Overtraining syndrome is the long-term decrease in performance abilities, coupled with both physical and mental symptoms. Once one hits this state it can take weeks, to months, to years to fully return to a state of normalcy. Researchers are using the term Overtraining Syndrome to represent that this situation is about more than simply decreased levels in performance. Psychological disturbances (such as increased fatigue, irritability, decreased vigor, etc) and hormonal disturbances are key indicators of overtraining syndrome. Understand the full effects and impacts of this condition in the below article.
Part 2 of 4 | Originally published June 2014
So what is Overtraining Syndrome you ask???
After reading my story in part 1, by this point are you scratching your head and asking “so what is this supposed overtraining syndrome”??? You may have to continue to scratch your head, because it is not an easy thing to understand. As you saw in the bullet points from part 1, many of the signs are things that are common to any other basic cold, flu, or sinus infection. This is why it has been such a difficult thing for me to wrap my head around and come to consciences with over the years.
As I said before, I am a science person. I like to know WHY and HOW things happen. I need to see the science and research in order to understand how to fix it. Thus, the first thing I did after identifying my ‘problem’ was go to the empirical research databases and search for articles on the topic. My search came up with limited results. Come to find out, researchers don’t want to deliberately fatigue an athlete, mess with their lab values, and purposefully make their performance go to crap. (Thanks researchers!) Therefore, most of what I could find was either assumptions or anecdotal findings based on others experiences. However, not having concrete answers on exactly what it means, how to recover, or how long it will take to feel like myself again has been a challenge.
I was able to locate an amazing Consensus Statement from the European College of Sports Medicine and the American College of Sports Medicine that was released in 2012, and did a good job of explaining the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of Overtraining syndrome (Meeusen et al. 2012). Without going into too much explanation or boring you with too much science, here is the basics of what it means to go into a state of overtraining.
Progressive overload is good, and necessary to advance the body to new levels. Athletes and individuals will never get better if they don’t continue to push beyond their normal levels of intensity and go harder. This in term is as form of overload, and is good. Consider for example, you go to your favorite TDF Bootcamp class and challenging yourself to complete 15 burpees instead of the 10 you had been doing. Your body is challenge from this overload. You feel a bit more tired that night, you may feel a little sore, and your workout the next day may not be quite as intense. However, within 48-hours you are feeling back to your normal self, and you continue to advance in your skills. THIS IS GOOD!!! This is appropriate overload and training.
The challenge comes when this excessive overload is coupled with inadequate recovery practices or poor nutrition (or both). Or when the excessive overload happens day after day after day with little rest periods. When this balance between intensity and recovery is out of balance, then the body begins to respond with a state of OVERREACHING. With this state comes short-term decreases in performance abilities, and possibly some symptoms showing up physically and mentally. Typically with a bit of rest and pulling back on intensity, one is able to return to normal training abilities within a few days or a few weeks. (This was me in 2006, when I first started to feel the symptoms setting in.)
OVERTRAINING on the other hand builds up over time. It is the long-term decrease in performance abilities, coupled with both physical and mental symptoms. Once one hits this state it can take weeks, to months, to years to fully return to a state of normalcy. Researchers are using the term Overtraining Syndrome to represent that this situation is about more than simply decreased levels in performance. Psychological disturbances (such as increased fatigue, irritability, decreased vigor, etc) and hormonal disturbances are key indicators of overtraining syndrome.
“The most common symptom is fatigue. This may limit workouts and may be present at rest. Individuals may become moody, easily irritated, have altered sleep patterns, become depressed, or lose the competitive desire and enthusiasm for the sport. Some will report decreased appetite and weight loss. Physical symptoms include persistent muscular soreness, increased frequency of viral illnesses, and increased incidence of injuries.” (Jenkins, 1998)
While researchers have not found it ethical to subject someone to overtraining syndrome, they have been able to conduct research on collegiate level athletes who were found to already be in a state of overtraining. Findings in these studies have shown decreased performance in exercise testing, decreased mood state, and, in some, increased cortisol levels — the body’s “stress” hormone. A decrease in testosterone, altered immune status, and an increase in muscular break down products have also been identified.
“Medically, the overtraining syndrome is classified as a neuro-endocrine disorder. The normal fine balance in the interaction between the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal system is disturbed and athletic “jet lag” results. The body now has a decreased ability to repair itself during rest. Heaping more workouts onto this unbalanced system only worsens the situation. Additional stress in the form of difficulties at work or personal life also contributes.” (Jenkins, 1998)
The challenge for athletes and fitness enthusiasts in that the borderline between optimal performance and performance impairment due to Overtraining syndrome is subtle. There is a fine line between someone pushing their body to new limits, and another one causing it to break down. To further challenge the situation, diagnosing overtraining syndrome is not common practice for doctors, the symptoms vary from athlete to athlete, and the symptoms are very similar to many other conditions that are more common for doctors to understand and diagnose. Therefore, it really can only be diagnosed once EVERYTHING ELSE has been ruled out. This is why it is often too late by the time athletes figure out what they have done to their bodies.
Unfortunately, there are no tests you can take to see if you are over-training. There is no secret pill you can swallow to make it go away, and there is no easy explanation on how to get back to your normal level of training. Everyone is different.
Stress is Stress…
One of the most important things I have learned in this process is that STRESS IS STRESS. To the adrenals, heart, pituitary glands, it doesn’t matter if you are doing a great high intensity workout or spending a day at a state penitentiary surrounded by death row inmates, both are stressful situations and the body responds in the same manner. This was a really hard thing for me to wrap my finger around. However, if I think back over my years of sickness and all the events that have lead up to this final diagnosis, I would say that I have maintenance high levels of stress (both good and bad) in both my personal, professional, and recreational lives. Thus causing my hormonal levels to go out of whack and not know how to respond.
The difficult thing to understand is that Overtraining syndrome is not black and white. It may not even be gray. It falls in this difficult place on the spectrum of training and is challenging to understand. The moment you start feeling a little tired doesn’t mean you should jump ship on your exercise training program, but it may be the time you should start logging your training and looking at how it compares with your daily stress level. Start evaluating your daily stress levels, sleep patterns, and eating habits. Being armed with knowledge is the first step. But taking the time to constantly evaluate your training is key to avoiding overtraining.
FINALLY – If you are an endurance athlete or group fitness instructor and doing 20+ hours of activity are “normal” parts of your training week, remember the importance of fueling properly before/during/after. Remember that sleep is key to recovering. And remember that more is not always better!
Learn more about where I am in Part 3.
Read the Full Story…
While you can get an essence of my struggles with overtraining syndrome by reading one part of the story, you really need to read the full 4-part series in order to get a true essence of the story, struggle, and changes that occurred over time. I originally published these stories in 2014 and 2015 as a way to process my emotions; today I hope they are a source of motivation and support as you work to overcome your own personal challenges.
It’s also important for me to note here that when I published this in June 2014 I was on a downhill slide to a major case of depression. In November 2014, shortly after publishing part 3 I set off on a 8-week hiatus of life to try and regain a sense of who I was and ‘find myself’ after feeling like I had lost everything. It was a very tough time for me both personally and professionally. I feel the raw emotions from that stage of life shine through in this article – which may make it tough to read for anyone experiencing the same situation.
While I never became suicidal, I was majorly depressed. These days I am a strong mental health advocate, so before diving into the article, it’s important for me to share this reminder. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
I share my story with the hopes that even one person may recognize that the “MORE MORE MORE” culture of both group fitness and endurance athletes is not always the best. Sometimes less really is more.
If you have any comments/questions/feedback, or just want to talk about your journey. Email me, or continue the discussion in our Facebook Group. I would love to hear your stories and see how we can help each other.
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BS: Exercise & Sports Science
NSCA: Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
ACSM: Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)
Yoga Alliance: 200-hr RYT
ACE: Group Fitness Instructor
Balanced Body: Reformer Level 1 Coach
Schwinn: Indoor Cycle Instructor
RRCA: Running Coach