Aside from monitoring training and rest, it may be of value to consider some basic dietary guidelines as well, especially if recovery seems delayed or there’s an unexplained decrease in performance.
Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored in muscles and the liver, providing much of the energy that’s used during weight training. The popularity of low-carb diets, zero-calorie sweeteners and hypocaloric dieting for fat loss all contribute to the possibility that athletes aren’t replenishing glycogen stores between workout sessions— and may be at a perpetual disadvantage at the beginning of each training session. Consuming a high-glycemic post-workout shake, with whey protein and dextrose, will ensure that glycogen stores are replenished during this crucial time period.14, 15
In addition to glycogen stores, the amino acid pool (nutrients that form protein) of muscle is also depleted with intense exercise. Many studies have proven the value of consuming a high-protein shake immediately post-workout for maintaining muscle strength during high-volume training.16 Additionally, consuming a small portion of branched-chain amino acids, particularly leucine, shortly before training, appears to offer even greater benefit.17
Glutamine is a very important amino acid for muscle cell metabolism and the immune system and serves as a gluconeogenic substrate for the liver (or it can be turned into sugar during periods with low blood sugar). As was noted earlier, its levels in the blood are noted to drop consistently in overtrained individuals.18 Supplementing with glutamine during periods of intense training may protect against this happening.
Another amino acid that has been suggested to protect against the oxidative damage created by exercise is L-cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid involved in the antioxidant process, which protects cells from free radical damage. Supplementing with L-cysteine has been shown to decrease certain forms of cell damage during forced exercise.19 The addition of reasonable levels of other antioxidants would likely be of additional value, including vitamins C and E, as well as lipoic acid.
Though it’s often forgotten due to its familiarity, creatine supplementation during high-frequency training appears to protect against losses of strength or power in conditions that would otherwise induce overreaching.20
Surprisingly, there’s not much evidence that hormonal levels change in overreaching or overtraining. One well-regarded study suggests that overtrained individuals experience a hypothalamic impairment, meaning that the body doesn’t monitor certain hormones correctly.21 Interestingly, it’s cortisol (the catabolic steroid) and growth hormone (GH) that appear to be most affected. Testosterone levels appear to decline during overreaching, though there are conflicting reports in the literature.22
There’s no defined protocol treating this set of symptoms, but it’s possible that the use of pregnenolone (a precursor to DHEA) may aid in maintaining both cortisol and testosterone. Pregnenolone is enzymatically converted into cortisol in the adrenal glands and it appears to promote the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormones from the hypothalamus.23 Zinc supplementation is promoted to aid in maintaining testosterone levels during high-demand training, but this has been disputed.24 Arginine, another amino acid, plays a role in GH release, but there’s no research available to determine whether it would prevent or treat the hormonal disturbance that occurs during overtraining.25
Allowing the Body to Recover
Overtraining exists in every gym and nearly everyone will experience it at some point in his training career. Knowing it’s related to the balance between training and recovery supports the concept of varying training volume and intensity on a regular basis. Monitoring your workouts is vital, as recognizing the decline in performance is the first level of defense against overtraining. If fatigue and a performance decline persist for more than two weeks, despite increasing rest, then overreaching has set in. Rather than pushing harder, it’s important to allow the body to recover.
Adding a high-glycemic, whey protein and carb shake will help replenish muscle glycogen and amino acid pools. Antioxidants, glutamine and possibly a few other supplements may aid in recovery, but the most important ingredients to the recovery recipe are time and attention. Hopefully, the experience will provide guidelines for the future as to how much is too much. This topic can’t be overstressed, as the competitive and demanding nature of most fitness-oriented men often places them at risk for overtraining.