Fitness: How to Avoid Overtraining

Many athletes fail because they think that if they just work harder and do more workouts than the next athlete, they will succeed.  True, working out harder and more often leads to better fitness, but there comes a time when this strategy can cause harm.  When training too much causes harm, we call it overtraining; this is in contrast to overreaching which occurs from the intentional, planned overloading that occurs as part of a well designed exercise program.  Overreaching is mainly a short term phenomenon (days to weeks) that sometimes leads to small amounts of fatigue and decreased performance; overtraining usually causes more severe and longer term symptoms that can be present for a month or more. The primary cause of overtraining is usually a lack of rest and recovery in the training program.  In our training program, we purposefully try to overreach for at least one week each month.  During that week, you may find that you experience fatigue, muscle soreness, and other symptoms that would suggest your body is not performing optimally.  The following week when the training volume is lower, you should notice those symptoms subsiding and your fitness will gradually improve as your body adapts to the high training stimulus the week before. This adaptation phenomenon is call Super-compensation, and it is the foundation upon which all of exercise methodologies rest.

Training too much, with too high intensity, or without proper variety is certainly the leading cause of overtraining, but other factors that limit recovery can also lead to overtraining.  For example, chronic psychological stress can limit the body’s ability to heal between exercise sessions.  Hormone imbalances created by a poor diet or medications can lead to an imbalance between catabolic and anabolic hormones which decreases the body’s ability to recovery from stressful workouts.  Poor sleep is a very common complaint, and people who don’t sleep well are notoriously weak and tired when they show up for the workout sessions.

So how do you prevent overtraining?  The old adage about listening to your body applies.  Athletes will go so far as to keep a training journal in order to monitor various physiological parameters.  If they start to become abnormal for any sustained period, then they would change their exercise program or focus harder on enhancing their recovery.  Signs and symptoms of overtraining are:

  1. General Fatigue, lack of motivation and even depression and other mood changes.
  2. Poor performance in workouts or on key measurements.  For example:
    1. Decrease vertical jump or leg power
    2. Poor grip strength
    3. Muscle stiffness
    4. Joint Pain
    5. Skin complexion and presence of acne.
    6. Athlete gets sick easily.
    7. Changes in the resting heart rate.
      1. A common practice among elite athletes is to take your resting heart rate every day at the same time – usually in the morning.
      2. Higher and more variable resting heart rates are signs of overtraining.

The better you get at monitoring these aspects of your health, the better you can match your training with your goals.  You may start to notice that you never experience any of these signs and symptoms, and that you may not be pushing yourself hard enough.  Or, you may notice that you get many of these symptoms and you realize that you don’t vary your workouts enough.  Quite often the reasons for the symptoms are obvious, but you never would have noticed them unless you forced yourself to take a look!  Its very difficult to be objective about yourself.

Some of the general methods for avoiding overtraining are similar to those that provide for good health:  Eat well, sleep well, avoid chronic stress and have some fun once in a while.  For those that train really hard, you will benefit from extra stimuli to the body, like massage, hot/cold applications, nutritional supplements and active recovery.

In summary, “Whatever doesn’t kill you will makes you stronger.”  Both in exercise and in life, the optimal doses of stress seem to be right in the middle – not too much or not too little.  Because we live in a sedentary society, we don’t pay much attention to overtraining in exercise, because most people don't push to the point where overtraining is an issue.  However, many people push too intense with their exercise when their body is not ready - this is a type of overtraining that is becoming more common now, with the gaining popularity of Crossfit and other intense types of workouts.  The solution to this is to perform lower intensity exercise in higher quantities at first, then build up to doing lower amounts of activities at higher intensities.   This allows the body to be prepared to do high intensity activities, and helps to prevent injury.

Finding that sweet spot where you get the least down sides and the most upsides with your exercise routine is both your job and your health care provider’s job.   I hope you found this article helpful and good luck finding your sweet spot this month!

Dr. Ryan Oughtred, ND

Fitness: Sport Specific Conditioning

Monthly Theme:  Sport Specific Fitness

Probably the single biggest mistake that fitness professionals can make is to choose the wrong type of exercise for their client.  Whether you are an athlete or not, everyone needs to do a minimum of 600 hours of exercise every month – that’s a lot of time!  In order to make the most of that time, you need to utilize the proper quantity of exercises, the proper frequencies, the proper intensities and perhaps most importantly, you need to choose the proper types of exercises that will help you reach your goals.  In the end, a runner needs to run, a skier needs to ski, and a golfer needs to golf to get good at what they do.  If you.

Improving your fitness will help you reach your physical goals, but only if the fitness activities you choose mimic the demands of your sport.  For example a golfer needs to be strong, stable and flexible for full body twisting movements and in the stabilizing muscles of the shoulders, spine and hips.  Exercises for a golfer should be focused on these movements.  Tiger Wood’s old trainer is popular for having him run and workout with a weighted vest – this gave him strength endurance in the lower body and hips for tasks like running, jumping, and climbing hills but it did very little for his golf game in my opinion.  In fact, it may have even done harm by increasing wear and tear to his knees and other lower quarter joints.

So what types of exercises should you choose?  Here are some examples of how strength exercises can be made more specific for different sports:

-A runner would strengthen their legs with primarily lunging and stepping movements, not squatting movements

-A golfer would strengthen spinal rotation with cables and they would ensure a complete range of motion so that the exercise preserves or enhances their flexibility.

-A footballer would put bands around their feet or other resistance to their lower legs to create endurance and strength in their hip stabilizers.  They would also utilize high-speed foot work drills combined with power drills like jumping and sprinting.  All of these fitness components would have to performed in high volumes to create endurance for playing long periods of time.

The sport specific principle can be utilized for everyone:

- A mom could perform deadlifts, squats and upper body strength exercises to aid in their ability to lift things and manage active children at home.

- A fireman would stop doing bench press and start doing more full body pushing activities like resisted push ups or cable presses that require more stability in the shoulder.  They would train with ropes, dumbells, kettlebells or other devices that challenge grip strength, shoulder stability and strength at the same time.

- If you are someone who wants to gain weight and build muscle, your exercises should focus on using large muscles groups, and several muscle groups at a time.   Bicep curls will not get you quick weight gains - squats, Olympic lifts, lunges, step ups, sprints, jumps, dips, pull ups and the avoidance of aerobic activity will help you build muscle without having to quit your day job.

Hopefully this discussion of sport specific training has helped you think about how you can choose better types of exercises.  You don’t have all the time in the world to work out and take care of your health, so make sure you make the most of it with exercises that suit your own specific needs and make the most of your precious time!