How do you feel after your workout? Are you physically and psychologically ready to pursue your next workout with renewed energy levels and mental clarity? Or are you exhausted and experiencing the same fatigue 72 hours after your workout, coupled with aching joints, mental confusion and lack of confidence? If you are, you may be experiencing what sports nutrition physiologists refer to as the overtraining syndrome.
According to many exercise physiologists, it is important for athletes and health enthusiasts to remember that although hard physical training and exercise can improve your performance and health, in order to reach those plateaus, there is a critical phase in one’s routine that must not be overlooked. This critical phase is that of recovery. During this phase, in response to your physical efforts, there must be a maximal reloading of the cardiovascular output (the heart’s efficiency) and muscular systems (increasing glycogen stores, recharged mitochondrial muscular energy systems). Without adequate attention to this end stage of your physical output, you will never reach your long-term performance goals, safely and effectively.
When is Too Much Too Much?
The overtraining syndrome is described as a state of burnout as a result of the combined negative emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms that occur as a result of persistent training without proper recovery. The usual first sign of this syndrome is persistent fatigue that exists after several rest periods. During this period, regardless of what the common thought may be, you will cease to make progress and your performance will hit the wall and decline. This is a direct result of the volume and intensity of your exercise routine, which supersedes your ability to recover from it.
Signs of Overtraining
While the most significant symptom of overtraining as stated is fatigue, researchers insist that knowing the overall signs of overtraining is extremely important, as many symptoms are not immediately realized. For example, changes in mental attitude and personality, as well as changes in sleep patterns and gastrointestinal disturbances (soft stools and diarrhea) can change steadily. Other subtle physiological changes of overtraining include reduced immune function (frequent colds, generalized flu-like symptoms) as well as elevated morning blood pressure and waking pulse rate. More pronounced aspects of overtraining include:
- Blood sugar abnormalities,
- Decreased muscle size and strength,
- Headaches and anxiety,
- Hand tremors,
- General malaise, and moodiness,
- Longer time to recover,
- Increased susceptibility to injury,
- Muscle soreness and joint tenderness,
- Irritability and increased defiance,
- Loss of appetite,
- Depression and loss of motivation.
The Physiological Problems of Overtraining
Despite the signs and symptoms of overtraining, deep within cellular structures, disturbances to normal physiology continue to mount. Changes in the body’s amino acid pool resulting in negative protein stores or nitrogen balance can cause down-regulation of the immune response, making you susceptible to illness, decreased muscle repair, tone and development. Other problems concern elevated cortisol levels, promoting weight gain and muscle wasting, increased lactic acid production and blood concentration of ACTH (adrenocorticotrophin hormone).
As a point of reference here, ACTH is secreted by the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain. Referred to as the master gland, the pituitary signals the thyroid gland, adrenal glands and ovaries to produce respectively, thyroid hormone, cortisol, estrogen and testosterone. All of these hormones are linked to maintaining proper metabolism, blood pressure, sexuality and reproduction.
The pituitary gland is also responsible for the production of growth hormone, referred to as the internal youth hormone. However, ACTH is secreted as a direct response to stress. Its job is to stimulate cortisol secretion, which helps regulate blood sugar, liver function and immune function. However, as a direct result of continued stress, cortisol levels remain elevated, increasing the risk of infection, high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, muscle wasting and abdominal weight gain.
Minimizing Exercise-induced Stress via Periodization
The process of periodization centers on a structured approach to training or working out using several different progressive cycles of a designed program. The premise of periodization centers on the scientific findings of Hans Selye’s model of stress and the results of non-adaptation to it. Selye, known as the father of stress research, named his model of stress and response to it as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This model has been used by sports physiologists since the early 1950s and consists of three generalized phases of the responses to stress. Those phases of stress response are:
- The Alarm phase (the initial shock the body experiences from mental and or physical stress),
- The Resistance phase (how well the body adapts to the stress),
- The Exhaustion phase (occurs as a result of less-than-optimal repair of depressed systems (cardio, immune, glycogen replenishment, mitochondrial muscle restoration) resulting in physical and mental breakdown.
New Research On Stress
Today as a result of several decades of new and emerging research concerning how stress (either physical and or emotional) affects physiological mechanism changes in body systems, a new model of adaptation has emerged. Based on studies conducted by Dr. Bruce McEwen of Rockerfeller University and the author of The End of Stress As we Know It, the negative aspects associated with overtraining and stress and the body’s ability to adapt to it, Dr. McEwen refers to as exacerbated pathophysiology (destruction and deregulation).
According to Dr. McEwen, the burden of chronic stress and accompanying changes in personal behaviors (smoking, eating and drinking too much, poor quality sleep, and other negative lifestyle factors) is referred to as the allostatic load. Hormones associated with stress and allostatic load protect the body in the short run and promote adaptation by a process referred to as allostasis. However, under constant long-term pressure as a result one’s allostatic load, negative changes in the body’s internal operating mechanisms can lead to malfunction and disease.
Dr. McEwen also reminds us that the brain is the key organ that regulates stress, allostasis, and allostatic load, as it determines what is threatening and therefore stressful. The key aspect here in this mind/body connection is the fact that the brain also determines the physiological and behavioral responses to those stressors.
As I am sure you have surmised here, the key to your long-term performance success is good adaptation to exercise-induced physical and mental stress, without flourishing in the exhaustion phase. In practical terms here, proper recovery represents successful allostasis.
Recovery: The Master Performance Switch
As stated earlier, it is important to realize that proper recovery is the true key to improving performance. Overtraining to continued exhaustion without pre- and post-preparation recovery plans, not only sets you up for failure, it can be detrimental to your health. To flourish in the adaptation phase versus the exhaustion phase of recovery or stress:
- Give yourself time to recover in between your sets.
- Fuel up nutritionally before and after your workout or run.
- Keep yourself well hydrated before your workout, during and after.
- The phrase “no pain, no gain” is outdated; know your limits, start out slow.
- Set up a long-term plan, know your goals daily, and work toward them.
Rising From The Ashes of The Overtraining Matrix
It is important to recognize when you and your perpetual workout routine have gone beyond normal without any organized plan that includes rest and recovery. According to Dr. Philip Maffetone, the author of Human Performance and Training For Endurance, the most insidious factor of overtraining without recovery, is that even a low-intense workout can result in overtraining symptoms as perceived by the body and also the brain as cited earlier by Dr McEwen. Have a well-thought-out workout or exercise plan in place, which provides your body with the right tools that foster proper recovery, as well as reducing your personal allostatic load. This will lead to a leaner, more powerful you!
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