Is overtraining real? Behind the scenes look
Overtraining continues to be a concern in high levels of competition, especially amongst highly trained athletes and even those involved with strength sports, mainly since it is responsible for impaired performance and increased fatigue (both during training and in regards to normal lifestyle habits). The onset of overtraining develops due to a specific training schedule or, more particularly, a sequence of training bouts that is abruptly increased, exists for an extended period of time, and/or is exhibited by a high volume or high intensity exercise with inadequate recovery and regeneration. Considering that overtraining is always a big topic amongst coaches, trainees, and the scientific community, the overwhelming majority within literature deals with endurance athletes. Although there is evidence regarding strength training and heavy lifting, there is less evidence with regards to normal, everyday gym-goers.
It is important to note that not only can you produce fatigue and overtraining, but also that too often normal loading patterns for an athlete can induce overtraining. However, it is currently not known the specific load(s) that might promote or even signal overtraining. In addition, it is wrong to assume that a training load by itself is the explanation for a variety of occurrences of overtraining. Despite the fact that many individuals often discuss overtraining in terms of training only, coaches and practitioners might also refer to it as underrecovery (Kellman 2002).
One of the most critical distinctions to make is the difference between overtraining and overreaching. Many people may use these terms interchangeably; therefore, a fundamental difference needs to be addressed. According to Meeusen (2006), overreaching (OR) is an accumulation of training and non-training stressors that result in a short-term decrement in performance, which often lasts from several days to several weeks before one recovers. However, in regards to overtraining (OT), there is currently no single agreed upon definition for overtraining syndrome (OTS). In turn, no diagnostic tool currently exists to determine an individual or athlete as overtrained. However, Halson and Jeukendrup (2004) define overtraining as:
“An accumulation of training and/or non-training stress resulting in long-term decrement of performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining in which restoration of performance capacity may take several weeks or months.”
Essentially, the difference is seen in the duration of the performance loss and in the amount of time needed for adequate recovery and regeneration, but not in the type or duration of the stressors. The overreaching aspect characterizes the period after an intense overload has been experienced, in which the athlete will be fatigued and there is a short-term decrement in performance. However, after a few days or weeks, that recovery is complete and performance/fitness is enhanced. It should be noted that training sessions produce a level of fatigue or depletion that is followed by supercompensation. If the recovery intervals between training bouts are maximized, the subsequent training sessions will accompany supercompensation and performance will be enhanced (Zatsiorsky, 2006).
Conversely, non-functional overreaching describes stagnation or the decrease of performance and a recovery period that lasts weeks to months (Meeusen 2006). If this state becomes more prolonged, there is an increased susceptibility into an overtraining state (Meeusen 2006).
Evidence indicates that overtraining occurs at a rate of 20-30%, with a relatively higher occurrence seen in individual sport athletes, females, and those competing at the highest levels. Winsley (2011) explains that the most commonly reported symptoms include increased perception of effort during exercise, frequent upper respiratory tract infections, muscle soreness, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, mood disturbances, shortness of temper, decreased interest in training and competition, decreased self-confidence, and the inability to concentrate. These are also in line with earlier reports found from Fry (1991) and Gleeson (2002). Considering the multitude of signs and symptoms, one particular aspect currently unknown is the rate of reduced performance that has to happen to truly identify one as overtrained.
Purvis (2010) explains that diagnosing OTS is difficult because underlying cause(s) are unknown. Many studies are confounded by inadequate experimental designs, poor measures of performance, and different methods for characterizing OTS. OTS is complex because the demands of excessive training in combination with other biological, psychological, and social stressors are difficult to quantify. They continue by stating that connections between dietary habits, social, psychological and physiological information, and the neuroendocrine, immune, and central nervous systems are complex and not fully explained.
Many might argue that overtraining does not exist, or that ‘true’ overtraining is very difficult to achieve. Given the amount of literature, overtraining is very real. However, the overwhelming majority of those who “think” they are overtrained are really “overreached.” Strategic training can also incorporate “planned overreaching.” Considering the combination of training variables, the two most common factors that produce overtraining are volume and intensity (Fry 2001). Although training loads have increased over the years due to the demands on athletic competition and within strength sports, novice and intermediate individuals are notorious for increasing large amounts of training volume and the magnitude of training intensity very early in their programs while also prolonging these variables for extended periods of time. Early work from Fry (2001) reported that excessive training volumes usually exhibit a reduction between the testosterone:cortisol ratio, as this may lead to performance decrements. This ratio is believed to show the balance of action between anabolic and catabolic activity. However, it is difficult to make conclusions on the hormonal implications due to the fact that the body has different hormonal responses to different types of activity and training.
It is important for coaches and athletes to avoid reducing the cause, treatment, and prevention of overtraining to a single physiological, psychological, or sociological factor. Instead of this limited view, they should look for an integral approach (Matos 2007). Monitoring assessments should be used such as the Profile of Mood States, which provides a self-assessment for mood states and is frequently used in psychological aspects in training and underrecovery. Furthermore, Richardson (2008) introduced Total Quality Recovery, which highlights the relationship between training and recovery. It is the responsibility of the coach to enhance athletic performance and maximize training outcomes while also avoiding overtraining.
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Zatsiorsky, V. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics, 2006.
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