As coaches, we have athletes come up to us periodically in fits of frustration stating “I don’t know what’s going on? I am following the programming, doing the strength class and I am not getting an stronger?”.  Generally, we will ask you a couple of questions:
#1 – How is your diet?  Are you eating enough? What are you eating?#2 – How often are you training?  What does your week look like?

Regarding the second question, we are going to reference an article we have referenced before, but it encompasses overtraining issues that you may be suffering from.  There is a short Q&A at the end of the article, PLEASE TAKE IT and take proactive steps to change your training if you score poorly on it.

In an article by Andrew Read, in Breaking Muscle, titled “Overtraining Can Kill You“, the author discusses 3 stages of over training. He first states:

“Overtraining, in its early forms is often unrecognizable as a medical condition as no symptoms may appear. The only signs may be slight decreases in performance, injuries that never seem to heal, or a cold that simply won’t go away. It’s the accumulation of all the stress of work and training that contribute to these factors.”

The body goes through 3 stages of stress adaptation:

Stage 1– Diagnosing the early stages of overtraining can be difficult. Things may appear as slight back pain in a cyclist, a touch of ankle or foot problems in a runner, or as shoulder pain in a lifter. Usually during this time blood tests will still come back showing normal ranges, which can lead to further frustration as injuries continue or performances start to decline further. Interestingly, in this first stage of overtraining big gains in performance can be made afterwards if used correctly. Commonly called overreaching it is not uncommon for athletes to deliberately be pushed into the red zone so that after an appropriate recovery period they have adapted better and return faster and stronger. The problem here lies in the excitement of heightened performance. The athlete and coach usually end up continuing down this road, pushing more and more until, like Icarus, they burn out and come crashing back to earth. Symptoms of this first stage include: 

  • Increased vulnerability to back, knee, ankle, and foot injuries.
  • Abnormal hormonal output. Including changes to menstrual cycle in women.
  • Reduced sexual desire.
  • Mental stress, depression, and anxiety.

The important thing to do here is to recognize the early stages of overtraining and appropriately manage other factors such as diet, sleep, and lifestyle so that the work part of the equation is balanced. This may mean reducing your training volume and intensity in the short term.

Stage 2– This stage is most often seen by athletes who perform high volumes of anaerobic or strength work, particularly those who have high lifestyle stress. Strangely, a feeling of increased energy will be felt as the adrenal system kicks into high gear to cope with the extra demands. This will be shown in a restless, over-excited state – a feeling of not needing any sleep and of being able to go and go and go. The resulting high cortisol levels can lead to increased insulin, which reduces fat burning and increases fat storage. Maximal training intensities increase the insulin response significantly. This leads to a desire for more carbohydrate (also needed to refuel the work done at the higher intensities). The body’s growing intolerance of these, due to the heightened insulin response, however, will lead to the carbs being stored as fat, not as potential energy – further heightening the problem. While it may seem like this is an unwinnable position to be in, at this stage the entire downward spiral can still be reversed through changing diet and training and recovery strategies.

Stage 3- Chronic overtraining can lead to serious brain, muscle, and metabolic imbalances. These parallel chronic adrenal dysfunction and aerobic deficiency. Eventually the body becomes exhausted and many hormones are significantly reduced. The most notable side effect of stage three is severe exhaustion. Performance at this stage is likely at an all time low and many athletes retire at this point. Athletes in this third stage are seriously unwell, with high risk of developing chronic diseases of the heart, blood vessels, and other areas.

Reaching stage 3 constitutes a serious medical problem, one that takes much, much longer than a few rest days to recover from. If we listen to our body earlier on in our training and take the appropriate rest we can stay away from stage 3. The problem, however, may be that we don’t know when our body is talking to us and what signs we should be “listening” for. There are list of 10 physical markers that we as athletes can track on a daily basis. Paying attention to these markers can help dictate whether or not today is a good day to train or maybe it’s best if I stay away from the gym.  These markers should be trended, at minimum over 3 weeks to create a foundation for comparison:

1) Resting heart rate. Check it first thing in the morning when you wake up while still lying in bed. Note any change +/- 5%.
2) Weight. Check first thing in the morning, before using the restroom. Note any change +/- 2%.
3) Urine shade. There are 3 ways to describe it, Pale Clear Yellow/ Yellow/ Dark.
4) Hours of sleep. I know it’s hard but the goal every night is 8+.
5) Sleep quality. There are 3 ways to describe it, Deep Sleep/ Occasional Tossing & Turning/ Restless.
6) Appetite. There are 3 ways to describe it, Very Hungry/ Hungry/ Not Hungry.
7) Mood. There are 3 ways to describe it, Very Good/ Normal/ Bad.
8) Soreness. There are 3 ways to describe it, Not Sore/ Sore/ Very Sore.
9) Immune system status. Make note of any issues, cough, runny nose, etc.
10) Previous day’s performance. There are 3 ways to describe it, PR Day/ Normal Training Day/ Bad Training Day.

Noting a bad score in one of these markers is not bad, so you slept crappy. . . it’s the culmination of multiple negative markers that should make us take pause. If 2 or fewer markers are negative, keep training, you are good to go. If you have 3-4 negative markers, think about taking a rest day, proceed with caution. If you have 5 or more negative markers, you should rest until you feel recovered, this may include completely stopping your training program for a period of time. This is why it’s important to listen to our body early, not push through these negative signs. The more we push through, the longer the recovery may become. Remember, REST is a part of your training. Ignoring rest days, never deloading our bodies, does not build the gains we seek. Our bodies need to adapt to the stresses we put on it, these adaptations happen during rest.

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