Can you Over-train? The Downside of Overtraining
Improving your fitness and athletic performance requires more than just regular workouts. It requires progressive increases in training. In other words, you need to overload your body. If you don’t bite off more than you can chew, you will plateau and not improve. However, overloading too aggressively can lead to overtraining.
Overtraining, also called staleness, over-fatigue, or over-strain, is a state in which the athlete can’t maintain previous levels of training and performance. It is not well understood but appears to come with a burden of emotional, behavioral, physical biochemical and performance changes, none for the better. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, appetite disorders, insomnia, weight loss or gain, muscle soreness, anemia, depression and worsened athletic performance.
Overtraining is a direct result of overloading. Overloading turns to overtraining when workout intensity, frequency or duration is excessive, and the athlete can’t recover from one workout before the next one. Insufficient recovery, when repeated over time, leads to chronic fatigue and a dip in performance and training intensity.
The best treatment for overtraining is rest, or at least a marked tapering over a period of time. It is less difficult to prevent overtraining than try to recover from it. You need to overload in order to improve, but you want to avoid overtraining. How to solve this dilemma? It’s not an exact science, but it depends on being able to see the signs that overtraining is starting to set in, and nipping it in the bud.
The best-known indicator of overtraining is an increase in your resting heart rate. Elite runners, for example, tend to have resting heart rates under 50 beats per minute—a phenomenon known as athletic bradycardia. When a distance runner over-trains, resting heart rate in the morning is higher than normal. Exactly why this happens is unknown, but it might be partially caused by fatigue to the heart muscle itself.
Morning heart rate has been studied as an indicator of overtraining for long distance runners, but hasn’t really been studied well for other sports, although anecdotal evidence suggests that it works about the same. The results are suggestive enough that athletes in other sports monitor their heart rates anyway. Morning resting heart rate is most likely more relevant to aerobic activity only; someone involved in an anaerobic activity like weight lifting most likely cannot gauge the likelihood that they’re overtraining from their morning resting heart rate.
If an athlete is overtraining, his or her workout should be tapered off over several weeks. This is fine if you work out for your own health and fitness, but if you’re a competitive athlete this may not be feasible. If overtraining isn’t too severe, drop your workout frequency to twice a week. You’ll maintain your approximate level of fitness. Once per week training will slow down losses, but cannot prevent losses. In some cases, a short period of complete rest may be the way to go. Severe overtraining may require a complete layoff. Once training is resumed after a layoff, fitness returns gradually, at about the same rate as the initial gains.