I have written in my blog and lectured about various aspects of overtraining, overreaching, and monitoring athletes over the past 4 years now (like THIS article from February 2010). One statement that I often hear from people, “Overtraining doesn’t really exist. Most people are just a little overreached if anything but people don’t ever really get to a true overtrained state.”
This is a silly statement, of course, as people can absolutely get to a true state of overtraining where serious damage to their bodies take place. Also, many of the individuals who make this statement don’t even monitor anything with the athlete, so I am not sure how they are qualifying whether the athlete is overreached or not anyway.
Recently, I received an email from an athlete who would be considered “overtrained,” and I thought I would share the brief exchange I had with them to give people an idea of what overtraining may look like. Sadly, this is not the first email I have received like this (and it probably wont be the last). I have received several emails or phone calls over the years from people telling me their story and really trying to figure out where to go or what to do in order to get their health back in order. Obviously when you get to a state like this there is the need for medical intervention. Finding a quality sports medicine doctor who understands training (and overtraining) is key.
I read your article on overtraining which is no doubt what I have had for many years actually. Due to the fact my performance has went down and hasn’t come up for three years.
My question to you is what is a person to do if they are over trained? In terms of recovery? And goals of competition again in the year to follow? I should note that I have had kidney pain and infection of the kidney for over a year now and it doesn’t seem to go away. And constant weight gain even with a high level in terms of time and intensity? But not do to over eating.
Thank you and have a nice day
Have you gone to the doctor? This seems like you have really gone past the point of no return here and will need medical intervention.
Yes I have and he doesn’t seem to be concerned. I just keep getting antibiotics for kidney infection. But I think its because of chronic dehydration due to waking up from frequent urination and excessive thirst with no explanation. And doctor can’t explain it.. I wonder if its because of adrenal fatigue?
My Question to the Athlete:
How did you get yourself to this point? What sort of training were you doing?
The Athlete’s Answer:
Well I guess a few years ago (4) years. I had a coach that pushed me really hard for a year and the goal was to be strong and lean so we did a lot of strength training in the gym and long LSD rides and I did get strong and lean. And I was winning races but then I went elite or to you..cat1/2. The following year and in the same time as I was preparing I noticed my weight started going up and every time I trained my legs would be so swollen I couldn’t put my pants on. And my performance was really going down. And so my coaches approach was to increase intensity to develop power so I trained for three years doing 12 hrs a week with a group ride with strong men on Saturdays and Sunday three hour ride and two more days doing one hour hard intervals on trainer and then other days doing endurance stuff for hour and half. I would say I can’t do this I’m too tired and I got told its just mental.. You can do it. I said maybe I’m not eating enough because I’m up all night.. And I got told no don’t eat anymore then your husband or kids would because I will get fat. But I was clearly working harder then they were. And I just got fatter and more sore. Now I don’t know what to do because I’m heavier then ever and even a 45 minute jog and I can’t get pants on because my legs get so swollen. The last few days I’m feeling more tired and sore then ever like having flu or after surgery feeling. Surely the pros don’t have this problem? But I can’t really say when the last time I actually didn’t follow a program. Or have ever had More then a week off.
So….Does Overtraining Really Exist?
This was a terribly extreme case. The individual has been taking antibiotics for a kidney infection that has lasted over a year!! I also wonder what it looked like when their legs were so swollen that they couldn’t pull their pants up! Cases like this are crazy and obviously, the last email above where they described the type of training that got them to this point was upsetting. I can’t believe that, with those sorts of symptoms, the coach would suggest that the athlete is “not tired” and that “it’s just mental”.
While a lot of times athletes may be “overreached” it is important to remember that the line between an overreached state and an overtrained state is a blurry one. Additionally, given the difficulty of diagnosing overtraining syndrome it makes it incredibly challenging to know where your athlete is without monitoring or having a process of evaluating whether training is getting what you want or pushing you further down into the dumps.
The only true difference between overreaching and overtraining is the time it takes for the athlete to recover back to baseline levels. Commonly there is a drop in performance output and when the individual is in an overreached state it may take a week to ten days to recover while an overtrained state may take significantly longer and, as with the case above, it could be over a years time in order to recover – provided that the athlete can find the right medical professional to help them get back on track.
The fact that training breaks us down a little bit should not be of concern. Whenever we train we get two things:
- Fitness – We get more fit. We get stronger. We improve our endurance, etc.
- Fatigue – We break down a little bit. We accrue some fatigue and our body needs to attempt to rally the troops a little bit and help us adapt to the training stimulus we just applied.
As I like to say when it comes to explaining what happens during any training session, “There is always a cost of doing business.”
Sometimes we can train very hard for a week or two and accrue a lot of fatigue and then, when we allow the athlete to recover that fatigue dissipates and there is a rise in performance as the fitness gains, previously being masked by the fatigue that has accumulated from training, now begin to manifest themselves. In this case, a little bit of overreaching provided us with a fitness gain. This sort of training is only possible when we monitor the athlete in order understand how they are adapting (or not adapting) to the training program and when we may be pushing too hard and when we may need to back off (as well as allowing us to also know when we can push harder).
A number of physiological mechanisms seem to be related to overtraining:
- Autonomic nervous system changes
- Glycogen depletion
- Decline in immune function
- Hormonal adaptations (Ex., decreased cortisol response, decreased testosterone : cortisol ratio, etc)
- Increased systemic inflammation
- Changes in cardiovascular response to exercise (Ex., decreases in Max HR and VO2max)
- Changes in mood
- Decreases in performance
- Loss of concetration
- Disturbances in sleep
The number of factors related to overtraining make monitoring the athlete incredibly complex as there are a number of things to consider, hence the reason the diagnosis of overtraining is so difficult. Often the diagnosis can be made only when the athlete has gone off the deep end and their health is in a lot of trouble. To top it off, there are a few different ways of looking at overtraining. Mel Siff, in Supertraining, discussed Local and General Overtraining and other researchers have discussed Basedow and Addison Like Overtraining.
- Local Overtraining – Overtraining specific to a body part or region of the body. This type of overtraining is commonly associated with local tissue or joint pathology due to excessive stress or strain from practice, competition, or training.
- General Overtraining – Overtraining that is more systemic and has an impact on the body overall. While local overtraining may be thought of as being “musculoskeletal”, general overtraining can be thought of as being more physiological. General overtraining can be broken down into Basedow and Addison Like, as I mentioned above.
- Basedow Overtraining – Often referred to as “sympathetic” overtraining for the branch of the autonomic nervous system that tends to predominate when in this state. This type of overtraining is thought to occur due to an imbalance between training and recovery with the addition of high levels of psycho-emotional stress or other non-specific stressors. The way I think about this type of overtraining is that the body is constantly trying to fight in your favor and try and adapt. It is always “on” and “rallying the troops” to adapt to the stress that you are placing on it.
- Addison Like Overtraining – Often referred to as “parasympathetic” overtraining for the branch of the autonomic nervous system that tends to predominate when in this state. This type of overtraining also has to do with an imbalance between training and recovery, however, this type of overtraining is accompanied by a bit of adrenal insufficiency and hormonal alterations. I tend to think of this type of overtraining as your body basically protecting you from yourself. If, in Basedow Overtraining, the body is trying to “rally the troops” and is always “on”, in Addison Like Overtraining the body is basically saying, “I’ve had enough. You need to take a break otherwise you are going to hurt yourself. I am going to make you so tired that you wont want to train. I am going to make you so sore that you wont want to train. I am going to decrease your immune system so that you get sick and are forced to take a break.”
There is a lot to think about when it comes to overtraining. No one has the solution and everyone is still looking for the best methods of evaluation to understand where their athletes are between the lines of fitness and fatigue. In understanding the various physiological factors and types of overtraining we can begin to try and formulate ideas regarding what to monitor and how to evaluate training. Too many people just write training programs, fly blind, and hope for the best. Additionally, a lot of coaches in the profession are only or primarily concerned with the “movement” component of training and they do a great job of evaluating and training it. This sort of focus may go a long way when considering local overtraining but may fall short of truly understanding the athlete without a hollistic, physiological perspective. While the programs may be sound from a movement perspective and they may have good exercise selection and balanced joint movements, this is only one aspect of training that needs to be considered. Understanding physiologically how the athlete is adapting is just as important and will provide the coach with a greater appreciation of overreaching and overtraining.
Hopefully more coaches will begin to look at the various physiological aspects of overtraining and start to create methods of evaluating their athletes to better understand how they are tolerating the stresses we apply to them.