What Is Overtraining?
It seems like everyone in the fitness industry is worried about overtraining. People scream about it from the top of their Instagram pedestal like they know any sort of biological basis for what is actually happening during the training process, or what actually promotes overtraining to begin with. Overtraining is a real thing that can plague athletes and general population people who really push their body to the physiological limits, but most people will not actually get there through their own training. To make matters a little more complicated, coming close to overtraining, without going over the line, can lead to crazy performance increases. Developing a real understanding of what this process is will be important to achieve your goals in the future.
Before we start talking about overtraining, we need to go over how your body reacts to a workout, or string of workout together. This is best illustrated by a model developed by Dr. Hans Selye called General Adaptation Syndrome.
The model is broken down into three different phases.
The first phase, the alarm phase, in the initial response to whatever stressor is happening in your environment at the time. This for our purposes, is your body’s response to a workout which is also called the Immediate Training Effect. The body must mobilize energy substrates. The type of substrates will be dependent on the type of stressor, in order to handle the stress that has been immediately presented to it.
The second phase is the resistance phase which happens after the workout is over. Our body begins to recover from the stress that was imposed upon it. It does this by creating stronger tissue structures like muscle, connective tissue, bone, or developing higher functional capacities (developing the nervous system's ability to produce a certain type of force). The nature of the resistance phase will be dependent on the nature of the alarm phase. For example, if we did a workout that is supposed to make us stronger, our body will adapt by making us stronger. If we do a workout that is supposed to increase our endurance then that is how we will adapt as well. This is the basis for the SAID Principle, or Specific Adaptation To Imposed Demands. This adaptation process causes the Delayed Training Effect, which is the adaptation to a new higher level of performance due to the nature of the workout.
The last phase of the cycle is exhaustion. This is exactly what we came here to talk about in which I will discuss in greater detail later.
You will notice in the picture that on the side of the graph illustrates the body’s ability to cope will stress during each one of these phases. In our context, we can think about this as the body’s ability to perform physically during each phase. During and for a slight time after the alarm phase our body has a diminished ability to cope with stress. This is also a part of the Immediate Training Effect. Think about performing a tough strength training workout. If, after you were all done, you were asked to max out your back squat do you think you would come anywhere close to hitting a PR? Most likely not. This is because your ability to perform is now diminished. Your energy substrates have been depleted, and now you must recover in order for your performance to increase. This is still a very important part of the training process. Without a strong enough alarm phase our body will never mobilize enough energy in order to adapt, and no resistance phase will happen. Which means no or very little increase in performance.
During the resistance phase our body not only has to mobilize energy substrates in order to handle the stress in front of us, it also has to mobilize energy substrates to go through certain physiological processes that help with recovery. We only have a certain amount of energy to adapt to the stressor, and it is called the Current Adaptation Reserves (CAR). The CAR is then broken down into two different parts: the Superficial Adaptation Energy, and the Deep Adaptation Energy. After a moderately intense training session, the body will begin to use its Superficial Adaptation Energy during the resistance phase in order to recover. However, if the alarm phase is drastic enough, or if multiple alarm phases (multiple workouts) are layered on top of each other, then the body will be forced to tap into the Deep Adaptation Energy system. After the body is done recovering from these intense stimuli, then a more drastic performance increase will follow.
As mentioned before, it's not easy to get into the Deep Adaptation Energy. Most of the time it requires a period of multiple high effort workouts in order to be intense enough of stimulus to get there. Believe me, it is not fun to be there. This period of training is often called overreaching because you are overreaching your body’s current performance capabilities in order to get to higher levels of performance in the future. Unless you are a beginner who has just started training, this is where you want to be if you are seeking maximal performance increases. When you’re there you may feel muscle soreness that persists longer than normal, things might feel like they are “tweaked” but not quite injured, and you probably just want to sleep in instead of actually doing your next workout. However, overreaching is not the same thing as overtraining.
Exhaustion is actually what overtraining is which is the third and final stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome cycle. Overtraining happens when multiple alarm phases last for so long that it exhausts the body’s CAR completely or when a single alarm phase is so intense that the body has no way of mobilizing enough energy in order to adapt to it. Both of these ways of overtraining are going to look a little different. If a single alarm phase is so intense that your body cannot adapt to it, you may be super exhausted from a workout (hence the name of the phase), but there may be no permanent damage done. Really you are just doing too much during your workout, and you are wasting your time. For example, say you are training for maximum power outputs. You are going to do back squats at 60% of your 1RM with band tension, you are going to try and move the bar as fast as possible. However, you decide to do this for 10x10 with a minute break in between sets. Well, as you get to reps 5-10 of each set the power output is actually going to diminish because the bar speed is going to slow down due to fatigue. You are no longer training what you were planning on training anymore. Due to this, your body will not have the ability to adapt to the specific parameter that you planned you training. Therefore, you have overtrained. While this may not be the worst thing in the world, it is not great because you are just eating away at your body's CAR without really any actual performance benefits.
The more serious form of overtraining is when the alarm phase lasts for such a long time or is repeated so often that it exhausts your body’s CAR completely. This is when physiological and even psychological problems start to rear their ugly heads. More serious injuries can occur, illness can happen, adrenal fatigue etc. Even more serious physiological problems like osteoporosis, amenorrhea (for females), and other long term hormonal issues can occur. Burnout can be a very real thing where the athlete may begin to hate their sport or a person may hate training. Sleep issues, emotional issues, body composition fluctuations are all possible and a real concern. All of these things can lead to more “permanent” performance decreases for athletes.
I do not go over these things to spell out gloom and doom for people. I mean to develop an understanding about what overtraining actually is and help people understand how resilient their body can be when exposed to intense alarm phases in a controlled and planned out manner. Most people will not train hard enough to get into their Deep Adaptation Energy, let alone to actually overtrain to the point of serious health problems. Most people will quit before that even happens. The more common form of overtraining happens through a misunderstanding of their programs and what they are actually training for. Causing them to do too much work that the body has no way of adapting too. This is not the worst thing in the world, and in fact pretty much everyone who is successful in the weight room has taken it too far at some point or another. The people who are successful for a long period of time are the ones who learn from these mistakes and refine their programs in the future. Don’t worry, you most likely are not overtraining (at least the really bad kind). You may just be a little banged up from training. Well, welcome to sport and strength training. Don’t go into a program expecting to feel perfect all the time and expect results.
A great way to think about it is that there is no real overtraining just under recovering. You won’t feel great all the time but you can learn from training cycles where you don’t feel your best and optimize your ability to recover. During times in which you’re testing and stressing your bodies ability to recover you’re also increasing your tolerance to handling more stressors at once. This is a great ability to have especially during inseason and travel schedules where recovery will never be perfect.
By Coach Joe Zambito