Overtraining is a well-known condition in professional athletes, where it has been studied extensively over a number of years. That said, it’s not just professionals who are at risk from this condition. Anyone undergoing intensive exercise over a long period of time has the potential to experience burnout. But what are the issues with overtraining, and what steps can we take to avoid such issues?
What is Overtraining?
Simply put, overtraining is a condition whereby your body doesn’t have suitable resources to recover from the stresses experienced during any form of intense exercise – from weight lifting to long distance running.
Intensive exercise by its very nature puts our bodies under considerable stress. Properly managed, this stress can actually have very positive impacts on muscle growth, aerobic ability, joint flexibility and more. It is when this stress isn’t managed that problems can occur, as the body struggles to recover from the pressures being put on it.
Overtraining isn’t just a myth; scientists have isolated a number of symptoms in rigorous scientific studies. The first sign that you may be overtraining is that results begin to plateau or even start going backwards. If you seem to be “hitting a wall” with improvements in your chosen exercise then it may be that you’re seeing the warning signs of burnout.
Another common factor in many cases of overtraining is that the immune system begins to take a hit. Whilst moderate exercise has repeatedly shown to help boost the immune system, more extreme exercise can actually have the opposite effect. If you find yourself regularly suffering from coughs, colds and other viral infections then it may be time to consider your training program.
Overtraining can also have an impact on overall outlook. It is not uncommon for individuals suffering from overtraining to feel tired all the time, depressed or to find that their motivation levels are dropping. A worsening temper or troubles sleeping are also common symptoms, whilst a loss of appetite is not uncommon.
Lastly, studies have shown that overtraining can have a serious impact on the likelihood of suffering from injury. There are a number of possible reasons for this, though it is commonly believed that repeatedly reducing muscle glucose levels may be at least partly to blame for training errors.
So what we can we do to reduce the odds of experiencing overtraining?
Ease in Slowly
The body takes time to adapt to new sources of physical stress. As an extreme example, no couch potato could expect to slip on some trainers for the first time before going on to complete a marathon – without injury at least. So it is with all forms of exercise. Not only does easing into a new exercise program help the body to adapt over time, but this “easing in” period also provides an opportunity to perfect your form before greater pressures are placed on your body.
Take Suitable Rest
When we exercise, microscopic damage is done to our muscles. It’s this damage that can be responsible for serious muscle pain when you first start exercising again after an extended break. Given time and suitable nutrition, the body repairs this damage. In cases of anaerobic exercise (such as resistance training) the muscles may actually grow larger in response to this demand, enabling us to lift more with proper form over time.
A critical element for avoiding overtraining is therefore giving your body the time it needs to repair wear and tear. Interestingly, the time taken to recuperate can vary enormously from one person to another. Factors including general health, nutritional support, intensity, frequency and longevity of exercise sessions can all have an impact.
The best idea is to listen to your body. Learn to tell the difference between serious fatigue and physical discomfort, versus the feeling of laziness that many of us experience on occasion. A body still experiencing sore joints or muscles the day after an exercise session may be an indication that additional rest is required before your next gym visit.
Vary Your Exercise Regime
One interesting feature of overtraining is that it can impact all of us differently. What causes overtraining in one individual may not in another, while the symptoms of overtraining can also vary by person. One thing we know, however, is that different intensities in exercise can limit the impacts of overtraining.
In one study, a group of runners was assessed for chemical signs of overtraining at the end of a marathon. Unsurprisingly, their bodies showed signs of depressed immune systems. What the scientists found interesting was that the runners immune systems replenished when the same group were asked to sprint at a high speed.
Another study looked at the training regimes of rowers, and made note of the conditions leading to overtraining. Part of the problem that professional athletes experience is the desire to push themselves ever harder when preparing for major events. As a result, trainers are keen to find ways to keep increasing performance without developing symptoms of overtraining. What the experts found was that “alternating hard and easy training days… reduces the risk of an overtraining syndrome”.
The evidence seems to suggest that hitting your body repeatedly at maximum intensity may increase the odds of suffering from overtraining. This is particularly so for those that train regularly and for extended periods of time. On the other hand, varying your exercise regime to different lengths and intensity of workout is likely to have a positive impact on the odds of burnout. In other words, variety is the spice of life.
Intense physical activity relies on glucose held in the muscles as a source of energy. Over time these glucose stores become depleted and physical performance may decline.
There is some evidence to suggest that this may be a contributing factor to overtraining. Scientific tests have shown that many athletes underestimate the calories they burn while exercising, and then fail to replenish these successfully after training.
In other words, ensuring your body has the necessary fuel to sustain exercise and repair your body is critical when undergoing intensive exercise. Nutritionists believe that whilst a healthy, balanced diet is important, a focus on ensuring suitable carbohydrate ingestion is the most critical element for avoiding the symptoms of overtraining. As one group of scientists studying the problem summarised: “athletes should eat adequate calories and nutrients to balance expenditure of all nutrients. Dietary insufficiencies should be compensated for by supplementation with nutrients”.
It has been suggested by nutritionists that intense exercise reduces the supply of glutamine to the body – a critical source of fuel for the immune system. As a direct result, the immune system becomes sub-optimal and may struggle to ward off the many pathogens it experiences each day.
In experiments scientists found that an effective way to prevent this fall in glutamine level was by supplementing with branched chain amino acids.
Further indications of the potentially beneficial impacts of supplementation comes from a different study looking at free radicals in the body. Free radicals are known to damage the body’s cells, and cause lead to DNA damage. Free radicals in the body have been linked to everything from inflammatory disorders to diabetes. In other words; they can be bad news.
Normally, the body is protected from the effects of free radicals thanks to a barrage of natural antioxidants present in the body. Exercise, however, has been shown to increase levels of potentially harmful free radicals. For this reason, experts have suggested that “antioxidant food supplements in moderate doses (recommended daily allowance) for both athletes and non-athletes could be encouraged”.
Don’t Feel Bad About Taking a Break
Lastly, if you believe that you’re suffering from burnout then don’t feel ashamed to take a proper rest. Taking a week off every few months to fully recuperate isn’t laziness; it may prove to be a very worthwhile investment in your future health and enjoyment of a healthy lifestyle. After all, whilst there is no evidence that overtraining leads to permanent damage, it has been shown that the risk of illness and injury do go up considerably. Sometimes, taking a break really can you the world of good.
This article was written by the experts at Simply Supplements, one of the best-known supplement retailers in the UK.