A Friendly Debate: Overtraining

Dave Van Skike and Sara Fleming

Ever felt like this?

Dave:  When I hear people use the term “overtraining” I often wonder if they have an understanding of what the term even means. I think it’s misapplied and often misunderstood. At the one end of the spectrum of training you have injuries and mild disruptions in sleep cycles etc.  However, I think athletes have a difficult time differentiating the mild effects from the typical impacts of a hard effort. 

On the other end of the spectrum you have a true overtraining syndrome that is unmistakable. As a cyclist I’ve experienced one bout of severe overtraining which I can only describe as pretty horrible. What began as 3 months of undiagnosable nausea led eventually to near debilitating muscle soreness and chronic fatigue, constant need for sleep and very poor appetite. Blood work showed a huge drop in Testosterone and extremely high cortisol levels.  It took nearly 4 months to recover and at least a year to return to form. 

Therefore, when I hear the term “overtraining” used to describe sore muscles and a little fatigue I’m skeptical.  Anyone who has trained hard for any length of time knows that these are par for the course, take little time to recover from and are really a minor inconvenience not a health concern.

Sara:  Well, while I recognize that true overtraining syndrome is certainly a world apart from some muscle soreness and fatigue, I will say that CNS fatigue does happen quite a bit. However, although I think its underrecognized, I also think it is blamed far too much for failures that can simply be blamed on poor planning.  It is relatively easy to push someone to the point of mental or physical exhaustion and reduced recoverability with bad programming, inadequate nutrition, or too much volume.  Unless you have developed the ability to train intuitively, its hard to know exactly what degree of volume, intensity, and recovery are adequate or excessive and many of us fall into the trap of pushing too hard and doing too much.  

I have found, both with myself, and the folks that I train that failure to account for the stresses associated with learning a new sport or movement, performing exercises that require a great deal of coordination, and/or suddenly increasing volume and/or intensity can lead to a lack or even reversal of progress or feeling stale rather quickly.  I think its an important warning sign that not all is well.

Wood stacking = Strength and Conditioning.

If you think about it, the nervous system has a lot of jobs to do.  The nervous system is responsible for your emotions, for muscle fiber recruitment, basic coordination, and learning. When all those activities are in high demand, overall stress levels may rise. 

We often think of physical training as being largely the job of the muscles, however, the nervous system plays a dominant role.  Early strength gains are primarily the result of increased nervous system coordination. In fact this is the predominant cause of strength gains in pre-pubescent children.  In fact, most people starting a new exercise routine will generally find that they improve most aspects of their fitness rather quickly due to nervous system adaptations to new stimulus. This is simply evidence of a change in stimulus and not necessarily an indicator of the quality of the program.  For example, I have a rather effective program I do with my children.  Its called “carry and stack firewood”.  Its incredibly effective, but not much fun.  However, while doing my program over the winter, my kids have gotten much stronger and can carry far more wood than they did in the Fall.  Its not that my program is cutting edge, its simply something they were not used to doing.

Physical learning can be just as challenging as mental learning.  You not only learn new movement patterns, but your nervous system learns how to more efficiently fire muscle fibers to get a larger response from less stimulus.  So, think about that.  Your brain and nerves are constantly optimizing your stimulus/response system to make you stronger and move more efficiently.  Imagine throwing some gymnastic training on top of your Olympic lifting routine.  You can imagine that it might take a while for your nervous system to adapt to doing both well and you may in fact find that your lift progression suffers while you work on your back handspring.

When looking at your training plan, you have to account for all the jobs that your nervous system does and either plan accordingly or realize that you may have to push through a short period of things getting worse before they get better.  Don’t make the mistake of pushing through for too long.  If you are feeling absolutely crushed for more than a week or two, you need to adjust your programming. 

 Dave:  While I agree conceptually,  I think an important concept is one of over reaching.  In order to achieve a training effect, provoke the body to adapt, you have to impose training stress. This is by definition exceeding your current abilities: “over reaching”.  If you do this systematically, you adapt and become a stronger, or faster.  I think what you commonly see when people are complaining of CNS fatigue or mild overtraining is that they have applied too much training stress at once or more often too many different kinds of training stress at once: ie simultaneously training to both lose weight and gain muscle while attempting to get stronger at the powerlifts and prepare for a kettelbell competition.  While these are all reasonable goals, pursuing them all at once creates so many disparate stressors that I think the body simply cannot adapt to all of them.  What happens in the targeted stress of training that one can adapt to becomes a background life stress once cannot adapt to, like a divorce or losing a job.

I’m certainly not immune to this and I think it’s very common but still feel it’s unfair to indict “training” as the problem.  The problem was ignorance of how the body would react to this stress, and in many cases inadequate preparation to train.  I think there’s an element of truth to the axiom that there’s no such thing as overtraining, you’re just under-trained to attempt the training goals you’re working on now.  Nearly every mild “overtraining” issue I’ve experienced has been due to rushing the progression, adding weekly mileage too quickly, adding too much weight to the bar, jumping into intervals too soon.  The problem wasn’t the modality, it was impatience with the rate of progress.

Yes.  I lift.  

Sara:  I agree with you, however, it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to self-train effectively and a lot of us don’t have that knowledge or experience.  For the vast majority of us, it doesn’t take a lot of complex tasks to push us over the edge.  Many of us go through periods of pushing too hard and then backing off from exhaustion only to jump into another program when we start to feel better.  All the while making little to no progress.

There are loads of pre-programmed  training models that promise results, but leaving optimization for the individual out of the program leads to exhaustion and fatigue.  These templates are solely to elicit a training effect and do not take into account diet, age, gender, experience, training age, life stress, and all the other thousands of individual variations.  Recognizing the effects of all of our activities as a whole is very important to being successful on a training program.  For myself, it has meant dropping intensity back and increasing volume such that I’m always doing something, but it is at a level I can recover from without being constantly sore, fatigued, or tired.  Doing things this way has lead to quite a few PRs and is much more pleasant than my previous training plan.  

Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength” is a solid program
for the beginner/novice lifter.

Dave: I do think that many of the stock programs that are widely used are useful and valuable. Even aggressive programs for squatting like a  Westside Max Effort/Dynamic Effort split or a Smolov cycle or even the 20 reps squat progression will all work for people in some way. They are internally consistent  and many times well thought out. Where the problem lies is that athletes apply these systems in a vacuum, they assume that they can do both a Smolov Cycle and continue with normal training, the can do a Westside powerlifitng split and continue playing in a rugby league. The problem is thinking you can add that template over your existing lifestyle and get results. 

In the overall scheme, training stress is easy to control and your body can adapt to it.  Life stress is something you can’t always control.  And herein lies the real problem, the body’s response to too much life stress is something that looks a lot like overtraining; depression. Anyone who’s experienced both mild depression and mild overtraining will note the similarities: feeling flat, lack of motivation, fatigue, a large appetite or major lack of appetite, sleep disruptions etc.  I think this is what people mean when they say “CNS fatigue.”  Furthermore, I think it’s much more likely to experience this kind of fatigue from things going on outside the gym than from.  Todd Christensen, a very accomplished powerlifting coach I’ve had the privilege to train under  often reflects that, he never worries about what his lifters are doing at the gym, it’s the other 20 hours in the day when they get hurt, sneaking in extra workouts, skiing, cycling or even gardening.  I think most coaches would agree, in an ideal world, the athlete would train and spend the rest of the day encased in a plastic bubble resting, stretching and eating.  

Don’t underestimate the other stresses in your life.

So, no, I don’t think what most people call CNS fatigue is necessarily from overtraining, I think its from too much overall stress and that you recognize this overload most clearly in the training environment.   I think this is the critical disconnect people make with “overtraining” or “CNS fatigue” is that compared to the random stress of life, training stress is really very mild. Part of the learning process for athletes involves acceptance that if you add a new training stress, you have to eliminate some other stress, training or otherwise.

Sara:  It still needs to be addressed.  To me, its a signal that something needs an adjustment.  If you just competed in your first powerlifting meet and you get back in the gym three days later and your lifts are shot, then yes, go home.  You are a little fried.  And maybe this is a clue that you need to think about how you compete and recover.  Maybe you need a light deload week after a competition, maybe you need to be able to compete with a clear head, maybe you need to just take a week off completely after a competition.  I think that a lot of people don’t take into account the stress that comes from competing, learning a new sport, or adapting to a new program.   Things you might not take into account are activities that require learning, but may not be overall stressful.  For example, you may not want to learn how to ballroom dance a couple of weeks before a major competition.  It may be a pleasant way to spend time with your spouse, but you are forcing your nervous system to learn something rather complicated while trying to push the limits of its ability to recruit muscle fibers.  Stress can come from positive and negative sources, but it still has a cost associated with it.

Meditation and mental preparation is an important part
of high level performance.  

Dave:  On this we have no disagreement whatsoever.   A lot of lifters have learned to do over time is to not get keyed up before a big lift, but to remain calm, making many amazing performances often look effortless.  I’ve spoken with many strength athletes in particular that have gradually come to accept over time that they need to not “train on the nerve”.  Just the process of getting psyched up for a big lift or an event cause a cascade of stress responses that are taxing on the recovery system.  A great example of this is a Strongman competitor like Ztydrunsa Zavickas who lifts even in competition with a relatively casual ease and is often seen back in the training hall days after an event casually repping out 800 plus pounds on the squat.  Clearly that’s an extreme example but there’s evidence of a philosophical approach: don’t let the emotional response to the event overwhelm or derail the training process.

To be fair there is a legitimate approach.  The flip side of this are lifters who have found they  need this emotional response to focus their minds on a effort. Many successful athletes, like the Swedish discus thrower Ricky Bruch learn to accept that the emotional outburst is part of their process..The successful ones learn to  mitigate these highs and  by focusing outside the gym on meditation, remaining calm and serene.  Athletes like this may find they need more time off after a competition and in training need to pursue maximum lifts less frequently.  

Overuse injuries can be avoidable with smart programming and
attention to the individual.

Sara:  Well, we clearly agree that true overtraining is an extreme physiological response to what is simply too much and CNS fatigue is simply an indicator that the stress levels have changed and we need to adapt.  However, there is a continuum of what many people will describe as overtraining.  The worst is what the endurance athlete may experience with literally being sick for a long period of time which you’ve described.  However, I see a lot of folks who I would call overtrained and although they may not be suffering health-wise, they tend to experience overuse injuries, are chronically sore, and have a hard time making progress.  This is often from too much volume, not enough recovery, and very often, inadequate nutrition.   They also often begin to have setbacks in body composition and strength from a loss of muscle mass.  The hardest thing to convince these folks of is that they need to slow down, cut the volume, and focus on the quality of their work.  A lot of times, simply focusing on full body strength and hypertrophy can make a big difference.  I trained a marathon runner who ran 4 races a year.  I cut her running in half, put her on a strength program, and almost doubled her caloric intake.  She cut 20 minutes off her marathon time and went from 30% bodyfat to 19% bodyfat.    

Dave:  I think this is not intuitive for every athlete. It’s something we all learn at our own pace but really it’s the most important element of training is monitoring and moderating the process to achieve a desired outcome.  As someone who’s been bitten hard by overtraining this is what I look for  I look for the standard signs, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, increased carving for sweets or alcohol, or coffee. etc.    Recognizing that overreaching is part of what you do to get better and we often overreach too far without knowing it. Any good athlete will tell you a high level of performance is a fragile state.   One sign is that when you hit a number of PR’s you need to recognize you’re close to the edge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt myself getting a slight flu, went to the gym anyway and then hit a personal record.  This spring I hit a lifetime PR in the deadlift, two weeks later I was diagnosed with pneumonia.  This is not to say we should avoid peak performances in training when they come along, but recognize the closer you get to a peak performance the more fragile you might be.   

Sara:   Yes, I’ve see that with my lifters.  We typically do not train heavy, if at all the week after a weightlifting meet.  They tend to be slower and not enthusiastic about lifting.   You’re talking about prs with lifting, but in my experience with general fitness, a lot of folks get addicted to the feeling of being exhausted after a workout usually with cardio or muscle endurance type workouts.  And constantly reach for that state.   Your body will adapt to this reducing the ability to put in that effort.  It will keep you from imposing that stress on yourself.  Those that push through usually end up with the overuse injuries and/or depression.    Whether this is clinical depression or the experience of feeling depressed is irrelevant.

So what are the best tools for avoiding overtraining?

Sara:  When you think about what training is, ie. introducing a stimulus and hoping for a certain result, its a lot like a science experiment.  The key to being a successful researcher in the lab will also make you a successful trainer in the gym; you must record what you are doing, how you respond to it, and make appropriate adjustments.   Therefore, your training journal is far more valuable that you might think.  Periodically reviewing your training journal will often reveal things that you may not have considered overall in your training.  

I keep a coaching journal for all the weightlifters I work with and I tend to notice right away when things go awry.  When coaching one of my schoolage lifters for Nationals last year, I couldn’t figure out why her lifts had not only plateaued, but gone down.  And then in talking with her, I found out that she was trying to learn how to pole vault.  The work itself was not more than she was used to doing at track and field practice, but the demands on her coordination and learning abilities went way up.  When she backed off on the pole vaulting, her lifts returned to their previous glory and she set two PRs on the platform at Nationals.  Likewise, when any of my personal training clients start decreasing their performance, I ask them about illness, family or job stress, or anything new in their lives.  There is usually a cause and I typically have them back off a bit until they adjust.  I’ve found that when I don’t do this, they are more prone to lack of motivation and/or hurting themselves.  

Dave:  First of all, training smart and being patient.  You should not need ibuprofen to simply get warmed up (caveat..this does not apply to Masters athletes. You guys just do what it takes) You should not be missing lifts in training nor should you leave your best lifts in the gym. A friend of mine, a German Master’s Weightlifter has a rule, two PR’s on the day, the session is over.  This may be extreme but over the long haul, I think his mindset is right.  Competition is where records really count.

In terms of best practices, it’s probably a good idea to start with some things that may seem counterproductive.  Again, I’m not saying this is intuitive or easy but so many of our gut responses to mild overreaching or stall in progress are utterly wrong.  For instance when we experience persistent fatigue or malaisee the first instice is the blame the plan, abandoine ship, or to change to program, add accessory exercises to “fix” problems e.g. my squat is bad so I need to X and X to fix it. My log press is weak I need to do more X to support it, my squat hasn’t moved in the month, maybe I should do a  Smolov…I’m as guilty as the next guy of these follies so I can say with confidence that much training ADD is attributable to simple lack of progress from overreaching and life stress.  So what works? First, fix what is broken, training stress can be adapted to, life stress cannot always so any efforts to reduce your background stress levels will pay off.  The first simple rule would be to make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition and more sleep. Beyond these it’s wildly variable. For me, having an organized gear bag and a clean house reduce my stress level. Athletes like my friend Arden Cogar use meditation and yoga, a Master Powerlifter I know swears by an Epsom bath and a Dark and Stormy. Whatever your recovery strategies, they should be intentional and focused on making more room in your overall life for the rigors of training.

Beyond life stress I think there are immediate things to consider in how to adjust your training. If you feel the program is not working, start looking for what can be removed. Can you slightly reduce overall volume? Can you ease up the intensity, focus more on skill work, can you give yourself an extra day of recovery between hard session? Can you eliminate some accessory work? Most important of all I think is, can you be patient and remove your expectations over your rate of progress? Can you just focus on what you’re doing at that moment? The flip side is ois perhaps your most important tool, your training log. Looking back over the years you will see patterns and be able to frame the training setback in terms of years not days.  Injuries and setbacks occur, don’t cheat yourself by blaming the training, take responsibility for being underprepared for the impacts of your own ambition.  Athletes get stalled or hurt from pushing too hard, too quickly, accepting this is a necessary evil makes it an easy lesson to learn from.

One thought on “A Friendly Debate: Overtraining

  1. great article. I discuss CNS overtraining with all my clients. They have a good understanding of what goes on now instead of just thinking they are exhausted because they have started exercising…

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