What is "Overtraining" and How to Avoid It

In Brief: Overtraining syndrome is a serious problem marked by decreased performance, increased fatigue, persistent muscle soreness, mood disturbances, and feeling 'burnt out' or 'stale.' The diagnosis of overtraining is usually complicated, there are no exact diagnostic criteria, and physicians must rule out other diseases before the diagnosis can be made. An orthostatic challenge shows promise as a diagnostic tool, but the subjective feelings of the patient remain one of the most reliable early warning signs. Prevention is still the best treatment, and certain subjective and objective parameters can be used by athletes and their trainers to prevent overtraining. Further studies are needed to find a reliable diagnostic test and determine if proposed aids to speed recovery will be effective.
Overtraining is the trainee's number one "enemy" next to training injuries. Overtraining results from an imbalance between the amount of stress applied to your body, and your ability to adapt to it. Overtraining results in losses in size and strength and actually also increases the probability of illness.

Overtraining. What is it? Its the #1 reason most of the people in your gym look like they have never stepped into a gym before in their life. Its the reason most people don't see the gains they want, and give up right away. Its what you DON'T want to do.

Think of it like this. Pretend your body is a car. Lets say on Monday, you crashed into a tree. Yeah, theres a little dent in the car, but it still runs fine. And then the day after, on Tuesday, you crash it again. Well, the car isn't running as good anymore. Its going slower, and doesn't look too good. What you needed to do, was bring the car into the shop on Monday after you crashed the first time and give it time to get fixed. You see, you can crash your car every Monday, just as long as you give it time to be fixed, and it will still run fine.

Your body works the same way. When i first went to the gym, i knew nothing. I did 20 sets of bicep curls like 4 times a week. Do you know what happened? I saw absolutely no gains, and gave up.

You see, your muscles don't grow when they are being worked, they grow when they are resting. You need to work your muscles in the gym, then give them time to recover, and then work them again, then recover, etc. Each time they get worked, and then recover they get stronger and bigger. Each time you work them, and then work them again before they had time to recover, they get weaker and stay the same, and sometimes even get smaller.

You can do the best exercises, with the best form for years, and still see no gains if your doing too much. So, what do you do? LESS! In this sport, more is not more. Less is more. It might sound hard to believe, but the less you do the better. Now don't get me wrong, don't think 5 minutes of working out 1 time a month is going to do anything. But working out 7 times a week, for 2-3 hours each time, doing 5 exercises per muscle and doing each muscle 4 times a week will do just as much for you as sitting home and eating potato chips all day.

Here is a list of some of the symptoms of overtraining:

  • Decreased muscle size and strength
  • Longer-than-average recovery time after a workout
  • Elevated waking pulse rate
  • Elevated morning blood pressure
  • Increased joint and muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Hand tremors
  • Tiredness
  • Listlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss or decrease in appetite
  • Injury
  • Illness

So what biochemical mechanism leads to this overtrained state?

After the onset of high-intensity training exercise the body pumps out cortisol which breaks down protein into their constituent amino acids and routes them to the liver for conversion to glucose.

The longer the workout, the more cortisol is pumped in and the more protein is destroyed.

This causes a "catabolic state" as the largest supply of protein lies in the muscles so that is where the cortisol goes first.

Research by Costill and Nieman et al., has shown that one hour of intense strength training will increase the protein stores in our immune and skeletal systems, but that any further training will only begin to deplete these stores.

Overtraining can force the body into a weakened physical state, which, at best can produce a cold or the flu and, at worst, can tear muscles ligaments, and tendons once these bodyparts lose their structural integrity protein loss.

The culprit is a built-in "survival" drug hormone called cortisol. Immediately following a high intensity effort, the body pumps out this hormone whose function is simple: It carries off the proteins to the liver, where they are converted into glucose, for energy use in the body.

Why does this weaken our defense mechanisms? Because all our immune systems are based on proteins, and the influx of control in our biological mix steals the proteins that make up our immune system.

Nieman, a researcher at Loma Linda University found that athletes who train twice as intensely as normally prescribed will wind up with twice as many colds, and viruses.

Nieman investigated the athletes for cortisol. He found that astonishingly, after only ONE grueling strength training session, their bodies revealed a 60% increase in cortisol production.

Among the first proteins to go were the T-cells that make up our front line of defense against viruses. This watchdog system was depleted by more than 30 percent. However, this shortfall lasted only 6-8 hrs.

So you're probably thinking "What's the big deal? Is putting your body at risk for only 6-8 hours such a high price to pay?"

Well, Nieman and other researchers found that after a few days of such exercising, the "at risk" time became longer and longer, until the T-cells stopped rejuvenation.

In addition, the body's first line of defense against bacteria and viruses an antibody known as IgA, which is found in the saliva, was reduced to nearly non-protective levels.

The conclusion of the researchers was that athletes can overtrain themselves into illness.

Thus the logical conclusion would be that high intensity strength training should be limited to one hour or less to restrict the amount of protein destruction.

Other ways to reduce the risk of overtraining:

Emphasize carbohydrates: make them 60-70% of your total diet.

Take carbohydrates two hours prior to exercising and immediately following exercise. Research has shown that your fatigued muscles seem most responsive to energy storage within the first 30 minutes following your workout. There is a lesser response for the next 10 hours.

Take protein one to two hours before and immediately following exercise. Again I use regular food, but I see no problem with supplementation to save time (at the expense of more money however). Research has also shown your body to be more receptive to protein immediately following a workout.

Continue eating high carbohydrate foods every 2 hours during the first 4 to 6 hours after hard training. During the first 6 hours post-exercise, simple sugars appear to replace muscle glycogen better than complex carbohydrates.

Post-exercise muscle glycogen storage can be enhanced with a combination carbohydrate-protein supplement as a result of the interaction of carbohydrate and protein on insulin secretion. The addition of protein with carbohydrates can allow for a more rapid return recovery.

Drink a rehydration beverage during and after exercise, for example, Gatorade.

Take periodic layoffs.

Use the best "miracle supplement" there is - WATER. You can't "overdose" on water. The worst side effect you can get as mentioned previously, is a few more trips to the washroom. Your body functions optimally when it is fully hydrated. A general recommendation is to consume at least 128 ounces (one gallon) of water a day. During hot weather you should double or triple this amount.

LEAVE YOUR WORKOUT IN THE GYM. Give your undivided attention to your training when your in the gym. But when you're outside the gym, cast your attention to other things in life. Establish your other priorities, set goals, and keep busy. There are many athletes who fall into the trap of letting their mind continually dwell on training. Train hard when your in the gym, but try and relax more when your not. Stress has been shown to increase levels of CORTISOL in the body - the catabolic hormone, so try to find ways to manage stress in your life and relax, and your results will be improved.

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