the body.
Causes of overtraining & importance of regeneration
Since overtraining obviously describes a state of overload, in the course of identifying an explicit cause we are once again faced with the challenge of analyzing the numerous influencing factors individually and locating those among them that are responsible for the overload symptoms. As is so often the case, the most decisive factor is time, because every adaptation process demands diverse adaptation reactions from the organism, both in the musculature, the passive musculoskeletal system and in the neuronal area.
While the musculature adapts comparatively quickly to new stresses and stress levels, the central nervous system takes much longer to cope with the new demands. As a result, the most common cause for the occurrence of overtraining is a training volume that is increased too quickly as well as a training intensity that is increased too quickly.
In addition, the probability of short circuits in the central nervous system increases due to the abrupt increase in training frequency. It is not for nothing that sports physicians recommend that any new type of exercise be introduced slowly. Closely interwoven with the first three points is the factor of regeneration, which is of immense importance in the course of new stresses. As should be generally known, adaptation reactions take place during the regeneration phases and not during the training load. Consequently, the organism must also have sufficient time to initiate regenerative processes.
In order to clarify the importance of the time factor for adaptation reactions and regeneration, we use the sports science model of supercompensation at this point. This model illustrates the course of the performance curve between several training units and provides information about when the optimal time is for setting a new stimulus, i.e. completing another training unit. The power curve drops significantly after an intensive training session, so that the organism needs 24-48 hours to return to the initial level. It is only in the following 24 hours that the increase in performance takes place. The goal should be to set the next stimulus at the point of maximum performance gain. This is usually the case after 72 hours, as the power curve then begins to decline again.
In the case of overtraining, however, regeneration is too often much shorter, so that the new training stimulus is already set when the performance curve is at the initial level or even below the initial level. In the short term, the body can compensate for this fact because evolution has given humans the ability to adapt regeneration to increased demands in the short term. In the long term, however, this condition leads to a permanent drop in the performance curve.
In this context, the organism is also exposed to physiological stress, which affects the immune system, among other things. Everyday stress can also promote the emergence of overtraining, since the primordial physiological mechanisms of our body are quite indifferent to whether the stress is caused by overload in training or on the job. Other aspects that should not be neglected are genetics and, last but not least, training experience. Beginners who start with an intensive 4-split will be affected more often by the consequences of overtraining than experienced athletes whose bodies can cope with even the most intensive units much more easily.
How can I tell if I am overtraining?
Now that we have sufficiently illuminated what overtraining is and what causes this condition, it is time to deal with the symptoms, because only those who can reliably read the signals of their body are able to prevent the occurrence of overtraining or at least reduce the consequences. From a physical point of view, the most noticeable feature of overtraining is the lack of success in training. This symptom is caused by an imbalance between testosterone and high levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This initial hormonal situation leads to an increase in the organism's sensitivity to insulin, which results in poorer muscle regeneration and also increases the risk of fat storage despite excellent nutrition.
Another common symptom is persistent listlessness. Of course, there are days when we feel "absolutely ironed" and could not be taken to the gym by ten horses. That is normal. However, if this condition lasts for several days or weeks, it is imperative to take a regenerative break. How long this should be in individual cases, can not be said with certainty, because this depends on the body feeling of each athlete. The lack of drive is usually accompanied by a certain leaden fatigue, which is also due to the combination of a low testosterone level, a high cortisol concentration and an overstimulation of the central nervous system.
Away from these symptoms, which belong more to the mental-psychological spectrum, there are some characteristics of overtraining that are comparatively obvious. These include, for example, unusually severe muscle soreness that can last up to a week. In individual cases, this is not particularly tragic after a particularly intensive workout, but if it becomes a permanent condition, you should shift down a gear in terms of training.
The same applies to long-lasting joint pain, which is sometimes caused by inadequate nutrition of the hyaline joint cartilage. Such a warning signal should in any case be taken just as seriously as an increased tendency to colds and minor infections, which despite optimal nutrition are always up to their mischief. Here, too, the cause is an overloaded central nervous system that torpedoes the proper functioning of the immune system. If one of the symptoms mentioned occurs, this does not mean that an athlete is in overtraining. However, if several characteristics occur at the same time, all alarm bells should be ringing.
How can I prevent overtraining from occurring?
Contrary to what it may seem, the sword of Damocles of overtraining does not hover omnipresently over every athlete, which is why it would be the completely wrong way to completely lower the training intensity in favor of risk reduction. Rather, it is necessary to gradually increase the training intensity, in whatever form, until the desired level is reached.
Only in this way does the organism have sufficient time to adapt to the requirements. In addition to the gradual increase in intensity, regeneration plays a key role, because if you allow your body to recover sufficiently after a hard workout, you need have no fear of overtraining despite intensive sessions. However, since the regeneration factor is very individual, it is only possible to work with a rough rule of thumb, which states that there should be at least 48 hours between two training sessions that stress the same muscle groups. A healthy diet and the permanent adherence to a night sleep duration of 7-8 hours round off the overall package for the prevention of overtraining sensibly.