Is Overtraining Real?

August 22, 2013

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If you watch the right reality television shows, you can learn a lot about how to be a better athlete.

I’m not talking about Real Housewives of the world. I’m talking Hard Knocks—quite possibly the best show on television. (Personal note: Shark Tank is a close second.)

Beyond the raw footage of NFL players in their environment and behind-the-scenes B-roll, which are entertaining at every step, HBO's weekly inside look at the NFL gives fans the chance to watch some of the best athletes grind and prepare for the upcoming football season. When you see how they work their butts off, you understand just a little bit more about what it takes to compete in the NFL.

After you witness the grueling practices, running, conditioning and lifting sessions, it becomes very clear that the human body can sustain a tremendous amount of physical stress.

If you prepare the right way, it’s possible for you to train frequently and push your body in ways that some say is impossible. You might not be an NFL player, but that doesn’t mean you can’t teach your body to train harder and more often, just like the guys you watch on Hard Knocks. Here’s how.

The Overtraining Scare

Overtraining is a real phenomenon. It is possible to train so much that you break your body down rather than build it up. But the reality is that the vast majority of people who exercise do not train hard enough or frequently enough to worry about overtraining in the physiological sense, says Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS, owner of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass. Many other trainers agree.

Real overtraining is represented by physical breakdowns that are hard to ignore. This isn’t muscle soreness or having some bad days in the gym. Symptoms include:

  • Increase in resting heart rate and blood pressure
  • Insomnia-like symptoms and trouble sleeping
  • Stomach disturbances
  • Consistent low energy and bad mood
  • Changes in personality and mood
  • Decreased self-esteem and motivation
  • Feelings of sadness and apathy

In other words, you experience symptoms that closely mimic depression and chronic fatigue, according to research from the University of Memphis. In severe cases of overtraining, your immune system shuts down and you can suffer multiple issues, including upper respiratory infections and slow healing, says research published in the Journal of Athletic Training.

If you experience these problems, you definitely need to hit PAUSE in your training. Often, people who overtrain suffer from one sickness after another and continue to work through it, only to suffer another illness. These ongoing problems can be a sign of physiological breakdown and not a bug you’ve caught.

Most people do not suffer illness or experience symptoms bordering on depression after tough workouts. Most feel tired or sore— like they’ve “overdone it.” If that is the case, you’re dealing with a different animal, and using the right training approach can leave you feeling better and allow you to confidently start training more and pushing your body to new levels.

Finding the Training Sweet Spot

In general, feeling like you’ve pushed too hard will be the result of:

  • Stepping outside your comfort zone and training harder than you’re used to
  • Working too hard given your level of training
  • Pushing for maximum effort on every exercise, but training irregularly
  • Under-recovering due to insufficient rest, sleep or nutrition, or being unable to balance other stressors

So although overtraining is real, under-recovery is a more common problem experienced by athletes who consistently spend time in the gym.

Insufficient regeneration can stem from poorly designed workouts—or from stress, nutrition deficiencies and not getting enough sleep. Training places stress on your body. It can be good stress—leading to muscle growth, strength and better performance—but it’s still stress. If you’re dealing with other stress in your life—of any kind—and not coping with it, the stress accumulation can leave you feeling exhausted and may hurt your performance.

The same can be said about your nutrition. If you’re not eating enough protein, fat and carbohydrates—from the right sources—your body will not repair and recover before your next training session.

Training More and Performing Better

It’s easy to look at the players on Hard Knocks and assume their genetics are the reason they can push so hard so frequently. But the ability to train frequently is not reserved for the genetically blessed. Genetics undoubtedly play some part in athletic achievement, but genes are not the sole reason why top athletes can push so hard.

Flaws in workout volume cause real overtraining in intensity, according to research from the American College of Sports Medicine. In other words, if you add too many sets or reps too soon, and continue to do so, you can break down. Similarly, if you use too much resistance, like constantly doing 1-rep maxes, for a long period of time, it can increase activation of your nervous system and cause breakdown.

These mistakes are not acute, meaning that one insane workout is not going to leave you overtrained. And it’s also highly unlikely that overtraining will result after a week. It stems from repeated faulty training.

The research doesn’t cite an issue with frequency of training or with how many days per week you engage in activity. The culprit is intensity. Your main focus should be to develop a plan that allows your body to adjust to the demands of your training and build up to the point of being able to perform a lot of work.

“If you manipulate training stress, you are capable of working out frequently and having plenty of flexibility in your training schedule,” says Cressey, who works with professional baseball players from all 30 MLB teams.

Cressey often trains his players six days a week. The secret to such high volume? His programs allow athletes to perform at a high level by incorporating “deload periods,” where they still work out, but use less weight or back off on the intensity. A deload period could occur within a week (training heavily for three days and lighter for the other three), or it could be an entire week at a lower intensity after a few weeks of increased work.

Australian researchers essentially found the same thing: With the right approach, you can train frequently without overtraining. What most people consider overtraining is actually overreaching, or the “accumulation of training and non-training stressors that result in short-term decrement in performance, lasting from several days to several weeks before one recovers,” the study noted.

Pushing Hard, Recovery, And Creating a Good Plan

In a well-designed program, overreaching can be good. If followed by a resting period or lighter work, overreaching can result in “supercompensation,” which allows you to train at an even higher level. This is basic program design. Push your body, allow it to recover (even with light activity) and then see continual improvement.

This can be seen with long runs for marathon training or max weeks in the weight room. If followed by proper rest, you’ll see a slight dip in performance followed by a larger-than-normal response reaction in improvement—becoming faster or getting stronger. This is “functional overreaching,” where the design allows for the steady increase of volume or intensity of exercise.

A more common approach is periodization. Instead of going hard every week or every session, you adjust your intensity from week to week. This can apply to literally every type of exercise, but let’s use the Bench Press for an example.

Week 1: Discover a baseline weight, no sets taken to failure

Week 2: Increase intensity but still keep a rep in the tank on every set

Week 3: Back off in volume or intensity. These are the two issues that can cause overtraining. Typically, you’ll still work hard but you’ll cut down your total intensity

Week 4: Aim for PRs

If you follow this cycle, you can train consistently with high frequency, as long as every four to 12 weeks you take a true deload week by dropping your volume (do fewer sets or reps, or run shorter distances), and backing off the intensity (don’t run as fast or lift as much).

When you are a beginner, deloads are helpful in longer intervals, occurring every eight to 12 weeks. If you’re more advanced, they can benefit you more frequently (every four weeks) because your training intensity will be higher with each session.

Still worried about overtraining? Check your heart rate first thing in the morning before you start an intense training session. Do this for about a week so you know your average resting heart rate. If you’re concerned that you’re not recovering correctly, test your heart rate again. If your resting heart rate is significantly elevated, there’s a good chance you’re pushing too hard and need a break. Or, you can try HRV (such as the product by BioForce), which assesses your heart rate variability and provides biofeedback on your stress levels and recovery. It can indicate what days are best to push hard or back off. It’s new technology that makes it much easier to “listen to your body.”

It’s important to remember that your body is your body. Some people can train at high intensity more frequently, while others need more rest between max efforts. Usain Bolt credits much of his success to the fact that his coach understands that he needs longer rest between bouts of high intensity work. Other supreme athletes reach their peak by frequently pushing hard. (Herschel Walker was famous for his daily high-volume bodyweight workouts.)

Finding the sweet spot for performance is ultimately a matter of designing a program that has built-in rest and adjusts to the recovery strategies and feedback from the individual athlete. Pay close attention to what works best and make adjustments to find the program that works for your body. Don’t fear spending too much time in the gym. It’s not exercise that’s the problem—it’s ignorance of what to do or how much you can handle that causes real aches, pains and breakdowns.

Read more:

Adam Bornstein
- Adam Bornstein is an award-winning fitness and nutrition writer and editor. Named ”one of the most influential people in health,” Bornstein was previously the editorial...
Adam Bornstein
- Adam Bornstein is an award-winning fitness and nutrition writer and editor. Named ”one of the most influential people in health,” Bornstein was previously the editorial...
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