athletes

Overtraining Part 2: Correct and Avoid It

In the last post, we went over some symptoms of overtraining. If you found yourself nodding along in agreement, then today’s post is certainly for you. If not, well, it’s still beneficial to read this to ensure you don’t end up nodding in agreement in the future.

To clarify, overtraining is, loosely, defined as an accumulation of stress (both training and non-training) that leads to decreases in performance as well as mental and physical symptoms that can take months to recover from. Read that last bit again: M.O.N.T.H.S. Just because you took a couple days off does NOT mean your body is ready to go again. The time it takes to recover from and return to normal performance will depend on how far into the realm of overtraining you’ve managed to push yourself.

Let's delve into recovery strategies. Of the many symptoms that can appear, chronic inflammation is a biggie. Whether that’s inflammation of the joints, ligaments, tendons, or muscles, it doesn’t matter; too much inflammation compromises their ability to function. (A little inflammation is ok as it jumpstarts the recovery process.) Just as you created a training plan, so to must you create a recovery plan for healing after overtraining.

Step 1: Seek to reduce inflammation.

How?

- Adequate sleep is imperative! As in, go to bed BEFORE 11 or 12 PM teenagers-that-must-awaken-at-6AM-for-school. (Subtleness is not my strong suit.) Conveniently for us, our bodies restores themselves during the night. They release anabolic hormones (building hormones) such as growth hormone (clever name) and sleep helps reduce the amount of catabolic (breaking down) hormones such as cortisol. Since increased levels of coritsol are part of the overtrained symptom list, it would be a good thing to get those levels under control!

- Eat whole foods. Particularly load up on vegetables (such as kale) and fruits (like berries) that are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Apparently Gold Milk has those, too and, according to Jarrett, helps him sleep. Bonus! Lean protein sources like fatty fish, chicken breast, and leaner beef (grass-fed if you can get it) will not only help provide the much-needed protein for muscle rebuilding but also will supply  healthy fats that also help reduce inflammation.

- Drink lots of water. Water helps the body flush toxins and damaged tissues/cells out and keeps the body’s systems running smoothly. Water also lubricates your joints, which if they’re beat up already, the extra hydration will help them feel better and repair more quickly. A good goal is half your body weight in ounces of water guzzled.

Step 2: Take a week off

You’re muscles are not going shrivel up, lose your skill/speed, nor will your body swell up with fat. Take 5-7 days and rejuvenate. Go for a couple walks, do mobility circuits, play a pick-up basketball game… do something that’s NOT your normal training routine and just let your body rest. Remember, the further you wade into the murky waters of overtraining, the longer it will take to slog your way out.

Step 3: Learn from your mistakes.

While you’re taking your break, examine what pushed you over the edge. Was it too high of a volume and/or intensity? Was it too many days without rest? Was your mileage too high? Are there external factors you’re missing? Were you were stressed out at work/school, not sleeping enough, or maybe you weren’t eating enough or the right foods to support your activity. I’ve learned that I need 2 days of rest per week, any less than that and my performance tanks.

Step 4: Recalculate and execute.

When you’re ready to come back, don’t be a ninny and do exactly what you were doing that got you into this mess in the first place. Hopefully, you learned from your mistake(s) and gained the wisdom to make the necessary changes to avoid overtraining in the first place. Here, let’s learn from my mistake:

I overtrained; and I mean, I really overtrained. I had all the symptoms (mental and physical) for months and months. I was a walking ball of inflammation, every joint hurt, I was exhausted mentally and physically (and, decided to make up for my exhaustion by pushing myself even harder.) I ignored all the warning signs. This intentional stupidity led to my now permanent injuries (torn labrums in both hips, one collapsed disc in my spine, and two bulging discs). The body is pretty resilient, but it can only take so much. I ended up taking four months off, completely, from any activity beyond long walks. (That was terrible by the way. I hated every minute but knew it was necessary.) When I did come back, I had to ease into it. Very. Very. Slowly. Even then, I think I pushed it a bit too much. It took me almost 2 years to return to my normal physical and mental state. (Well, outside of the permanent injuries. Those I just work around now.) Learn from my mistake.

So how can we avoid overtraining? Here are simple strategies:

1. Eat enough and the right foods to support your activities.

2. Take rest days. Listen to your body. If you need to rest, rest. If you need to scale back your workout, do so.

3. Keep workouts on the shorter side. Avoid marathon weight lifting sessions (trust me). Keep it to 1-1.5 hours. Max. Sprint sessions shouldn’t exceed 15-20 minutes.

4. Sleep. High quality sleep should be a priority in your life. If it isn’t, you need to change that.

5. Stay on top of your SMR and mobility work. I wrote about SMR here and here.

6. Train towards specific goals. You can’t be a marathon runner and a power lifter. Pick one to three goals (that don’t conflict with each other) and train towards them. You can’t do everything at once.

Armed with the knowledge of overtraining prevention, rest, recover, and continue in greatness!

Overtraining Part 1

For the next month we'll have posts regarding the total athletic picture ranging from specific training techniques to what athletes can do outside of training to improve performance. Today we'll kick it off with a post about over training. Wha?? What does THAT have to do with athletic performance? Well, my friends, we live in an era where the attitude I'm-so-tired-I-can-barely-move mentality constitutes a "good workout"; an era where the adage "pain is weakness leaving the body," is plastered on every high school athletic t-shirt and perpetuates the notion that only utter exhaustion means "progress." This is not to say that no pain is warranted, but that excessive, persistent joint and muscle pain is NOT. We can be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a hardy work out? Who doesn’t like to train hard, pwn some weight (or mileage if you’re a distance person), and conquer the physical goals you’ve set for yourself?

I know I do.

However, sadly, there can be too much of a good thing. We may be superheroes in our minds, but sometimes our bodies see it differently. Outside of the genetic freaks   who can hit their training hard day after day (I’m a bit envious…), most of us will reach the realm of overtraining. I should note, that for many competitive athletes (college, elite, and professional levels) there is a constant state of overtraining, but it’s closely monitored. But, this post is designed for the rest of us, including middle school and high school athletes (all of whom think they are invincible).

Hopefully, after today’s post, you’ll be able to recognize the symptoms and thus stop the process. Next post, we’ll talk about strategies to avoid over training as well as correcting and reversing the effect.

Now, everyone is different and not everyone will experience every symptom or perhaps experience it in varying degrees depending on your state of training. These are general symptoms that you/parents/coaches should keep an eye out for.

Symptoms:

1.  Repeated failure to complete/recover in a normal workout- I’m not talking about a failed rep attempt or performing an exercise to failure. This is a routine training session that you’re dragging through and you either can’t finish it or your recovery time between sets is way longer than usual. For distance trainees, this may manifest as slower pace, your normal milage seems way harder than usual, or your heart rate is higher than usual during your workout.

2. Lifters/power athletes: inability to relax or sleep well at night- Overtraining in power athletes or lifters (any athlete outside of triathletes or cross country runners/bikers, I'm looking at you, playing-year-round-northern Virginia kids) results in an overactive sympathetic nervous response (the “fight or flight” system). If you’re restless (when you’re supposed to be resting), unable to sleep well, have an elevated resting heart rate, or have an inability to focus (even during training or practice), those are signs that your sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive. It’s your body’s response to being in a constantly stressful situation, like training, that it refuses to relax and stays in the sympathetic state.

3. Endurance athletes: fatigue, sluggish, and weak feeling- Endurance athletes experience parasympathetic overdrive (the “rest and digest” system). Symptoms include elevated cortisol (stress hormone that isn’t bad, but shouldn’t be at chronically high levels), decreased testosterone levels (more noticeable in males), increase fat storage or inability to lose fat, or chronic fatigue (mental and physical).

4. Body composition shifts away from leanness- Despite training hard and eating well,  you’re either not able to lose body fat, or worse, you start to gain what you previously lost. Being overtrained results in elevated cortisol levels (for both kinds of athletes). Cortisol, among other things, increases insulin resistance which promotes fat storage and inhibits fat loss.

5. Sore/painful joints, bones, or limbs- Does the thought of walking up stairs make you groan with the anticipated creaky achiness you’re about to experience? If so, you’re probably overtraining. Whether it be with weights or endurance training, you’re body is taking a beating and if it doesn’t have adequate recovery time, that’s when tendiosis, tendoitis, bursitis, and all the other itis-es start to set in. The joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are chronically inflamed and that equals pain. Maybe it’s not pain (yet) but your muscles feel heavy and achy. It might be a good time to rethink you’re training routine…

6. Getting sick more often- Maybe it's not the flu, but perhaps the sniffles, a sore throat, or a fever here and there; these are signs your immune system is depressed. This can be a sneaky one especially if you eat right (as in lots of kale), sleep enough, and drink plenty of water (I’m doing all the right things! Why am I sick??). Training is a stress on the system and any hard training session will depress the immune system for a bit afterwards. Not a big deal if you’re able to recover after each training session… but if you’re overtraining, your body never gets that recovery time. Hence, a chronically depressed immune system… and that’s why you have a cold for the 8th time in two months.

7. You feel like garbage- You know the feeling: run down, sluggish, not excited to train… NOOOOO!!!!! Training regularly, along with eating well and sleeping enough, should make you feel great. However, if you feel like crap… something is wrong.

Those are some of the basic signs of overtraining. There are more, especially as an athlete drifts further and further down the path of fatigue, but these are the initial warning signs your body gives you to tell you to stop what you’re doing or bad things will happen.

Next time, we’ll discuss ways to prevent and treat overtraining.