Beginning with wrestling and soccer, Jake has been immersed in fitness nearly his whole life. Personal training and studying exercise in college were the natural progression of that passion. Competing locally in bodybuilding and powerlifting, Jake currently studies exercise at university and does online coaching at Jackalstrength.com.
Overtraining is a term that gets thrown around the gym like cryptocurrency; everyone uses it, but no one understands it. Ask anyone what overtraining is and you’ll get answers ranging from “Your nerves get fried” to “You’re just working too hard”. You’ll find a lot of people who use overtraining as an excuse to never actually work hard. Occasionally you’ll find people who “don’t believe in it”. (I wouldn’t believe in it either if I just did yoga for 30 minutes a day and then returned to my sedentary lifestyle).
Let’s take a second, put away the bro-science, and actually break down what overtraining is (and is not).
Overtraining Is NOT
“CNS fatigue”, a hormonal state, a need to “confuse” your muscles, or something that just happens every 4 weeks. Some of these ideas are on the right track, just missing important details.
A blanket statement that is used to describe a myriad of symptoms that may be caused by a disproportionate ratio of training load to recovery ability. Training load refers to volume, intensity, and frequency of training, but on a more detailed level it can also include things like exercise specificity and nervous system requirements. Recovery ability refers to the amount of time and resources required to return a system to normal (homeostasis) or perform required adaptations (allostasis). Put simply, either you train too much, or you rest too little (but we’ll get into more specifics later).
The first thing to do when addressing overtraining is identify the mechanisms of fatigue that are involved in your sport/activity. Fatigue can come from many sources. Long-term endurance sports generally reach fatigue as their glycogen stores deplete and blood glucose levels drop. Sprint-style activities will primarily be limited by their ability to buffer acids created from working above their “lactate threshold”. Strength training is fatiguing in a totally different manner. Depending on your style of strength training, your fatigue could come from a number of sources – phosphocreatine levels, acid accumulation, nervous system force-limiting factors, to name a few.
Fatigue isn’t always a physiological limitation though; psychological factors play a role as well. Anxiety, stress, boredom, fear, etc. affect your ability to perform. Just lost your job? You’re probably not going to be setting PR’s for a little while. Scared you’ll hurt your back? Your brain will say you’re tired long before you should actually rest. Do you have to get amped up for each set? The constant sympathetic stimulation can become fatiguing. Even boredom plays a role. I can run hills and trails for hours but put me on a treadmill and I check-out in minutes. The smallest things can make a difference in your ability to exert force; 4x Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler claims that during prep he couldn’t train without showering first. Psychological factors can play at least as big a role in fatigue as physiological ones do.
So before continuing, take a minute to make a list of the various forms of fatigue that you can and do encounter in your sport/activity and life. Not everyone will be rate-limiting, but each one can contribute to overtraining.
How does one properly manage fatigue to avoid overtraining? Let’s look at both training and recovery. You can’t have one without the other.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this 3 part series!