If a little exercise is good for you, more must be better – right? Possibly, but sometimes it’s not. In the pursuit of better health and fitness, it might be difficult to take a break from exercise. If exercise is leaving you more exhausted than energized, you could be suffering from overtraining syndrome.
The goal of exercise is to challenge your body so that it will adapt. Whether that adaptation is the ability to run a marathon or lift 500 pounds, exercise causes a significant amount of stress to create this adaptation. The time it takes for your body to adapt to exercise is dependent on a multitude of factors. These factors include: volume/intensity of workouts, nutrition, sleep and any other stress in life. This stress only becomes a problem when you reach a certain threshold. When this happens your body loses the ability to adapt. The threshold occurs when the body can’t recover from exercise, which is when prolonged maladaptation occurs. This is called overtraining syndrome. By using the expression “syndrome,” I want to emphasize the multifactorial etiology and acknowledge that exercise is not necessarily the sole causative factor of the syndrome.
Overtraining syndrome(OTS) is of growing concern in an era when athletes push themselves to get an edge on the competition. Likewise, the ambitious college student can even have trouble with training too much. It has become clear that proper exercise prescription is important to avoid pushing your body past its limit. The easiest way to avoid this is by periodized training. Simply put, periodization allows variation and includes phases of high training and planned periods for recovery. This strategy of training applies to elite athletes as well as to individuals exercising for general health. While going over the details of how to periodize your training is beyond the scope of this article, you can find more information here and here.
Nutrition also plays an important role in recovery. If your nutrition is insufficient it will become even more difficult for your body to recover. There is not a specific nutrition program that will prevent OTS, but eating adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat will ensure that your body has the substrates to recover. It is thought that the fatigue and under-performance associated with OTS are partly attributed to a decrease in muscle glycogen levels. Glycogen depletion results in higher circulating levels of catecholamines, cortisol, and glucagon in response to exercise while insulin levels are very low. Such hormonal responses will result in changes in substrate mobilization and utilization. Other than carbohydrate depletion, dehydration and negative energy balance can increase the stress response which further increases the risk of developing symptoms. Thus, to reduce the symptoms and reduce the risk of developing OTS during periods of intensive training, individuals should increase their fluid, carbohydrate, and energy intake to meet the increased demands. Additional carbohydrates should not be at the expense of reduced protein intake because there is some evidence that insufficient protein can also result in increased risk of OTS.
This syndrome reflects the body’s attempt to cope with physiological and psychological stressors. If you find that your strength, size or stamina have plateaued for an extended period it might be that you’re not giving your body enough time to recover. Currently, several markers (hormones, performance tests, psychological tests, and biochemical and immune markers) are used, but none of them meet all the criteria to make their use generally accepted to serve as a test for OTS. Therefore you must pay attention to signs from your body to know when to reduce workouts. The only way to recover from it is to rest and then slowly begin workouts again. The emphasis needs to be on prevention of OTS and on early diagnosis, which at least in principle might shorten the recovery time. If you find yourself in a situation where your body isn’t responding well to exercise, it might be a good time to taper off or take a break.
Overtraining syndrome — an accumulation of training and/or stress resulting in long-term decrement in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of maladaptation in which restoration of performance capacity may take several weeks or months.
Individuals who exercise excessively are risking more than poor performance, they’re risking their health. The general symptoms for overtraining from the American College of Sports Medicine include:
- Decreased performance.
- Agitation, moodiness, irritability or lack of concentration.
- Excessive fatigue and malaise.
- Increased perceived effort during normal workouts.
- Chronic or nagging muscle aches or joint pain.
- More frequent illnesses and upper-respiratory infections.
- Insomnia or restless sleep.
- Loss of appetite.
- Chronically elevated heart rate at rest and during exercise.