Lower the Volume, and Lighten the Load
When I was a kid, one of my neighborhood friends had a motorcycle and a couple of acres to ride on. My friends and I had a blast riding that motorcycle, but it all came an abrupt end one day. A friend of ours, who had less experience riding, rode that bike up the hill with it stuck in full throttle the whole way, ultimately burning out the engine. That engine was never the same. What does this have to do with fitness you say? Sometimes we push our bodies full throttle for too long, and we basically burn ourselves out. This is known as overtraining. A few years ago, while I was dabbling in marathons and ultrarunning, I literally ran myself into the ground. I kept pushing my body, day after day, and things started to go seriously wrong. It started with ordinary aches and pains, a few dings here and there, IT band issues and a sore knee, and a cold every so often. It eventually progressed to more serious achilles tendon problems. Did I back off the throttle and give my body a chance to heal? Nope, I kept pushing until my achilles tendon had a chronic case of tendonosis, eventually suffering a partial tear, and on top of that, I came down with a wicked case of pneumonia. I was forced to take significant time off. The key word here is “forced”. I should have decreased my running volume every couple of weeks, and I should have taken time off throughout the year. I could have possibly avoided a lot of pain and suffering. It’s not only advisable to cut back your running every so often, but also doing the same with your strength training workouts. Many years ago, a friend and I used to lift heavy all the time. I would come home and plop myself on the couch after a workout, and try to ignore my chronically aching shoulders and knees. While exercise has so many awesome benefits, it can be taken too far. I have been following Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program for the last 3 weeks, and he gives you a deload week on the 4th week. Good programs and training plans will have a week where intensity and volume are reduced (deload week), to allow recovery and adaptations to occur. Let’s look at the signs, symptoms, and possible causes for overtraining syndrome (OTS). We will also look at steps we can take to avoid it.
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) has a number of symptoms to look for, affecting the nervous system, mind, and body. It is believed that these symptoms may be driven by systemic inflammation. The following symptoms were listed in “Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide”, by Jeffrey Kreher, MD and Jennifer Schwartz, MD.
- Brachycardia (abnormally slow heart beat)
- Loss of Motivation
- Tachycardia (abnormally fast heart beat)
- Weight Loss
- Lack of Mental Concentration
- Heavy, Sore, Stiff Muscles
- Awakening Unrefreshed
Not only will OTS affect physical performance, but pretty much every facet of life. There are also signs that OTS suppresses the immune system. According to the guide by Kreher, MD and Schwartz, MD, there are many hypotheses to why OTS occurs. The hypotheses include, low muscle glycogen, alterations in seratonin, decreased glutamine, oxidative stress, an imbalanced autonomic nervous system (reduced heart rate variability may be an indicator), alterations in the neuroendocrine system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), and the recruitment of cytokines due to inflammation. It’s probably not just caused by one of those hypotheses, but a combination of them. During my struggle with OTS, I was dealing with many of these symptoms. Most noticeable were fatigue, anxiety, sore/stiff muscles, and irritability. If you don’t believe me, just ask my poor wife who had to put up with me. It can take weeks, months, or even years to recover, depending on the severity of the OTS. I was forced to take time off when I injured my achilles. I was out of action for months and it felt like it took at least a year for me to start feeling like myself again.
There are quite a few things we can do to combat OTS. The first thing that I mentioned in the opening paragraph, is to have deload weeks as part of your training program. Every three to four weeks, reduce the volume and intensity. In running, you will reduce the number of runs and miles/time for the week. Strength training will result in a reduction in the amount of weight, sets, and reps. Deload weeks are one of the most important strategies for combatting OTS. In Wendler’s program, the intensity on the main lifts drops from a peak of 95% of your one rep max to 60% of your one rep max on the deload week. Here is an example from my strength training.
Week 3- Saturday
Overhead Press: 85 lbs x 5 reps, 100 lbs x 3 reps, 110 lbs x 1 rep or more
Bench Press: 135 lbs x 5 sets x 10 reps
Pull-ups: 20 lbs x 5 reps, 35 lbs x 3 reps, 45 lbs x 1 rep or more
Cable Triceps Press Downs: 45 lbs x 3 sets x 15 reps
Deload Week 4- Saturday
Overhead Press: 50 lbs x 5 reps, 60 lbs x 5 reps, 75 lbs x 5 reps
Bench Press: 95 lbs x 2 sets x 10 reps
Pull-Ups: Body weight x 3 sets x 5 reps
Cable Triceps Press Down: 35 lbs x 2 sets x 15 reps
If I was focusing on a running program, the reduction week may look something like this. If a normal training week involves a long run, tempo run, and speed intervals, intermingled with some easy runs for a total of 5 days a week, I may cut back to 3 runs for the week, consisting of 30 to 60 minute runs at a heart rate of 120 to 150 bpm to keep it aerobic and promote recovery. There would be absolutely no racing that week. Other things we can do to prevent OTS include sleeping 7 to 9 hours a night, eating a well balanced diet low in sugar and Omega 6-Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) with a higher intake of Omega 3-PUFA‘s. Throw some cross training into your workouts for added variety and different movement patterns. Cross training could also include replacing a high impact activity with a low impact one for a week, to give the body a break. Think swimming, biking, or hiking. Try to reduce stress in other areas of your life. Stay away from toxic, negative people. Take up meditation, deep breathing, or go for a hike and do some forest bathing. Get massages and other body work, along with your own body work with a foam roller, massage stick, and/or tennis ball. Monitor your resting heart rate. An elevated heart rate when you first wake up, could be a sign that your experiencing OTS. This can be done with an app on a smart phone with the flash on the camera. Even better, measure your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the beat to beat variation of your heart and when HRV is low, it could be one of the possible signs of OTS. There are apps and software for doing exactly that. Two that come to mind off the top of my head are Bioforce and Omegawave. Keep a journal and monitor how you feel from day to day. See if you can make any correlations with how you are feeling, and try to identify the optimum amount of training your body can absorb. These are some of the ways to keep OTS at bay, and if you follow the suggestions above, there is a good chance you will never have to go through what I did.
The exact causes of OTS are not fully understood. When we have a big training week or competition, it can push us to our limits. There is a fine line between overtraining and overreaching. When we push ourselves and overreach, but we recover well, we can come back stronger than ever from those new adaptations. If we overtrain, we can be out of whack for years. If you take the above precautions and monitor yourself, you can probably avoid OTS. Now, not everyone will respond the same to training. Some people will have OTS from much less training than others. I believe the elite performers in ultrarunning and powerlifting are able to do well, because they can recover better than others, and be more resistant to OTS. However, I believe everyone is probably vulnerable at some level of training. I hope you find this post helpful, and remember, it’s okay to back off your training every couple of weeks, in fact, it’s good for you.