Are You Overtraining? 5 ways To Avoid Overtraining Syndrome
With innovative training solutions at the touch of a smartphone, exercise has never been easier. And whilst exercise offers a plethora of benefits, you can also have too much of a good thing: It’s called overtraining syndrome.
In this article, we are going to explore overtraining syndrome, a surprisingly common, yet overlooked condition. And most importantly, I’m going to offer you 5 ways to prevent overtraining syndrome and get the most out of your training.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
Overtraining is defined as ‘The state of extreme and consistent overreaching resulting in maladaptive physiology and severe symptomology’ (1).
In other words, you can no longer get fitter or stronger because your body cannot deal with the stress you are placing on it. As a result, you begin to experience a range of symptoms such as:
- Brain fog
- Loss of motivation
- Aching and Stiff muscles
- Anxiety or Depression
- Loss of libido
- Insomnia/unrefreshed sleep
- Loss of muscle mass
- Binge or disordered eating
Note: Issues such as asthma, thyroid disease, adrenal disease, diabetes insipidus, iron deficiency, infection and malnutrition can manifest these symptoms. Speak to your GP or Internist before coming to your own conclusions.
Overtraining syndrome now effects up to 30% of athletes at some point in their career (especially women) affecting more people engaging in individual sports or exercise such as tennis players or weight lifters (2).
Overtraining is Multi-Factorial
Researchers argue overtraining symptoms not only result from training too hard, but inadequate carbohydrate and protein intake, poor sleep and excessive cognitive effort too.
But the most crucial component researchers argue is the presence of emotional trauma. For example break-ups, divorces, toxic work environments etc…
All of these factors may lead to chronic glycogen depletion , excessive oxidative stress, HPA-axis dysfunction, Increased inflammation, Immune deficiencies and alterations in neurotransmitters (3).
Overtraining Syndrome Take Time To Develop
Overtraining syndrome can take a very long time to occur (months to years) and the early signs include:
- Increased recovery times
- Difficulty starting or completing a training session
- General Fatigue
- Mood changes (Anxiety or Depression)
- Brain Fog (you may have difficulty concentrating or recalling words or memories)
If you’re experiencing any of the early signs of overtraining syndrome I would urge you to stop all training until you seek advice.
Prevention is better than cure
In my experience supporting people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Overtraining Syndrome, people who overtrain tend to be driven high achievers with perfectionist tendencies, who can also be very impatient with themselves and others. They like to exhaust their energy and bring their frustrations into the training, and as a result overburden their bodies.
Remember it’s much easier to pull yourself back from ‘the edge’ than pick yourself up once you have fallen.
Once you’ve crossed the invisible line you maybe left with life-altering fatigue and may not be able to train for years until you have recovered.
Five Ways to Avoid Overtraining Syndrome
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Skip The ‘HIT’
Research suggests a significant portion of athletes who develop overtraining syndrome lack variation in their training schedule (4). High-intensity interval training (HIT) such as cross fit and spinning, although effective for weight loss, can also place excessive stress on your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
The HPA-axis system along with the sympatho-adrenomedullary system (SAS) are responsible for your long and short-term stress response. They underpin your resilience and ability to adapt to stress.
Too much stress and overtraining can result in chronically high levels of cortisol and contribute to weight gain and all the symptoms mentioned above.
If you have a stressful day, I would advise you to either skip the training if you don’t feel like doing it or skip the HIT and perform some gentle movement such as walking, Yoga or Pilates.
2. EAT MORE!
Besides stress, a carbohydrate and protein deficit maybe the greatest risk factor for overtraining syndrome. I have found a lot of athletes and gym enthusiasts who want to lose weight may restrict calories and binge on ‘cheat days’. This behaviour tends to breed unhealthy relationship’s with food (5).
Very low carbohydrate intakes (<20% of calories) can raise cortisol and adrenaline levels (to raise glucose levels) affecting your immune and thyroid function.
The research suggests to minimise your risk of overtraining symptoms, you should be aiming for at least:
- 35 calories per kilo of bodyweight per day.
- More than 5 grams of carbohydrate per kilo of bodyweight per day.
- 1.6 grams per kilo of bodyweight of protein per day (6).
3. Sleep Well
You don’t need to be a scientist to understand sleep is essential for optimal recovery and good health (7). Yet, it never ceases to amaze me how many athletes stay up watching Netflix on their iPhones until 1am.
In order to maximise your sleep quality, try to sleep before 11pm and avoid technology one to two hours before bed.
If you have difficulty falling asleep this could be an early sign your HPA-axis is becoming unbalanced. To help counteract, try some meditation or breathing exercises before going to bed.
4. Reduce Your Training Frequency
If you work full-time with a stressful lifestyle, I would recommend limiting your high-intensity training to twice per week with plenty of rest and gentle movement such as walking, cycling, yoga or pilates one to two times per week.
If you have autoimmune disease or gut issues I would encourage you to address the root causes before embarking on an intensive training regime as overtraining can have negative effects on gut function and the immune system (8).
Instead of telling yourself ‘I must train’, try saying to yourself ‘I must move’. Try not to pressure yourself.
5. Don’t worry, be happy
Emotional stress maybe the most crucial element of developing overtraining syndrome. I would encourage you to understand your motivations for training so hard.
A common factor I have observed among CFS clients is many of them were unhappy around the time their symptoms started.
If you can develop greater awareness of your emotions and prevent yourself from overtraining; I promise your body will thank you later.
Wishing you well on your path to health,