Overtraining can kill you.

If you’ve been around the fitness scene for any length of time you’ll have heard it whispered about like Beetlejuice with people seemingly afraid to say it out loud for fear of invoking its wrath. The workouts done by this group wouldn’t hurt an average sized cat. Then there’s the other side of the coin. The no pain, no gain crew who don’t believe you can ever overtrain and who boast about causing rhabdomyolysis in their clients. Like with most things there’s truth to both sides and the smart approach is straight down the middle.

Let’s look quickly at what overtraining is and the various stages of it, as well as how to possibly use it to our advantage before we wind up in hospital.

Overtraining is extremely misunderstood. The equation for training is quite simple:

Training = Work + Rest

You don’t improve while training, only once you have recovered from the session and your body has rebuilt itself slightly better. This, supposedly, is common knowledge, yet all too often I see people only worry about the work side of things and never about the recovery aspect.

With the high stress, constantly on-call lifestyle many lead these days it’s quite common for people to turn to exercise for an escape. I am absolutely in love with my distance sessions at the moment because they give me hours to myself where I can’t be bothered by the phone or email. But is the exercise really helping me remove stress from my body or is it adding to it?

Every single training session you do adds stress to the body. While you may find it relaxing and enjoyable, you have added stress to an already stressed out system. The only way to overcome this is a better rest strategy, not more training.

Overtraining, in its early forms is often unrecognizable as a medical condition as no symptoms may appear. The only signs may be slight decreases in performance, injuries that never seem to heal, or a cold that simply won’t go away. It’s the accumulation of all the stress of work and training that contribute to these factors.

The body goes through three stages of stress adaptation:

Stress Adaptation Stage 1

Diagnosing the early stages of overtraining can be difficult. Things may appear as slight back pain in a cyclist, a touch of ankle or foot problems in a runner, or as shoulder pain in a lifter. Usually during this time blood tests will still come back showing normal ranges, which can lead to further frustration as injuries continue or performances start to decline further.

As a coach you need to keep your eyes wide open when clients start reporting feeling a little run down. Slight changes in gait and mechanics can lead to bigger problems and injuries. Knowing your clients well and what their form should look like is important. A smart coach will cut training short at the first signs of form breakdown and instantly switch to recovery week mode.

Interestingly, in this first stage of overtraining big gains in performance can be made afterwards if used correctly.Commonly called overreaching it is not uncommon for athletes to deliberately be pushed into the red zone so that after an appropriate recovery period they have adapted better and return faster and stronger. The problem here lies in the excitement of heightened performance. The athlete and coach usually end up continuing down this road, pushing more and more until, like Icarus, they burn out and come crashing back to earth.

One of the things I am starting to see more and more, as a strength trainer who is exploring the world of aerobic work, is that the aerobic system powers our recovery system. In fact, our cardiovascular system only works aerobically. Having an underpowered aerobic system makes recovery from hard sessions even more difficult as it is the aerobic system that clears the waste products in the muscles and shuttles the nutrients in to repair them.

Symptoms of this first stage include:

  • Increased vulnerability to back, knee, ankle, and foot injuries.
  • Abnormal hormonal output. Including changes to menstrual cycle in women.
  • Reduced sexual desire.
  • Mental stress, depression, and anxiety.

The important thing to do here is to recognise the early stages of overtraining and appropriately manage other factors such as diet, sleep, and lifestyle so that the work part of the equation is balanced. This may mean reducing your training volume and intensity in the short term.

I’ve actually gone through this myself while testing training plans and have found that by reducing volume in my strength/anaerobic sessions I am actually gaining strength. All while putting in large miles at the same time – something that many will tell you is impossible. It’s not an easy feat to juggle all the balls of life so that training is optimal, but with the right diet choices, sleeping adequately, and sensible training intensities it is proving possible.

Stress Adaptation Stage 2

This stage is most often seen by athletes who perform high volumes of anaerobic or strength work, particularly those who have high lifestyle stress. Strangely, a feeling of increased energy will be felt as the adrenal system kicks into high gear to cope with the extra demands. This will be shown in a restless, over-excited state – a feeling of not needing any sleep and of being able to go and go and go.

The resulting high cortisol levels can lead to increased insulin, which reduces fat burning and increases fat storage. Maximal training intensities increase the insulin response significantly. This leads to a desire for more carbohydrate (also needed to refuel the work done at the higher intensities). The body’s growing intolerance of these, due to the heightened insulin response, however, will lead to the carbs being stored as fat, not as potential energy – further heightening the problem.

While it may seem like this is an unwinnable position to be in, at this stage the entire downward spiral can still be reversed through changing diet and training and recovery strategies.

I hate to leave you all hanging, but stage three is quite a big piece and I’ve actually got an interview with someone who went so deeply into the red zone that it literally took years to get out of. What makes it even more interesting is this is no ordinary guy – he’s a stud athlete and a clever trainer, and still wasn’t able to see all the warning signs developing from inside the eye of the storm. It’s an eye-opening, cautionary tale.

Read part two: Overtraining Can Kill You: The 3 Stages of Overtraining, Part 2

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.