The thing about overtraining is that it exists on a spectrum, without clear-cut rules or boundaries. As I said last week, sufficient training volume is entirely subjective, and it’s constantly changing depending on an individual trainee’s goals, nutrition, sleep habits, stress levels, and injury status. What worked well for the last three months might prove to be excessive if your diet gets disrupted. A particularly stressful stretch at the office could undo a heretofore-steady strength progression. The human body is resilient, but there are limits – and the limits aren’t always clearly delineated. To divine them, it takes finesse and thoughtful tinkering at the edges. Sometimes you have to fall off the edge to know where it is. It’s more art than science. There are some solid, basically objective ways to deal with it, though, even if you’re not sure what constitutes overtraining for you.
If you take the necessary steps to prevent overtraining before it happens, you’re good to go. I’ve learned that, when in doubt, less is often more.
Most performance-oriented people will have to choose between running mega miles each week and hitting heavy compound lifts. You can’t do Stronglifts, drink a gallon of milk, and go run a half marathon. I mean, you physically can and I want you to be fit enough to do so, but training that way would be so entirely counterproductive as to be absurd. Your running would suffer, your lifts would be weak and unimpressive, and you’d probably injure yourself. You’d be way overstimulated, cortisol would flow like desiccated gluten through a leaky gut, and you wouldn’t know whether to burn fat or burn sugar. Lift heavy and run the occasional long distance event? That’s fine. It’s what being Primally fit is all about. But it’s the regular training of both that will confuse your body and mess you up in the long run.
I know I’ve got a fair amount of endurance athletes reading this, and I don’t want to rub them the wrong way, but this is simply my honest opinion. Unless you are among the elite few, running marathons and engaging in high intensity endurance training on a regular basis – Chronic Cardio – is the quickest way to overtrain. It’s what led to my perpetual state of fatigue, inflammation, and system stress back in my endurance days. I’ve made overtures in the past to PBers who refuse to give up endurance work, and last week a good friend gave his take on endurance training the Primal way, but, as a general rule, don’t train for marathons, triathlons, or any other extreme endurance event if you’re worried about overtraining. Yes, I encourage you to be fit enough to be able to run one, but you can achieve a level of proficiency simply by training PB-style. (In fact, I tell people, if you absolutely decide you need to train for and run a marathon, I’ll let you run two. The first is to finish. The second is to better your time from the first one. If, after that, you haven’t broken three hours, it’s clear you are not a marathoner. Find another, “funner” pursuit.)
Food is fuel. A good meal can be a pleasurable, even transcendent experience, but in the end, it’s simply how we provide the body with the energy it needs to function and the organic building blocks it needs to repair itself. When you’re training, whether with weights or sprints or HIIT, that fuel becomes absolutely vital. You may need even more of it. Thankfully, the body has a natural tendency to feel ravenous hunger after heavy training. It’s a pretty good system – lift heavy things, get hungry, eat, refuel/refill/replenish, repeat – but we can foul things up by forgetting to eat or by actively avoiding food (in a misguided attempt to jumpstart weight loss). Sometimes, overtraining is actually just under eating.
It’s not just the amount of food you take in that matters. The quality of food matters just as much. You don’t fuel a jet engine with lighter fluid. This stuff is important. Now, I know we’ve all known elite athletes who subsist on Slurpees and fast food, but that doesn’t negate the importance of proper nutrition for the rest of us. If you don’t have the winds of genetic good fortune at your back (as most people definitely do not), fine tuning your caloric quality is a sure fire way to avoid overtraining. Eat plenty of protein and fat to fuel your efforts and repair your body, along with (only) as many added carbs as you need to replenish glycogen. In addition to providing proper fueling, eating only animals, plants, fruits, and nuts, while avoiding grains, sugars, legumes, and industrial vegetable oils will reduce or negate systemic inflammation; eating an inflammatory diet increases the inflammatory load on a system already “burdened” with intense training. Bad idea all around.
It may be that overtraining is just another form of inflammation. We already know that small servings of stress and inflammation are normal (exercise provides the right amount of stress and inflammation required for muscle repair, recovery, and ultimately progression), and that a health body is adequately equipped to deal with exercise induced stress and inflammation. Problems arise when chronic inflammation disrupts the body’s regular stress response. As Matt Metzgar points out, chronic inflammation can block the body’s anabolic hormones. Without sufficient anabolic hormones, the body cannot recover from exercise, which is the main thing we are trying to do here (recover, that is). In a state of chronic inflammation, then, almost any attempt to exercise results in classic overtraining symptoms.
As I said earlier, stress is good to a point. For one, it enables the repair process. Exercise is a form of stress on the body; our muscles exert themselves, which is a type of stress, and the body responds by repairing the “damaged” muscle. If all goes well (that is, if it wasn’t too much stress and you allowed enough recovery time), the repaired muscle will be stronger than before. Stress can also heighten our senses and even increase our physical performance in the short term. A bit of simulated, perceived danger pre-workout (visualize facing down a big wild cat before a sprint, or lifting the backside of a Volkswagen off your friend before deadlifting) can actually kick start a small stress response that increases physical strength, reaction time, and focus. It’s interesting, vital stuff, stress, but chronic levels are unmanageable and actually reduce our physical performance and ability to recover from training.
Sleep is precious, but we generally don’t get enough of it. Anabolic hormones important for muscle repair and recovery, especially growth hormone, are released during sleep – poor sleep curtails that, cuts it short. Lack of sleep increases cortisol production, an excess of which increases body fat and eats lean mass. Immunity suffers, and when you don’t sleep, systemic inflammation increases. Sound familiar? These are all hallmarks of the overtrained individual.
I’m beginning to think of overtraining as a set of symptoms – as a general descriptor of chronic overexertion, rather than a clinical affliction with a defined cure. And these symptoms are all interconnected and essentially inseparable from each other. They either pop up in pairs, or in an incestuous orgy of systemic inflammation, poor sleep, bad diet, chronic stress, and excess exercise. But they always show up together. It’s one big chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, which makes it difficult to figure out. What’s causing what? Does it really matter? I think we know what to do – inflammation seems to be key (as it often is in general health), and avoiding the things that cause chronic inflammation generally seems to take care of many of the symptoms of overtraining. So does avoiding overtraining mean avoiding all the risk factors of inflammation, too? I think so. You can’t really separate them. Letting even a single one slip can snowball and reduce the effectiveness of your training.
It’s a challenge. I’ll admit it. Most people who embrace the idea of exercise want to believe that more is better. It’s tough to simply read the aforementioned list of things to avoid and check them off, especially when performance goals have been set. Plus, we’ve all got work to attend, financial issues to hash out, sleep to get, food to prepare, and workouts to follow, all while keeping stress and inflammation low to avoid overtraining – and we only have 24 hours a day to do it. Is overtraining inevitable?
You certainly can’t avoid it forever. I’m not even sure you’d really want to, if only for the reality check. Reality checks are useful; it’s how we learn. They let you know what to watch out for in the future. You can’t know where the edge is unless you go over it once in a while.
So what should you do once you’re exhibiting the signs of overtraining?
You’re not going to waste away. You’re not going to gain ten pounds of belly fat. You’re not going to forget how to squat or how to run. It’s just a week. Purge all guilt from your system (seriously, it’s okay) and understand that continuing to train through a classic case of overtraining will only set you back even further. Your body is trying to tell you something, and I’d advise that you listen up. Enjoy your week, eat good Primal foods, take a lot of walks, or even a hike, and focus on learning from your mistakes and retooling for the next seven days. I sometimes take a few days off conveniently when I travel as a “prophylactic” measure to avoid overtraining.
The best way to respond to an episode of overtraining is to understand exactly what you did to prompt it. That way, you can avoid them in the future. This seems like common sense, and most people who overtrain make an attempt to understand what went wrong. Where we fall short is in our dedication to our particular brand of training, a commitment than can border on religious fervor (if you think nutrition discussions can get heated, just check the comments section on any controversial fitness blog). If you’re overtrained, something about your regimen isn’t working out. You know it, your body knows it, your muscles know it – all that stands in the way is your ego. Brusquely rebuff that cocky bastard and look deep and hard at your schedule, because something is wrong. Were you going too heavy, too fast? Are you forgetting to warm up? Maybe think about dropping the sprints down to once a week instead of twice? Do you think you should de-load the weight and work back up? Maybe a 3 on, 1 off schedule is a bit too much for you to handle? Perhaps a half-marathon is a more realistic training goal for you? The same goes for nutrition, or any of the other risk factors for overtraining; take a long, objective look at your diet, your sleep, and your stress, identify any potential loose ends (Dairy? Late nights? Sprouted grains?), then tie them off.
When you do come back, back off a bit. Change things up. Don’t resume your previous training volume – you know, the volume that got you in this mess in the first place? Instead, tinker. Play with different training schemes. If you were supersetting on your strength training days, try rest-pause singles. If you were going high-rep, low-weight, try low-rep, high weight. Incorporate weekly sprints instead of nightly jogs. I wouldn’t necessarily lower intensity, because intensity is rarely as much an issue as volume. As I always say, make your short, intense workouts even shorter and more intense, and your long, easy workouts even longer and easier. You might have to lower the weights used. Or add another rest day to your HIIT schedule. Whatever you do, do not go back to doing everything the same. An alcoholic doesn’t take a few months off and go right back to the bottle (well, he might, but he wouldn’t be dealing with the real problem).
Overtraining is a bitter reality for most people who train with any sort of intensity or drive. If you’re pushing yourself, you stand to reap immense rewards (that’s why we do it, eh?), but you can fall just as hard. Luckily, eating a Primal diet and following the Primal prescription of low stress, low inflammation, adequate sleep, and proper amounts of exercise will both cushion the impact of your fall and trampoline you back into action.
Notice any glaring omissions in the avoidance tip section? Is there more to recovery than rest, learning, and ego-busting? Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything.