Improvement in physical performance or capacity is primarily achieved by continuous training, specifically with a gradual, incremental increase in load and volume. Naturally, training has to be interspersed with periods of recovery. However, too much workload and insufficient recovery has been said to lead to a phenomenon called overtraining. Though it is a concept known throughout the fitness and sports communities, there is heavy debate if it is factual or actually just a myth.
Overtraining is a state where an individual has accumulated enough stress (typically due to training) that would result in a long-term period of reduced performance capacity and possibly negative mood states. While highly debatable whether it is a myth or not, it is still a concept being reviewed and studied by numerous academic papers.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining is a character state of an individual, typically an athlete, defined by symptoms such as fatigue, performance decline, and mood disturbances. While this is how overtraining is generally regarded as, it is a much more complex and a multi-faceted syndrome.
The primary cause of overtraining can be attributed to an imbalance. This imbalance may be between training and recovery, stress and stress tolerance, and/or exercise and exercise capacity. As the name suggests, overtraining can be seen as too much training.
Overtraining, also known as overtraining syndrome (OTS), has been studied to have some level or degree of hormonal, immunologic, neurologic, and psychologic disturbances in the body. Psychologic disturbances in particular have been said to be caused by a condition called central nervous system fatigue.
The central nervous system, comprised of the brain and the spinal cord, are major organs of the nervous system. These two are serve as hubs and highways for electrical impulses that receive sensations such as sight, hearing, smell, and touch, while also able to send motor control to the skeletal muscles of the body.
Thus, central nervous system fatigue is characterized by the dulling of the central nervous system. This decreases the ability to voluntarily activate a muscle in a maximal effort.
Is Overtraining a Myth?
Overtraining is a relatively tricky concept. The concept has been used in numerous studies in the 1990s to early 2000s – so why would people even think it’s a myth?
A 2004 review paper published in Sports Medicine specifically tackles this question. It is entitled “Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research.”
The problem with overtraining is that it is a state that cannot be induced by research. The review paper thus takes a look at previous studies citing overtraining in various athletes. A number of these papers declare overtraining as the cause of an athlete’s period of ‘staleness’ or the inability to improve performance capacity. However, these events can also be explained by a failure to introduce sufficient volume and intensity of training to induce a noticeable improvement.
Another issue with overtraining studies is the lack of stable definition. There were also studies surveying athletes with overtraining with the primary factor as the feeling of constant fatigue. Therefore, without stating a clear definition in the papers, the term overtraining can mean different things across different studies.
Even until now, there is no reliable way to actually diagnose overtraining. In 2002, a paper published in Sports Medicine did a critical and systematic review of previous papers to assess whether there were any parameters that would reliably indicate overtraining.
The paper discussed parameters at rest such as heart rate, mood state and subjective complaints, enzyme activities and metabolic markers in blood, hormones, and immunological parameters.
Parameters during exercise were also assessed such as ergometry, blood lactate, ammonia, heart rate, respiratory exchange ratio, perception of effort, and hormones. While there were general trends that could be seen in most papers, no trend was consistent in all.
Ways to Prevent Overtraining
There are numerous ways to prevent overtraining and most of them are making sure balance is maintained between stress and recovery.
A big reason for why people program “splits” like push/pull or upper/lower body days are to help accommodate recovery periods for major muscle groups. Meaning a person is able to train their upper body one day and then the lower body the next day; The upper body muscles are able to rest while the lower body muscles are used and vice versa.
As mentioned, it is imperative to have a balance between stress and recovery. While scheduling can help alternate which muscle groups experience stress from training, rest for the total body means just being out of the gym and in a state of relaxation. It is also important to have good quality sleep; Sleep promotes muscle recovery via protein synthesis and human growth hormone release.
Stay Away from Stress
The term stress in fitness is used to describe the physical tension achieved or performed by the muscles. However, overtraining as a syndrome is etiologically rooted in both physiological and psychological factors.
Proper nutrition can help prevent overtraining by staving off fatigue. Proper nutrition ensures that the cells in the body are properly nourished with sufficient energy to perform and recover. Proper nutrition will also give the body enough energy to perform activities without having to resort too using up energy stores.
Overtraining can be prevented with sufficient monitoring. In professional athletes, their trainers can actually provide them with a recovery-stress questionnaire called a RESTQ-Sport. The questionnaire is comprised of numerous items and assesses the extent to which an individual is physically and mentally stressed, and whether the person is having enough rest.
It looks at several stress scales (general stress, emotional stress, social stress, conflicts/pressure, fatigue, lack of energy, physical complaints), sports-specific stress scales (disturbed breaks, emotional exhaustion, injury), general recovery scales (success, social recovery, physical recovery, general well-being, sleep quality), and sports-specific recovery scales (being in shape, personal accomplishment, self-efficacy, self-regulation).
Overtraining is the product of intense training and stress with insufficient recovery for the body, leading to decline in physical performance. It is still difficult to say whether overtraining is a myth or not due to the number of anecdotes on both sides, and with science being unable to currently properly diagnose it or even simulate it. However, overtraining is still being studied by sports Scientists which means there must be some merit to it.