I almost died from working out too much. True story. I was 26 and didn’t have an expert coach guiding me. I was going through a lot of stress and anguish at the time. I was also trying to out-train my bad diet. Pushing my body made me forget my emotional pain in exchange for physical pain. I did multiple classes, tons of running, and even completed long ruck marches. It took going to the hospital 4 times to finally make a change. I listened to my Coaches (and brothers) Brent and John. They helped me realize that there was a better way that would help me train healthy for a lifetime. When Coach Adrian wrote the following article, I knew I had to share. He teaches you how to spot the signs of over training and gives you tips to avoid it.
You do not have to navigate this alone. Consult your expert coaches at Camp Rhino before adding extra training to your regimen. They are there to help! You get a Goal Setting session every 90 days with your coach as part of your membership, so be sure you are booking yours to help guide you towards your big goals. – Julie, Owner Camp Rhino
It was the end of April 2016, and I was closing out the first month of training for IRONMAN Louisville. I stepped off for another routine interval training session at a local park and noticed a strange pain on the top of my left foot. I thought nothing of it and the words “train through it” popped into my head. So I did exactly that and sure enough the pain only progressed, and during my next interval my right Achilles tendon felt like it was going to rip clean off of my heel. I had to stop. I immediately thought, “What the hell is going on? I’ve been feeling great lately with no pain and hardly any muscle soreness. I’ve been getting a decent amount of sleep each night. My nutrition is on point. I’ve been progressing my training volume steadily. This doesn’t make any sense.” Yet I failed to take into account the following factors:
- What I thought was enough sleep for me was not enough sleep
- I woke up every morning realizing I had to go to a job that I didn’t particularly like, which initiated a pattern of negative self-talk every day
- Most of my training was anaerobic (i.e. high-intensity) in nature, with very few easy, recovery-paced workouts
- The time I spent “recovering” at home on the couch was not a beneficial use of my spare time
- I had transitioned from motion-control shoes to zero-drop shoes far too quickly
Angry and frustrated, I turned to my good friend and mentor, Rob Wilson, owner of Performance Therapeutics located in Virginia Beach, for advice. As I sat in his office with an EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) unit attached to my legs, Rob dissected my training schedule. He asked me one simple yet powerful question: “What is your goal?” What did this have to do with the physical pain I was experiencing? EVERYTHING.
At that point in my training, I had been doing high-intensity strength and conditioning sessions three times per week while running, swimming, and cycling twice per modality each week. After my recovery session with Rob I quickly realized that I needed to dial down my training, include more recovery-type workouts, focus on quality over quantity, and eliminate some excess cargo from my training plan and everyday life. I didn’t need to do heavy Back Squats and three additional conditioning sessions per week in order to keep up with the other athletes at my gym. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to finish an IRONMAN triathlon. I needed to do just enough strength training in order to support this goal, while turning some of my other conditioning sessions into recovery sessions as needed. How did I do this? I modified exercises, reps, weight, and rest time in order to elicit more of a recovery stimulus vs. a high-intensity stimulus. Your coach can guide you through how to do this for any particular workout where more recovery is needed based on your situation.
The body has fascinating yet infuriating ways of telling us we are doing something wrong. In my case, it was the pain in my foot and Achilles tendon I experienced that day. We need to acknowledge these warning signs and continually remind ourselves of our primary goal and the most effective and practical way of getting there. Going harder may not always better. This leads me to the main topic of this article. What are Overtraining and Underrecovery, how do they differ, and how can you use this information to improve your training and performance?
Overtraining and Underrecovery are similar, but there are some differences. Think of your physical performance as falling somewhere along a continuum. On one side of the continuum is something called Training Overload. At its simplest, training overload is an instance where you subject your body to some sort of stress it’s not used to (e.g. 5 x 10 Back Squats @ 60% of your 1 rep-max). After you do this workout, you allow your body to recover for a couple days before doing it again. The muscles and bones recover, get stronger, and come back able to do the same workout with greater ease the second time.
Now, consider the following situation. What if you came back the next day after doing the 5 x 10 squat workout and did 5 x 10 at the same weight again, and then again the next day. What do you think would happen? Your performance would begin to decline because you are not allowing enough time for the body to recover. This part of the spectrum would be something called Functional Overreaching (FOR). It is traditionally planned at certain times of an athlete’s season for the purpose of breaking an athlete down for days to weeks before a big event, then allowing the athlete a somewhat extended period of recovery/taper time so that he/she comes into the event at peak condition. This is a very structured process and must be used carefully, and an athlete’s condition must be monitored closely to avoid the following part of the spectrum.
If training continues in this fashion for too long, without an adequate recovery cycle, something called Nonfunctional Overreaching (NFOR) may ensue. This has also been used interchangeably with the term Underrecovery. NFOR or Underrecovery is described as training for the sake of training, with no change in performance or improvement, which can result in stagnated performance and never getting faster, better, stronger, or happier with your results (Greenfield, 2014). This stagnation and decrease in performance may continue for several weeks or months, and some symptoms of this stage include increased fatigue, decreased vigor, and hormonal disturbances (Haff & Triplett, 2016).
Finally, although difficult to differentiate between the two conditions, if NFOR continues without sufficient rest, this may lead to what is called Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). OTS can be defined as excessive frequency, volume, or intensity of training that results in extreme fatigue, illness, or injury (which is often due to lack of sufficient rest, recovery, and perhaps nutrient intake (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Other terms that have been used to describe this condition are burnout, chronic overwork, staleness, unexplained underperformance syndrome, and overfatigue. This is a much more serious condition and will require an extended period of rest and recovery to prevent serious injury. It’s difficult to actually identify this condition with any one factor, as it’s multifactorial, meaning it’s not as simple as saying “I’m always tired so I must be overtrained.” Your training and physical condition must be looked at as a whole. You should consider all of the following factors if you are trying to determine if OTS is present:
- Is unexplained underperformance present?
- Is there persistent fatigue?
- Is there increased sense of effort during training?
- Are you having lots of trouble sleeping?
- Do you have a loss of appetite?
- Is your resting blood pressure and heart rate higher than normal?
- Has your training volume or intensity increased significantly in the past weeks?
- Have you been doing a lot of the same exercise?
- Have you been competing frequently?
- Do you have any psychological symptoms (e.g. decreased motivation and confidence, increased levels of tension, depression, anger, confusion, anxiety, and irritability)?
- If you get your hormones tested, has your testosterone:cortisol ratio been lowered for an extended period of time? This is not a diagnostic tool, but can help with early recognition if considered with other factors.
In summary, Overtraining Syndrome is a much more serious condition compared to the other stages of the spectrum, and if you ever get to that point, it was a long time coming. We’re talking about the accumulation of many life stressors (i.e. physical training, psychological stress, lack of sleep, inadequate diet, etc.) for many months that would get you to the point of OTS.
It is up to each of us to monitor our recovery status throughout our training using the tools and knowledge we have to keep ourselves from reaching a state of OTS. If we manage our recovery effectively we can expect to see our performance improve and have a better overall quality of life. We will be happier, stronger, and more energetic on a daily basis.
Let me leave you with some tips that will help you maximize your recovery and avoid overtraining:
- Sleep, Sleep, Sleep! Physical training places stress on the body, which is the mechanism for adaptation to occur. Deep sleep is where the adaptation to that stress is solidified and our bodies are repaired both physically and psychologically. Do not underestimate a good night of sleep or the power of a mid-day nap.
- Think you can out-train a bad diet? Think again. I don’t know of anyone that would put less than premium fuel in a Ferrari. So why would you put fast-food and processed junk into your body expecting to perform and recover at a higher level? Maybe that’s a bad analogy, but you get the idea. There are certain times where processed, quick calorie and carb foods are necessary for quick refueling, but most people do not train at that high a level. In general, think about cleaning out your pantry and fridge, replace the junk with whole, nutritious food, and reserve the junk snacks/meals for special occasions like nights out or family gatherings, for example.
- Move and Mobilize. Our bodies were made to move. Consider buying a standing desk if you’re sitting all day at work, keep your muscles warm by wearing compression gear, and do foam rolling daily.
- Minimize Stress. We all deal with stress at home, at work, on the way to work, in the gym, and in our personal lives. The body does not differentiate these sources of stress (Greenfield, 2014). They will compound and beat you into submission if you let them. Experiment with a stress-management tool (e.g. Epsom salt bath, yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathwork) and create a routine for yourself.
- Less or lighter may be more. There are so many different training methods to help you achieve your goals. Whichever you choose, be sure to always revert back to your goal and ensure that your training methods are in line with this goal. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that one more hard training session is what you need. If your body is so beat that you aren’t able to accomplish the goal of the training session (i.e. the intended stimulus), perhaps you should turn it into a recovery session instead.
After my painful interval training session I had to back off the running and strength training for a week and rethink my training plan. My ultimate goal was accomplished five months later but had I continued along my original route things could’ve been much worse. Overtraining and Underrecovery can result in months of detraining (i.e. not being able to train, thus losing fitness) due to exhaustion and injury. They are not something that should be taken lightly. However, if you monitor your body’s response to training and recover appropriately, you are well on your way to reaching that next big goal you have set for yourself.
Haff GG and Triplett TN. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning”. (2016) Human Kinetics.
Greenfield B. “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health, and Life”. (2014) Victory Belt Publishing.
About the Author:
Coach Adrian is a former U.S. Naval Officer and Health & Fitness Professional with over three years of coaching experience. He holds a master’s degree in Kinesiology and is certified through several top organizations including the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), USA Triathlon, and Precision Nutrition. His mission is to help people of all backgrounds and fitness levels achieve their potential by providing high-quality health and fitness coaching.