The Overtraining Syndrome Paradox
We are lead to believe that overtraining is a ‘syndrome’ reserved for the elite or the silly. After all, elite athletes can easily complete hours of solid training. And the silly? They just do a lot. However, in this article I wish to highlight an important paradox about overtraining.
I recently had a client who came to me following difficulty completing a trail race. He was a forty-year old, single parent of three children and running his own business. He was also chairman of a school board and heavily involved in his eldest son’s sporting ambitions. Amongst this schedule, he was fitting in four sessions of training a week. Two of these were intervals with a local squad. The remaining sessions were run early in the morning before the children got up. On his best weeks he may complete about five to six hours of training, plus a little stretching before bed.
Following discussions with my client, it became evident that he was suffering from overtraining: sleep constantly disturbed; heart rate suppressed whilst training hard; elevated heart rate in the morning; daily fatigue, especially in his legs; depressed mood with decreased tolerance to stressors at work and home; moodiness with the children; and a failure to athletically perform in races. He was neither elite nor silly, just a guy who works hard for the benefit of everyone.
This leads to the question, how could my client be over trained? After all, the text-book definition suggests overtraining as: ‘a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.’
When I raised this notion of overtraining my client’s response was, ‘but I only train up to four sessions per week!’ If you experienced a similar reaction to the word exercise, now consider this:
Overtraining = Working Out + Daily Stressors > Rest + Recovery
Many athletes do not take into account their daily stressors, which may actually be a far greater load than that of the workouts they complete. Note that I am not talking about stresses. You may enjoy these activities but cumulatively, they place a load on the body. Busy adults can find that the cumulative load of training and daily stressors can exceed their rest and recovery. My client loves many aspects of what he does but the cumulative load has led to emotional, mental and physical fatigue to a point where he risks injury, sickness or underperformance.
This now leads to the next question, how do you bring a busy adult back from overtraining? Too often we divert straight to the exercise. And whilst yes, this may need work and adjustment; it is not always the underlying problem. What I like to suggest to my clients is - modify what you can modify.
For many individuals it would be hard to create more time in the day for rest and recovery whilst also doing everything else that you do. We can’t change the number of hours in a day or the fact that we must work in order to pay the bills. For an adult, exercise is often a necessary unwind, a chance to personal endeavor, or socialize with like-minded people. Simply cutting back training may not be the answer.
However, often we can change small things, small routines, behaviors or personal rules that have become so ingrained that we barely recognize them. Not only do they take time, but also valuable emotional and physical energy. Do any of these ring a bell?
- I must put a home cooked meal on the table every night otherwise we won’t be as healthy.
- I must agree to look after my best friends children every Wednesday and Friday night or otherwise I’m not a good friend.
- I can’t tell the squad coach that I need to reduce the training load or otherwise he might not think I’m worth his investment.
- I can’t tell the committee that after five years I need to stand down and spend more time investing in myself.
- I paid for Bootcamp for a year and I should go until the subscription ends.
These are just a few arguments that I have heard over the last few months and a case of very black and white thinking. I have found that most athletes I work with are Type A personalities and like myself, we struggle to see the shades of grey. Reducing unnecessary rules, tasks and routines may be a positive start in allowing your body more rest and recovery. For example:
- Two nights a week I could just make a healthy salad with a store-brought sourdough loaf of bread.
- I might ask my friend if I can look after the kids only on Wednesday nights and every second Friday.
- I might just reduce the squad coaching to one not two sessions a week.
- I will attend Bootcamp during the weekdays but on weekends I will do my own activities.
Secondly, everyone can change his or her diet. It doesn’t need to be going on a diet, but everyone can modify what they choose to eat to reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, unhealthy vegetable oils, caffeine and sugar. Dietary changes can have a huge impact on a person’s life, especially the quality of their sleep and balance of their moods. A balanced diet rich in protein will assist the body’s ability to recover from training sessions whilst healthy fats will support the neural and endocrine systems.
Rest and recovery also needs your attention. Rest certainly suggests sleep but other passive and active recovery methods are also important to consider. Tasks that are creative or mindful will nourish your body as they help to alleviate some of the stress response. Tasks such as cooking, art, reading, mindful walking and yoga are great places to start. Further to this, socialization in moderation will help to support the hormonal system, especially the regeneration of our masculinity and femininity.
Finally, allow the body to sleep. It is during sleep that the true physical and mental recovery can happen. During the night, the earlier sleep cycles are important for the body’s physical recovery then in the latter dreaming cycles the body is mentally and emotionally repairing. Dealing with daily stress, including dietary stress, will lead to better sleep quality, and greater mental and physical performance the next day.
In summary, one of the most common misconceptions in sport and exercise is that training is just completing a workout. On the contrary, training is the workout PLUS the recovery that follows. As our body deals with all stressors in the same way, the harder we push in training (volume, strength or intensity) and life (work, family, volunteer, social) the greater the recovery required. In essence, if you wish to optimize your performance and avoid overtraining, consider everything that you are doing. The less stress we are under in our daily life, the more capable we will be of training to capacity.