Fatigue versus Overtraining
In order to understand when one is merely fatigued from working hard versus risking lasting performance (decreased strength or lost muscle mass), it’s important to understand the continuum used by sports scientists. Appropriate training typically requires less than two weeks for recovery and often leads to performance increases (super-compensation). Though fatigue and weakness may be experienced in the short term, typically there aren’t any negative mood disturbances.4 So, while hardworking athletes will occasionally overdo it and require a break from high-demand training, the recovery is fairly quick and there’s no associated moodiness.
When athletes are seriously pushed past their limits and/or not allowed sufficient time to recover, the decline in performance becomes more serious and the amount of rest needed to return to ‘normal’ is longer— between two to four weeks. Mood disturbances aren’t uncommon and some may experience injuries or be more susceptible to infections (such as colds). This state is called overreaching and represents what most people commonly think of when they refer to being overtrained.5 If the athlete is allowed to reduce his training demands and receives adequate rest, this often passes without much consequence. However, it’s vital to spot these signs immediately and intervene, to prevent the decline from progressing to the more chronic stage of overtraining.
Overtraining shares the same signs and symptoms as overreaching, so far as the research has been able to determine, but differs in that even with reduced training and increased rest, the performance decline persists for weeks to months.5 Obviously, for a person who identifies closely with his level of fitness or competitiveness, this could precipitate a very negative emotional response. Mood disturbances may be seen in overtrained individuals with injuries, and illness being reported in many cases.4 Overtrained individuals often exacerbate (worsen) the condition by working harder when they see their performance decline, increasing their training demands in the hopes that the body might respond positively.
Unfortunately, it’s like beating a dead horse.6 On the other end of the extreme, some individuals may become so demoralized by their performance that they lose interest in training altogether and abandon all fitness pursuits.
It’s interesting to note in the science literature that there’s no accepted diagnostic marker for overreaching or overtraining.1 This means one can’t check blood markers, hormone levels or urine samples to monitor if one’s training is appropriate or at risk. There have been many markers suggested by a number of papers, but unfortunately, most of the same markers are present in appropriately-trained athletes as well. The three tests that seemed to be of significant value are: urinary catecholamines (metabolites of adrenalin), serum glutamine and mood, as measured by the profile of mood states (POMS) questionnaire.7-9 One difficulty with these measures is that it works best if a baseline value is obtained to look for the trend, rather than absolute glutamine or catecholamine levels.1
Though it remains difficult to determine exactly who’s overtrained and when it occurs, there are signs that predictably lead up to the condition. Noted researcher H. Selye states that “Stress shows itself as a specific syndrome, yet is non-specifically induced…”10 Many experts believe, “[Overtraining] is felt to be the result of an accumulation of stressors that exceed an athlete’s finite resistance capacity.”1 Interestingly, these stressors aren’t only physical, but may be social, emotional or mental as well. In addition to high-demand training and inadequate rest, the list of potential stressors includes: frequent competition, monotonous training, psychosocial stressors, illness/infection and heavy travel schedules.11 Common sense would dictate that inadequate nutrition and recreational drug use should also be listed.
How Much is Too Much?
Knowing now what overreaching and overtraining are, how does that aid in avoiding or recovering from the conditions? The most basic step is to track performance. Without knowing from day-to-day or week-to-week what is ‘normal,’ it’s impossible to note when performance begins to suffer. So, those who truly want long-term success must begin by planning and documenting performance. Are improvements being seen? When do they stop? How much is too much when it comes to training?
Knowing the performance standards, one can then monitor the simple equation of training and rest. Training demands can become greater by increasing training volume or intensity. Training volume, in the simplest terms, is the number of sets performed during a weight-training session. Obviously, a 20-set training session is much more demanding than six to 12 sets. Demands are also related to the amount of effort put into each set. Sets of 10 at 60 percent of 1 RM (one-rep max) are fairly easy, but a set of 10 at 75 percent of 1 RM certainly taxes the system more. Both methods are used, in addition to changing exercise routines, to induce muscle response (increases in size and strength).
The other side of the equation is rest. Most people train each body part one or two times a week, allowing the muscle groups to recover between sessions. Those who have trained the same muscle group daily rapidly discover that the response is quite negative, with tendon strain, muscle soreness and resulting weakness. Even whole-body rest is necessary, as seven days a week of intense training, even when divided between body parts, is too much. This is why many laborers who are employed in physically demanding jobs can’t train well. It’s also why strength coaches frown upon, or even forbid, strength training during the competitive season for athletes.
Most strength coaches employ a periodization approach to training, pushing an athlete hard for one to three weeks, followed by a week of relative rest (training at a lower volume and intensity). Over time, the athlete responds with progressive increases in strength. This exemplifies the value of tracking performance and adapting to the response.
Considering that the stressors that may lead to overtraining include many issues that aren’t directly related to training, it’s important to watch carefully when life conditions change (upcoming wedding, relationship difficulties, financial trouble, etc.). Even though it sounds like voodoo, incorporating some form of stress management into your daily schedule may actually offer training benefits. Whether it’s relaxing music, meditation or even just a peaceful stroll around a lake, finding a way to de-stress is important. Further, a regular sleep schedule is also necessary, as disrupted sleep patterns lead to all sorts of metabolic misfortunes.13