In Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 1, I gave a detailed definition of overtraining which I’ve reproduced below.
Overtraining occurs when there is a long-term imbalance between the training load and recovery processes that, for a given athlete, leads to a decrement in performance that takes more than 2-3 weeks to return to normal.
Having examined the details of performance decrement/underperformance syndrome in Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 2, I want to back further up the definition and look at the idea of the balance between training load and recovery being the root of the issue (at least at a global level). I also want to make the point that explicit training and recovery is not all that needs to be considered here. Finally, I’ll also look at the idea of under recovery as a bigger issue than overtraining per se.
What Causes Overtraining Part 1
A long standing question among sports scientists is what the actual ’cause’ of overtraining is, although they are usually looking at it in more of a biological sense than what I am going to talk about today. I may talk about that later in the series but, for the most part, much of what research has looked at (e.g. muscle glycogen, muscle damage, etc.) is neither practically nor easily measurable. Rather, in this section I want to look at the more global ’causes’ of overtraining.
In simple terms, we really need to consider two major and interacting processes on the body which are:
- Training load: volume, intensity, frequency, etc.
- Recovery processes: representing a whole mix of different stuff.
Or think of it more simply as stress on one side of the equation and recovery on the other side. Where the balance of the two determining whether a given athlete improves, stagnates, or regresses during their training. Simply but reasonably accurately, we can say that:
- Performance improves when recovery > training load
- Performance stagnates when recovery = training load
- Performance regresses when training load > recovery
With the distinction between overtraining and overreaching being an issue of how long #3 is continued. Have training exceed recovery for 2 weeks and pull back and you hopefully get functional overreaching; do it for too long and you end up overtrained.
In a lot of ways, this is really the crux of the whole issue in terms of what does or doesn’t cause overtraining (or overreaching). The mechanisms are certainly relevant (inasmuch as they might allow us to manipulate diet, supplements, etc.) but at the end of the day the above is what’s important: the long-term balance between training load (and, as you’ll see, other stressors to the body) and recovery processes. That balance, in the long-term determines what happens to the athlete.
I want to note that the above should not be looked at only on an acute (e.g. single workout or single week) time frame. Some systems of training, and I’ll talk/rant about this in part 4 are based around deliberately overloading the athlete’s recovery (by increasing training load) in an attempt to create a rebound. A two week deliberate over-reaching block is one way of doing it; other systems of training use much longer periods of beating on the athlete in the hopes that they rebound to a higher level. Again, wait for Part 4.
Since this is so important to understand, it’s what I’m going to spend the rest of today on. First I want to look at each issue in isolation and then look at them together. I’ll also make a critically important point at the end that so many folks (coaches and athletes alike) forget to consider.
Training load refers to the host of factors that go into, well, the overall training load. The frequency of training (how many days per week or times per day), how much volume (mileage, reps, tonnage, whatever), how much intensity (as a percentage of maximum strength or speed, VO2 max, that sort of thing) all factor in here. There are other acute variables but these are the main three that tend to form the core of training parameters. All of these determine how much of an overall stress on the body and how much of an overall stimulus is made to improve performance.
In the early days of overtraining research, this was the primary focus: what was the training load? Certainly how much (or how little) being done was critical in terms of examining things and the general assumption was that, if the athlete wasn’t adapting (or was regressing), training had to be cut back. The assumption was that if underperformance were occurring, the training load was automatically too high and had to be reduced.
But there is a problem here and that is the fact that, to achieve any certain goal, there is always going to be some minimum (and probably some optimum, and certainly some maximum) training that is required to reach that goal. So someone who wants to compete (much less be competitive) in a marathon has to run a certain mileage per week. Someone who wants to compete in, say, powerlifting, has to train a certain amount to have a chance of putting up decent numbers.
Below some level, the goal simply can’t be achieved. Essentially, for a given level of performance in any given activity, there is going to be some minimum amount of training required (and this is true in terms of volume, frequency, intensity and the other variables of training). Again, that can only be cut back so far.
Please note that here I’m talking about competing in the sense of being competitive, not just showing up and paying your entry fee and getting your t-shirt. I’m not talking about someone just looking to complete a marathon but rather someone going to try and set a good time or race to win.
Because the amount of training needed to simply show up at an event and take part in it is much much much lower than the amount needed to try to be competitive at some level. Within some limits, the higher the ultimate performance level sought, the more training (either volume, frequency, intensity or some combination) is going to be required.
So while a marathon can be finished on what is actually a fairly low volume of training (2-3 short runs and one long run per week), folks looking to win or place are going to be doing 160km per week or more and training near daily if not more than once on many days of the week on average or what have you.
You can certainly enter a powerlifting meet lifting weights only twice a week; how well you’ll do on that amount of training is up for debate. So in terms of the overall training load having some threshold requirement, I’m really talking about the situation where the person is working towards maximal performance or being competitive at some level.
In this vein, one idea thrown around in the sporting world (and this has less relevance to the general fitness community) is that a key aspect of great athletes is the ability to handle the training needed to achieve the highest levels of performance. Basically, the assumption is that you need X amount of training to reach the highest level; if you can’t handle X (for whatever reason), you can’t ever reach the highest levels.
And all of this is simply a tediously repetitive way of trying to make the point I’m trying to make: there is a limit to how little training you can do or how far it can be cut back and still reach the highest levels of performance. We can argue about what those limits are and how much training is truly required, mind you, but there is a limit to how little you can do. Again, this is more true when you’re talking about athletic performance and less so for general fitness (even there there is a minimum amount of training needed to achieve certain goals and folks still have to be able to recover from it).
Which means that, focusing solely on the training load misses part of the picture; a certain amount is going to be required and the trainee has to able to handle it to be competitive or reach their goal. You can’t always cut it back if the athlete isn’t progressing. Sure, many systems use too much intensity or volume too frequently but, at the risk of being truly repetitive, this can only be cut back so far. Eventually you’re simply not doing enough to make progress.
I remember asking a strength coach friend of mine once what he thought was the reason for the improvements in various sports in performance in recent years. He acknowledged that training per se hadn’t really changed or improved, athletes are doing the same things now that they did 30 years ago albeit possibly at slightly higher volumes (though probably lower than the volumes used during the 80’s).
The toolbox has the same basic tools which are being used in the same essential ways. Sure, there are a few more esoteric practices (e.g. vibration platforms) but the bulk of training being done now by athletes is no different than what was done 30 years ago.
What’s primarily changed is recovery. Better therapy, better diets, maybe better drugs, better overall recovery is going on at the higher echelons of sport. The training is essentially the same, what’s changed is how well the athletes recover from it.
I’d note that another reason for improved performance is that more people are involved in sport; this gives a higher percentage change of finding another freakishly amazing athlete. But from the standpoint of what the athletes are actually doing, while training hasn’t changed, the emphasis on improving recovery has.
And this is reflected in a change in how sports scientists have begun to look at the topic of overtraining. Given that, as I discussed above, there is some amount of training that is simply required to succeed at the highest levels, and that can only be reduced so much, the focus has now turned to the recovery side of the equation to keep things from becoming imbalanced.
A trite but fundamentally true quote is: “It’s not how much training you do, it’s how much training you can recover from.” Basically, you need to be able to recover from the amount of training that you need (or perhaps simply want) to do. If you can’t adjust the training, you have to improve the recovery end of things to keep the equation from getting too far out of balance.
For this reason, some are now suggesting that the overtraining syndrome should be more accurately called underrecovery syndrome. The training is what it needs or simply has to be, what’s missing is adequate recovery from that training. Figuring out ways to improve the overall recovery processes has now become the goal since the training loads can’t be adjusted too much. Have I repeated this enough times?
So what determines recovery? Well, tons of stuff. I mentioned some of them in the “For a Given Athlete” sub-section in Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 1. Age, gender, genetics, hormones, all play a role. But short of taking drugs (and maybe some supplements) to fix hormones, we have little control over those. There’s not much point in examining them beyond acknowledging that they do factor in and making concessions to other parts of the program because of it (e.g. older athletes typically can recover from less training than younger folks and volumes, frequencies and intensities need to be adjusted accordingly).
But there are things we do normally have control over: amount of sleep, diet, supplements, specific recovery means (foam rolling, stretching, massage, contrast baths, etc.), proper warm-ups and cool-downs, etc.. All of that goes into how well a given trainee will or will not recover from the overall training load. Both acutely and in the longer term.
And as I noted above, much more of this is going on in modern sport, athletes are getting regular massage, doing self-massage, doing the recovery stuff that cutting edge coaches were recommending 30 years ago but nobody did (or didn’t have access to or simply couldn’t afford). That’s changed.
More attention to diet, better around workout nutrition, less partying on the weekends, more sleep, naps after workouts if the time is there, etc. All of this improves the athlete’s overall recovery so that they can adapt to the training more effectively. The same training load that was previously too much is now being handled and adapted to. Again, not because the training side of the equation has changed. Rather it’s because the recovery processes have become more effective.
I should probably make at least mention that, if someone gets their recovery processes working better (through whatever mechanism: an increase in general fitness, drugs, better sleeping habits), often the training load can be increased because of it. The load that had been sufficient before (given a certain set of recovery levels) may now be suboptimal since recovery has been improved.
I’d also note that this needn’t be the case: sometimes the athlete might be better keeping the training load the same and improving recovery anyhow. This is mainly true when their training load was already on the cusp of being too much. Improve recovery and that same, near overtraining load, is now able to be adapted to if recovery improves; performance improves. If you always increase the training along with the recovery, you don’t really shift the balance of the equation.
I’d finally note that athletes often make a mistake of ramping up training far too much when they get their recovery working better. This is all too common with anabolics, people think that the drugs are truly magic and double their volume, frequency and intensity overwhelming any benefits the drugs might have offered. The stress to recovery equation is still imbalanced because training load was increased far too much for the increase in recovery that occurred.
But given that modern training loads have more or less stabilized at some rather high levels (athletes simply can’t train any more than they are now), the future of sport will be in improving recovery. Whether that’s through nutritional, therapeutic or drug means is irrelevant, it all has the same end result. Recovery specialists have already started to appear on the scene, expect that to continue and for good reason.
More than Just Explicit Training and Recovery
While I focused above on specific training and specific recovery issues above, it’s important to realize that there is more to the overall picture than just that. Both bodily stress and recovery can be profoundly impacted by things that have no seeming relation to either the workouts being done or the specific recovery methods being used. But it’s a mistake to look at training and recovery in isolation; the athlete isn’t living in a bubble where all they do is train and recover for the most part.
And the point I want to make is that you have to consider all forms of stress to the body, including those that aren’t directly related to training. Because, although it’s turning out to be much more complex than this, the body does tend to mount a fairly generalized stress response to all kinds of different stressors.
Whether it’s a hard workout, a poor night’s sleep or an emotional event of some sort, the body tends to show at least some generalized response so that stress; that increases the total stress load on the system. So while looking at the training program itself is useful, it’s not all that has to be considered.
I made brief mention of this in Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 1 about ‘For a given athlete’ section but it’s worth really driving home and talking about in more detail. An individual’s overall life stress is a huge part of their ability to adapt (or not) to a training load: all stressors to the body have to be considered.
So a training load that might be perfect under a relatively low-stress part of someone’s life can blow them up when their non-training stress levels go up. With a fixed amount of recovery power, if you add stress of any sort, something ihas to give. Usually the athlete.
Some examples may help to make this a bit more concrete:
College athletes often have problems when exams roll around. They aren’t sleeping enough, are massively stressed by trying to cram the weeks of classwork they ignored into their little brains, aren’t eating well and the perfect training load during the quarter that they were skipping their 8am psych class is now too much and they blow up. But not because the training load has changed; rather it’s because the recovery side of the equation has taken a hit. Coaches who don’t factor this in often learn a hard lesson. Hopefully they don’t do it more than once.
Or consider this: an athlete has a blow-up with their significant other and they break up, suddenly they have this huge stressor from the breakup and the emotional outfall (and not getting laid regularly) or what have you. That’s another stress onto the system; the perfect training load is now too much. It’s even more fun if the two folks involved are on the same team since they often drag their drama to practice which stresses out everybody. A totally non-training related stress overloads the system and it all goes to hell.
Job is huge one in terms of having to work one, what it is whether or not you enjoy it, and how many hours you’re there. American athletes have often had the unenviable position of having to work full time due to having to maintain amateur status. Having to put in 8 hours per day at a job (that often sucks) and then go to training just adds to the athlete’s stress levels.
In that vein, athletes who are either supported by mommy and daddy or the state have a huge advantage over those that do not. The Eastern Block countries found all kinds of amusing ways to keep their athletes ‘amateurs’ while paying them to train full time. So they could just train and sleep and eat and recover.
It’s just something else to remember when you see their insane training levels and programs. Those types of programs may be sustainable when you train full time and do nothing more than sleep, take naps between training, eat food and inject drugs. And is not so sustainable when you are working 40 hours/week (or working 20 hours/week and are living on ramen and macaroni and cheese because you’re broke).
It doesn’t help if the job is stressful (e.g. your boss is an idiot or the only job you can find that will let you train around it is stupid) or makes you work odd hours to be able to make it there. Or you have to be on your feet all day, tiring out your legs further. Many athletes, in order to be able to train during the day have to work nights. Not only does this disrupt sleep, it throws off circadian rhythms and affects a lot of processes negatively.
Even normal day jobs can interrupt proper sleep if you have to get up at 4am to work a few hours before driving across town to morning training (eating what you can in the car) before driving back across town to work a few more hours (trying to get some post-workout nutrition) before repeating the process for the second workout of the day.
Not only is the athlete sleep deprived, but they are running across town getting angry in traffic and may have to skip proper cool-downs to not get fired. Their diet is screwed up because they have to eat in the car, etc. etc. It all adds up and coaches who try to use the models from countries where athletes were training full time and doing nothing else need to keep that in mind. So do athletes who want to mimic what those athletes were doing. You need the Eastern Block lifestyle to follow the Eastern Block training in toto.
Hopefully you’re getting the point of this section and why it’s so important to understand. Current models of adaptation to training include all stressors onto the trainee or athlete: job, money, relationships, school, etc.. Many of which also impact on the recovery end of things either directly or indirectly. It’s nice to only look at specific training and specific recovery methods but that’s not nearly the whole picture. If you ignore the big picture, bad things often happen.
And that’s where I’m going to wrap it up today. On Friday I’ll look at the long-term issue of the definition and start moving into some more practical aspects: things that can be monitored, things to look for beyond performance per se that can indicate that someone is heading for a crash, general ideas to avoid the problems in the first place