Understanding “Overtraining Syndrome” And 10 Steps To Overcome It

By Shannon Grady, M.S. Exercise Physiology – CEO/Founder GO! Athletics

Experiencing “Overtraining” symptoms can be scary, confusing, and frustrating so which path to take from a training standpoint is even more confusing. Do more? Do less? Rest more? Rest less? Knowing which will be the answer to turning performances around is not easy.

Amongst the sports science and medical research on the topic of “Overtraining Syndrome” there are no truly defined parameters or conclusive laboratory findings to diagnose “Overtraining Syndrome.”  Most athletes are considered to be “overtrained” by subjective and unmeasurable parameters such as: fatigue, performance plateaus, appetite decreases, or muscle soreness. “Overtraining Syndrome” is simply deemed by symptoms alone and often times no real physiological markers or baselines are available to compare the athlete when they are considered “appropriately” trained versus “overtrained”.

The topic of “Overtraining Syndrome” has always been an area in which diagnosis is unclear, treatment is misguided and the detrimental effects on athletes can be acute, benign, or long-term with serious health implications. Athletes are generally deemed “overtrained” if they have had several months of plateaued or declined performances and the following symptoms: general feelings of fatigue, restlessness, elevated resting heart rate, abnormal stress hormone levels such as cortisol, and lack of motivation to train. These common symptoms are some of many possible reactions from chronic energy imbalance and the inability for an athlete to return to homeostasis (stable condition of bodily functions which enable optimal functioning of human performance) upon cessation of exercise. They may not actually appear until an athlete has been in an energy imbalanced state for at least two months while physiological profile testing can detect acute energy imbalance in as little as 7-10 days.

I refer to this common condition as inappropriately trained versus “overtrained.”  Often times the training may be an appropriate amount, but due to lack of necessary fuel, recovery days, iron, ferritin, hematocrit, hemoglobin, red blood cell count, as well as other life stressors the athlete is experiencing, the training stress is now inappropriate for that athlete’s current metabolic status.  When the training load is inappropriately prescribed for an athlete’s current metabolic status for two months or more, they will display common signs and symptoms of “overtraining.” While the actual amount of training might be appropriate for an athlete who is adequately fueled and rested there really are no signs and symptoms to tell a coach or athlete otherwise until it’s too late and homeostasis has been disrupted.  Symptoms of “overtraining” come about when an athlete is simply putting out more energy (training volume and intensity) than they are putting in (fuel and rest) for more than 2 months. Repeatedly putting out more energy than you put in will cause the body to be bioenergetically limited in its ability to restore glycogen (carbohydrates stored in the muscles and liver) on a daily basis.

If humans want to go fast, humans need glycogen, there is no way or trick to escape that metabolic fact.  Glycogen is the high octane of performance racing.  Glycogen is the main fuel that drives fast performances and without proper recovery (up to 36 hours between intensive or long efforts) glycogen stores can not be replenished fully.  If an athlete burns glycogen too often too frequently that tank will never fill up and it will be chronically depleted. Fortunately for humans, unlike our cars, if we run out of high octane glycogen, we don’t just stop, we never stop, we can keep pushing cause we are tougher than tough.  Well, of course we can, because the human metabolic system will adapt for SURVIVAL purposes. Humans won’t just fall over and die if our good fuel is gone, oh no, our species luckily has adapted for these scenarios. High performing fast humans are genetically superior in that they have two dominant energy systems where both the anaerobic and aerobic systems are strong.  Genetically inferior humans only have one strong energy system which is the aerobic system. Fortunately for our species, everyone has a metabolism that can adapt to inferior slower burning, longer lasting aerobic fuel so we do not die immediately if glycogen runs out but our performances will surely and noticeably suffer. Humans have no choice but to move slower if there is no high octane glycogen available. No amount of mental willpower can overcome this deficit and make you move faster.   Most competitive humans have the mental willpower that often ignores and overrides less subtle physiological signals to SLOW DOWN, until there is a bigger more noticable problem such as a string/slew of bad performances which often lead an injury that eventually forces us to STOP.

An athlete being energetically imbalanced (more out than in) for as little as 7 days can cause measurable physiological, metabolic, and performance changes. Depending on the severity and extent of energy imbalance, it can take months of no activity and proper fueling to return to normal physiological and metabolic status.  The first sign of energy imbalance is typically repeated slower performances. Unfortunately, human competitive nature is to think we have not worked hard enough so we should do more to get faster but in actuality we most often just need to do less to get back in energy balance and to run faster.  A common scenario of underperformance often leads to more work and digging athletes deeper into energy imbalance.

The training load is the major variable that a coach and athlete CAN control which is the most challenging stressor for human homeostatic feedback systems. If the training load is beyond what an individual can handle given their current metabolic state, the ability for the body to maintain homeostasis post workout will become increasingly more challenging. If one is experiencing “overtraining” symptoms, most likely one is in energy imbalance and needs to restore glycogen, adjust current training volume/intensity and perform a seven day food log to be sure you are eating enough calories and carbohydrates to fuel training demands.  

10 Steps To Overcome “Overtraining” Symptoms: Adjusting training volume and intensity is simple.  Below is a basic Non-Glycogen Depleting Training (NGDT) guideline which I recommended for at least two months to help overcome “overtraining” symptoms and also start improving performances.

  1. Food log for at least 7 days to track total calories and carbohydrate intake.
  2. Take at least 2 complete REST days per week.
  3. Total running volume should be LESS than 60 minutes per day.
  4. Running intensity should be very EASY and conversational on steady runs (Zone 1 to Zone 2 low).
  5. Incorporate 1-3k of Economy Intervals (20-60 second intervals @ current 5k pace with 20-60 seconds rest) 1-2 times per week.
  6. Never run on EMPTY.  Fuel at least 100-200 calories within 1 hour before every run with solid or liquid calories.
  7. ALWAYS refuel.  Eat or drink at least 100-200 calories with at least 50 grams of CARBOHYDRATES within 1 hour post run.
  8. After 8 weeks, resume normal training volume and intensity with caution.  Start with 50% of typical volume and intensity for 2 weeks, 75% for 2 weeks and then 100%.  
  9. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.  Add bonus energy with 10-20 minute power naps.
  10. If possible, get a Physiological Profile test which will give exact measures of current energy balance.

*This is an example for a runner but we can provide guidelines for any sport.

Happy Training!

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