Optimizing Human Performance

Overtraining: Too Much of a Good Thing

cat-about-usWe’ve heard the phrase “in moderation” particularly with regards to nutrition, but most people don’t know that this also applies to training. More is not always better, and there is such a thing as training too hard. Regardless of how fit you may think you are, everyone has a breaking point, and if you aren’t smart with your training, then you will soon reach it. I respect hard work; I think a person’s work ethic is a reflection of their desire and passion for greatness. Having said that, lying on the ground after every workout with the feeling of you just got your ass kicked is not an example of hard work. Yes, intensity in a workout will lead to favorable changes in the human body, but intensity must also be managed correctly, or you are inviting a host of problems to occur...such as overtraining. Overtraining has been a topic of great interest and can be defined as excessive frequency, volume, or intensity of training that results in extreme fatigue, illness, or injury (all of which are often due to a lack of sufficient rest, recovery, and perhaps nutrient intake.) Ten to 20% of athletes experience overtraining or staleness. The overtrained syndrome represents more than short-term inability to train hard or a slight dip in competition-level performance. Athletes can fail to endure and adapt to training so that normal performance deteriorates, and they encounter increasing difficulty fully recovering from a workout. Overtraining also relates to increased incidence of infections, persistent muscle soreness, and general discomfort and loss of interest in sustaining high-level training. Injuries occur more frequently in the overtrained state. Two clinical forms of overtraining have been described:

  1. The less common sympathetic form, characterized by increased sympathetic activity during rest and generally characterized by hyperexcitability, restlessness, and impaired exercise performance. This form of overtraining may reflect excessive psychologic/emotional stress that accompanies the interaction among training, competition, and responsibilities of normal living.
  2. The more common parasympathetic form, characterized by predominance of vagal activity during rest and physical activity. More properly termed overreaching in the early stages, the syndrome qualitatively is similar in symptoms to the full-blown parasympathetic overtraining syndrome but of shorter duration. Excessive and protracted physical overload with inadequate recovery and rest leads to overreaching. Initially, maintaining exercise performance requires greater effort; this eventually leads to performance deterioration in training and competition. Short-term rest intervention of a few days up to several weeks usually restores full function. Untreated overreaching eventually leads to overtraining syndrome.
Parasympathetic overtraining syndrome involves chronic fatigue during workouts and recovery periods. Associated symptoms include sustained poor exercise performance, altered sleep patterns and appetite, frequent infections, persistent feelings of fatigue, altered immune and reproductive functions, acute and chronic alterations in systemic inflammatory responses, mood disturbances (anger, depression, anxiety), and general sickness and loss of interest in high-level training. The syndrome reflects the body’s attempt to provide the athlete with an appropriate recuperative period from intense training and competition. No simple method diagnoses overtraining in its earliest stages. The best indications include deterioration in physical performance, alterations in mood, a relatively high cortisol/cortisone ratio, and possibly decreased nocturnal heart rate variability. Conditions that cause some athletes to thrive in training initiate an overtraining response in others. Generally, rest can relieve the symptoms; if not, they can persist to prevent complete recovery that often requires weeks or months. No reliable strategy can determine the point of complete recovery from overtraining syndrome, but most athletes intuitively seem to know when they can successfully return to competition. Coaches must allow adequate recuperation during the most intense training cycles or when an athlete attempts to regain peak form following a prolonged layoff. Nutrition becomes important during intense training; special emphasis placed on glycogen replenishment, which requires sufficient recovery time, plus high levels of dietary carbohydrate and rehydration, reduce symptoms. Nevertheless, nutrition alone cannot prevent the syndrome’s development. References Achten J, et al. Higher Dietary Carbohydrate Content during Interspersed Running Results in a Better Maintenance of Performance and Mood State. J Appl Physiol 2004;96:1331. Atlaoui D, et al. The 24-h Urinary Cortisol/Cortisone Ratio for Monitoring Training in Elite Swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2004;36:218. Budgett R, et al. Redefining the Overtraining Syndrome as the Unexplained Underperformance Syndrome. Br J Sports Med 2000;34:67. Gabriel HHW, et al. Overtraining and Immune System: A Prospective Longitudinal Study in Endurance Athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998;30:1151. Hartmann U, Mester J. Training and Overtraining Markers in Selected Sport Events. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32:209. Pichot V, et al. Autonomic Adaptations to Intensive and Overload Training Periods: A Laboratory Study. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2002;34:1660. Raglin J, Bardukas A. Overtraining in Athletes: The Challenge of Prevention. A Consensus Statement. ACSM’s Health Fitness J 1999:3(2): 27. Shephard RJ, Shek PN. Acute and Chronic Over-Exertion: Do Depressed Immune Responses Provide Useful Markers? Int J Sports Med 1998;19:159. Shona L, et al. Effects of Carbohydrate Supplementation on Performance and Carbohydrate Oxidation after Intensified Cycling Training. J Appl Physiol 2004;97:1245. Smith LL. Cytokine Hypothesis of Overtraining: A Physiological Adaptation to Excessive Stress. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32:317. Urhausen A, et al. Impaired Pituitary Hormonal Response to Exhaustive Exercise in Overtrained  Endurance Athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998;30:407. Uusitalo AL, et al. Overtraining: Making a Difficult Diagnosis and Implementing Targeted Treatment. Phys Sportsmed 2001;29(5):35.


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