“Overtraining” is term that is regularly thrown around in the fitness industry. The CrossFit and fast fitness movement has helped to boost its popularity. “Training” can be defined as a two-part system of work in the gym and recovery work done outside of the gym. Recovery is what I like to call “back end” work. Recovery is the key component in preventing overtraining. It seems to be common knowledge that recovery is just as important as work in the gym, yet a majority of people seem to never focus on the recovery side of things.
What is “overtraining?” Overtraining can be defined as the point at which a persons volume, frequency, or intensity of training exceeds their capacity to recover and rest. The physiological effects can be increased microtruama in muscles (soreness), increased and sustained levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and a general deadening of the central nervous system. Some symptoms included:
Increased and prolonged muscle soreness
Prolonged fatigue, even after rest days
Reliance on pre-workout supplements/coffee to get through your sessions
Decreased performance in workouts
Increase in illness frequency or decreased ability to fight illness
Reduced sex drive… Yeah, who wants that?
In many gyms, intensity is pushed to the maximum. Specifically in CrossFit gyms, people are generally pushed through high intensity workouts on a daily basis. Intensity is a good thing and I believe is one of the main reasons why people see great results at CrossFit gyms. Go to a regular globo-gym and you will see most people working at a very moderate intensity level and it’s likely not getting them anywhere. The issue with constantly training at high intensity levels is that the same commitment is not made to recovery. Some coaches will argue that overtraining doesn’t exist or that only under-recovering is the issue. I would argue that both exist in our population of athletes and need to be addressed differently.
Generally, two types of athletes come to me concerned about overtraining. The person that is new to the gym or to training in general, and has read the fear inducing articles about CrossFit or fast functional fitness causing Rhabdomyolysis, spinal injuries, and shoulder injuries. The other being the intermediate elite exerciser that trains like a pro athlete. Both groups have a risk of overtraining or under-recovering, but for very different reasons.
New athletes can be people who have been doing very little exercise or activity for years. Someone who has only done periods of long duration aerobic work and some sets of Bi’s, Tri’s, and Bench can also be a new athlete. Neither have been exposed to high intensity, high volume training. Educating this group on all aspects of recovery is extremely important. Many new athletes get burnt out after only a few months or find themselves injured due to under-recovering, not overtraining. It’s difficult for new athletes to destroy their central nervous system and hormones, but much easier for them to do too much, too early and get hurt. Injuries happen for many reasons, particularly dangerous/illogical programming and a lack of properly trained coaches leading people down a road they have no right to be on.
New athletes need to be given proper education on recovery. Below are some of the major recovery actions that athletes new to training at higher volume/intensity should be focusing on:
Eat real food and do it often.
Mobility work and restorative stretching
The first thing you should notice is that recovery is not rest, yet a combination of actions leading to restoring your system to full functionality. Sleep is my number one focus for all athletes. When someone comes to be about not progressing, fatigue, taking their training to the next level, I question them about their sleep. Do some of your own research on these and see how you feel. I can say with confidence, sleep and eating real food will make a massive difference in your ability to recover.
For all you Intermediate Elite athletes, the process will look a bit different. I use the term “intermediate elite” as a bit of a joke, seeing as we all take things too seriously. The reality is if you are training as a competitive level athlete, your volume could very much lead to overtraining and all its negative effects. Unlike new athletes, high-level athletes have the ability to go far enough down the rabbit hole to thrash their nervous system and hormones. These athletes require a balance of appropriate programming and recovery to avoid overtraining
You need to be willing to sacrifice much of the fun you’re used to having outside the gym to focus on recovering for your next training session. Sleep for a high level athlete is absolutely a non-negotiable focus. This is when priorities must be addressed with life style changes. Nutrition can get a bit tricky with higher-level athletes. A super clean paleo diet may not be the best choice. If you are training twice a day, five days a week, you would need to eat a ridiculous amount of meats, veggies, nuts, seeds… you know the menu. Think about how many times you see games athletes posting pictures of the dozen doughnuts or jar of peanut butter they slammed post workout on social media. A caloric deficit will greatly affect an athlete’s ability to recover. Supplementation becomes much more important for higher-level athletes, however blindly loading cheap supplements into your system is not acceptable. High-level athletes would be smart to get blood work and cortisol screens done to dial in supplementation, nutrition, and sleep. Athletes who put their recovery in the hands of professionals take things to another level. Weekly visits to massage therapists, physical therapists, and recovery specialists who provide ART/ Graston services help to keep everything in working order. High-level athletes are regularly training through minor injuries and pain making places like the Chicago Recovery Room worth every penny. The reality for these athletes is that when you train for competitive success, you’re not training for health and wellness.
Are you overtraining or under recovering? Make changes to your sleep, nutrition, and recovery practices to find out.