Over-Training Syndrome

If you suddenly find you are struggling with training, losing performance despite training harder, or even losing the desire to train, you may have Over-Training Syndrome. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that over 60 percent of elite distance runners are affected at least once in their career. However, recreational athletes who frequently juggle busy personal and work lives are also at risk.

Over-Training Syndrome Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal Overload super-compensation graph t17
Graph showing recovery and super-compensation after tough training.

Over-Training Syndrome

There is no single theory explaining all aspects of Over-Training Syndrome, reflecting the myriad of mental and physical symptoms being experienced.

Training hard combined with adequate recovery allows your fitness levels to improve, a process called adaptation or super-compensation.

Adrenal Overload over-training graph t17
Graph showing how over-training without sufficient recovery decreases fitness.

However, there is a fine line between training hard and allowing sufficient time for the body to recover – and over-doing it.

Doctors Jeffrey Kreher and Jennifer Schwartz state that other potential triggers include training monotony, excessive competitions, heat, cold or altitude stress, repeated infections, sleep disturbances, or a severe bonk.

Typical scenario

SYMPTOMS loss of performance persistent fatigue poor sleep higher than expected heart rate frequent injuries, infections and headaches aching muscles low libido stomach upsets and poor digestion poor memory and concentration low or unstable mood loss of motivation or confidence menstrual irregularities cravings for sugar or stimulants a lack of motivation to exercise or even a compulsive need to exerciseAndrew had always lived life to the full. Every day he was up at 5am to train before work, followed by a 12-hour work day, with little time for snacks and lunch, before hitting the gym on the way home. Weekends were jam-packed with family life and trail races.

Eventually his body began to complain: he felt exhausted every morning, experienced continuous colds and tummy upsets, he craved caffeine and sugar pick-me-ups, and he became less patient at work and at home. To top it off, his running was really beginning to suffer – each training run took days to recover from. Eventually, even the thought of training, let alone racing, made him feel completely exhausted.

So what can I do?

It is important to do a full medical screening to rule out any other health conditions. Often, the standard medical tests come back confusingly normal but you still feel terrible. The longer the over-training has occurred, the more rest is required. Early detection is important.

Your adrenal glands, hitching a ride just above your kidneys, secrete hormones which influence all of your body’s essential physiological processes. As part of the body’s immediate response to danger (think fight-or-flight), they secrete adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. In response to ongoing stress, they produce high amounts of cortisol and DHEA (the precursor of the sex hormones). As this over-production of stress hormones continues, and our adrenal glands begin to suffer, we experience adrenal fatigue (poor immunity, weight gain, digestive problems, and so on). Eventually the adrenal glands become completely exhausted and cannot produce sufficient cortisol and/ or DHEA to support proper body functioning (adrenal exhaustion).One particularly useful test is the Adrenal Saliva Index. It measures the amount of (i) the stress hormone cortisol and (ii) the sex hormone precursor DHEA produced during the day by the adrenal glands. If cortisol and DHEA are both high, it generally indicates over-reaching, the early stages of over-training. If one or both hormones are low, then you are experiencing adrenal exhaustion or over-training.

How can I get better?

It is no good training even harder when performance slides. Remember that Over-Training Syndrome is the body’s self-protection mechanism against the unnecessary and potentially dangerous consequences of long-term stress. You are forced to rest and conserve energy.

Firstly, you must pull back on the training and completely rest for at least 14 days, combined with improving your nutrition, sleep, and stress levels. If you only need 14-21 days of rest before making a full recovery, you may have had the shorter-term over-reaching. However, severe over-training can take months or even years to recover from.

Nutrition is also crucial. The 2012 joint consensus statement  of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine indicated that repeated days of hard training combined with carbohydrate depletion, dehydration, and negative energy balance are linked to the development of over-training. So, during periods of intensive training, increase your fluid, carbohydrate, and total energy intake. Ensure adequate refuelling during as well as after training sessions.

Remember that recovery time is more important than actual training time. Improvement only occurs during the rest period following hard training. A consistent pattern of under- recovery between training sessions or competitions combined with other stressors is a sure fire route to over- training. Finally, identify and correct the factors that lead to over-training to avoid recurrence.

Balance blood sugar levels by eating three meals and 2-3 snacks a day. Combine wholegrain slow-release carbs with plenty of lean protein and healthy fats Avoid fast-release white carbs, sugary foods and drinks, all caffeine, and alcohol• Maximise fruit and vegetable intake including raw salads, to optimise your vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant levels • Focus on these stress-busting nutrients: B vitamins (found in wholegrains), magnesium (seeds, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables), and vitamin C (fruits and vegetables) • Assess calorie quality versus quantity: frequently endurance athletes are calorie deficient or you may be putting poor quality fuel in the fuel tank • Maximise sleep and take short naps if possible • Re-balance your goals (at work, home and sport) to avoid feeling too dispirited • Consider Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Neuro- Linguistic Programming to modify your body’s reaction to stress • Try yoga and deep breathing exercises

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