If you are serious about training, be it for sport, fitness or aesthetics, you will no doubt have been through periods of feeling run-down, fatigued and generally a bit crap. I know from personal experience that during these times my progress in the gym has often stalled or even gone backwards and it becomes harder and harder to perform during training. Does that sound familiar?
Overtraining is a condition whereby we see under-performing despite continued training. We can one week be making great progress then the next, things start to slide off. We start to feel tired, fatigued and find it harder and harder to perform at full capacity during our sessions. Overtraining appears to be a stress response to chronic fatigue.
You may experience altered moods, things get your goat more easily than usual, your immune system will be compromised (making you more susceptible to injury and infection) and you will have increased cortisol (stress hormone) in your blood profile.
If our training load is too high, we don’t get enough good quality food through our diet or have adequate rest between training sessions then our bodies can become over-stressed and inflamed. A little bit of stress and inflammation is a good thing and it is the bodies response to it that induces adaptation. A healthy person should be adequately equipped to deal with this type of inflammation (known as acute inflammation) through its natural repair process.
The problem arises when we have to deal with chronic low-grade inflammation which can be induced by things like overtraining as well as lifestyle factors like a poor diet or smoking. The body is put into a perpetual state of repair, constantly breaking down damaged tissue but never fully recovering. Endurance athletes are at particular risk here due to the long duration, high repetition nature of their training.
There are three stages of overtraining which can each be characterised by certain symptoms.
- Signs and symptoms can be quite subtle
- Altered mood
- Increased morning heart rate. Is your heart rate elevated when you wake up?
- Weakness, tiredness, undesirable weight loss and waking during the night are all signs of elevated stress levels
- Increased rate of perceived exertion
- A diminished libido due to a drop in testosterone levels. Your body knows when something is wrong and has the ability to drop interest in sex to focus on more important things like recovering from chronic fatigue
- Irregular periods can be a symptom for women
- An over reliance on stimulants like caffeine
- You start having trouble getting up in the morning
- Feeling of fatigue throughout the day
- Loss of appetite
- You feel more awake in the evening rather than the morning
- Your enthusiasm for training drops
- Your sleep/wake cycle is put out of sync
- This is the final stage of overtraining
- All of the symptoms from stages 1 and 2
- You become exhausted neurologically and experience ‘brain drain’
- You start to feel very weak
- You feel like jacking training in completely
The further you are into the stages, the longer your period of recovery.
The first step in remedying overtraining is to reduce the length of your sessions by 50-70% (depending on the severity of your symptoms). Walking is the only thing that will be suitable as it can stimulate your aerobic muscles and can be quite relaxing. Meditation or yoga will also be hugely beneficial here. Your focus should be on low-impact aerobic activities. When symptoms start to subside then introducing weight back into your training can be done in a timely manner. No more than 60-75% of max weight to be used and for only one working set i.e. warm up, warm up, one working set, done.
Your weekly routine might look like this:
Day 1: Rest and introduce supplementation (listed below)
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Walk
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: One working set of weights, probably in the second week. This will be more like active recovery. 25-30 mins tops.
Day 6: Rest and mobility
Day 7: Walk
You should be monitoring your symptoms to see if they subside during this stage of recovery. In very serious cases it can take 3-6 months for the body to adequately recover and in this period all anaerobic work needs to be avoided. Anaerobic exercise will cause stress and inflammation which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
There are certain foods and supplements which can help you in your recovery. Holy basil, Tulsi tea, Zinc and Alpha GPC will all help with nervous system recovery. Bone broth soups are a firm favourite of mine as they can reduce inflammation courtesy of the compounds extracted from the boiled down cartilage. Obviously green vegetable intake should be kept high because of the vitamin and mineral content, as well should protein at around 2g per kilo of body weight. A higher fat compared to carbohydrate intake may be beneficial as the excess carbs will not be needed because of the decrease in intense exercise. Carbohydrates should be pulsed every few days to top up muscle glycogen stores. This will help protect against muscle atrophy (loss).
An example meal plan for when your pulse your carbs may look like this:
Breakfast: Back bacon, scrambled eggs and a grated zucchini
Lunch: Spiced minced beef with two portions of green veg
Snack: Nut butter and fruit
Dinner: Sweet jacket potato with tuna, avocado and a nice big side salad drizzled in balsamic vinegar
That will top up your glycogen stores and set you up for a good nights sleep.
Just in case you fancy avoiding all of that, here are 8 helpful tips for avoiding overtraining:
- Ensure adequate rest between training sessions. You do not need to train 7 days a week for two hours at a time to reach your goals.
- Know when to take a break. If you start to experience the onset of some of the symptoms outlined at the start of the blog, take a de-load week. It could be that you are just over-tired and need to take your foot off the gas for a week. Cut your training volume and intensity in half then get back to it the following week once you’ve given your body a chance to rest. If you’re performance returns to normal levels then you know you are not suffering from overtraining.
- Ensure that your green vegetable intake is kept high. I would shoot for two fistfuls per meal for males and one for females.
- If training and dieting to lose weight then incorporate a re-feed meal every 7-10 days. It will give your body a temporary boost. Ensure it is a nutritionally dense meal like a stack of protein pancakes with ripe bananas, blueberries and organic honey.
- Supplement with zinc and magnesium prior to getting your head down for the night. Not only will they help you relax they are responsible for myriad functions within your body and are often depleted through intense exercise.
- Ensure your calorie intake is high enough to compensate for your training load. If you start to lose weight rapidly then look at your diet and decide if you are getting enough or not.
- Make sure your sleep is spot on. You should be getting a solid 8 hours sleep every night between the hours of 10.30pm and 6.30am. Any less and your recovery will suffer.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If your goal is weight loss, don’t drop calories, do boxercise and 3 hours of cardio per day all at the same time. One thing at a time will ensure you don’t overload your body and compromise your recovery.