Those who choose to exercise regularly do so for a wide variety of reasons. For some it’s about competition or a sense of achievement whilst others are looking to stay healthy, lose weight or spend more time outside. A common factor that is shared by almost everybody is a wish to ‘improve’ ourselves in some way. Just like in all aspects of life, this desire to better oneself is useful most of the time as it can motivate us to work the towards happier, healthier lives. However, it can also have negative consequences when we lose perspective and start to push beyond our limits.
Effective exercise is all about generating the correct amount of training stress as this provides our body with the stimulus it needs to adapt and improve performance. Too little and we won’t see the results we need, too much and we risk injury or health problems.
Overtraining syndrome is a condition that develops due to excess exercise and stress with insufficient rest. If affects the nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system (the system responsible for production and secretion of hormones). Early identification and action is important to ensure swift recovery and to prevent it from becoming more serious and difficult to rectify.
As well as simply exercising too much and spending too little time recovering, the following factors can also play a part in the development of overtraining syndrome:
All of us will experience the above factors from time-to-time but overtraining occurs when we fail to adjust our training load to respond to them.
Functional overtraining / overreaching is characterised by temporary reduction in performance, fatigue, pain, minor injuries or niggles and elevated resting heart rate. It is usually diagnosed when other illnesses are ruled-out following testing by your doctor. This is the first stage of overtraining and it is possible to recover from it in a matter of weeks if the person rests properly and reduces stress-factors.
The sympathetic part of our nervous system is responsible for ‘fight or flight’ response. It has evolved to help us survive during periods of acute stress by down-regulating our digestive and urinary systems whilst increasing our heart rate and blood pressure to prime us for action. This system is supposed to work for short periods of time and get us out of danger but too much training and stress can cause it to become over-active. This is accompanied by hormonal imbalances and the overall impact can be extremely debilitating. Sympathetic overtraining is thought to be more common following excessive high-intensity anaerobic exercise such as speed work or strength training. Recovery can take several months and the following signs are often present:
The parasympathetic nervous system inhibits / opposes the sympathetic system. It is responsible for stimulating the digestion of food and conserving energy when we ‘rest and digest’. Parasympathetic overtraining occurs when more serious hormonal and nervous system imbalances are present and they start to severely interfere with key physiological processes. During this scenario, the parasympathetic system becomes over-active and the sympathetic system is unable to function properly. This condition takes longer to develop and some argue that it is more likely to occur following excessive low-intensity training whilst others believe it is a progression from sympathetic overtraining and caused by excess anaerobic exercise. Recovery from parasympathetic overtraining can take months or years and it can even be career-ending. It is associated with the following signs and symptoms:
If you suspect you are suffering from overtraining syndrome It is important that you consult your doctor or a suitably qualified healthcare professional as they will be able to help you with your recovery and rule out other / more serious illnesses. This post is an introduction to the subject of over-training but it should not be used for self-diagnosis.
Recovery from overtraining is predominantly achieved via rest, relaxation, reducing stressors and improving diet, lifestyle and training habits. The exact approach will differ from person to person and sometimes specific medical treatments are required so again, it is important to seek professional guidance.
Phil Maffetone is a widely respected authority on the subject of overtraining and he discussed it extensively in The Big Book Of Endurance Training and Racing (I know i’ve recommended this a couple of times but it really is excellent)
There is a fantastic free article on Pubmed called ‘Overtraining Syndrome, A Practical Guide’ which discusses overtraining from a scientific / medical perspective. It can be read online here.
Elite Ultra-runner, Geoff Roes was struck down by severe overtraining a couple of years ago and has documented his recovery with some fascinating and brutally honest articles here at irunfar.
Do you have a question or any personal experience of over training? Please leave your thoughts below!