As a follow-up to my post-race recovery column from last week, I think it is important to beware of the pitfalls of overtraining and this is especially true when it comes to endurance athletes. The issue of over training and the science around it has become very well understood and for professional endurance athletes, they have built rest and recovery into their training as thoroughly as nutrition and exercise intensity.
So what’s at risk beyond the usual repetitive injuries and other short term setbacks is damage to your heart. There have been a dozen or so studies over the past few years that indicate endurance folks have a much higher rate of developing arrhythmia. More recently, a study was done following elite athletes that compete in over 100 competitive events including long-race events such as Ironman and found about 15 percent of them have irreversible scarring to various areas of their hearts. The good news is we have a better understanding of these issues, so athletes can manage their training and recovery much better. The bad news for those athletes that have spent many years over training may have developed what is called “athlete’s heart” or “athletic bradycardia” which can lead to severe health issues down the road.
Training breaks you down, builds endurance and conditions your body true, but more importantly it is rest that rebuilds you and makes you stronger. Physiologic improvement in your physical conditioning only occurs during the rest period following your training. Your body is responding to maximal loading of the cardiovascular and muscular systems which in turn strengthens your heart, increases capillaries in the muscles, and increases glycogen stores and mitochondrial enzyme systems within the muscle cells. During rest and recovery, these systems continually build to higher levels to compensate for the stress that you have applied. The optimal end result is a stronger, more conditioned set of body systems that give you increases in peak performance.
The bottom line: if sufficient rest is not included in a training program, then healing and repair cannot occur and your performance flattens out and, in some cases, declines rapidly. If this imbalance between excess training and inadequate rest continues over time, then the repeated stress of training gets to a point where rest is no longer adequate to allow for recovery. Over training creates a set of conditions that effect emotional, behavioral, and physical aspects of your health. It is very important to note that the longer you over train, the more down time and rest will be needed to reverse the condition. In some cases, it can take weeks to months for a full recovery. Since exercise can be addictive, the prospect of a long period of inactivity due to rest and recovery can bring anxiety to those of us that love our daily fitness routines.
The following are a few common signs of overtraining:
There have been a number of studies that show there are two forms of over training. The sympathetic form is more common in sprint type sports and the parasympathetic form is more common in endurance sports.
Now that we have a basic understanding of a few indicators that you may have over trained to some degree, what should you do to correct the issue?
First, start with a checkup with your doctor. Fatigue and heart rate changes can point to a much more serious problem. Then train with a heart rate monitor and keep a daily log of your heart rates: once when you first get up in the morning and then when your winding down at the end of the day. The next important aspect is to change your workout regimen. Cut back the cardio, adjust your circuit training, maybe just stick to basic weight training for a time until you have recovered and you see your energy levels come back along with a more normal resting heart rate etc. Be careful. Some people think resting from overtraining means no running, so they increase their swimming which does help your quads, but to your cardiovascular system, stress is stress.
Remember that a balanced and gradual increase in training once you have recovered is strongly recommended. Keep a training log that will monitor your progress and be sure to include distance, intensity, weight gain or loss and, of course, your heart rate information. Be aware of your post workout recovery, how sore, injuries, how quickly you are recovering etc…
As you approach your fitness and exercise, remember that rest is just as important to your training as the workout. Studies have shown that a reduced training regimen for up to 21 days will not decrease your overall performance. Be sure to log your activity and if your body is telling you to take it easy, then rest. All things in moderation and fitness is no different.
A recognized health and wellness presenter, fitness trainer and now primal health coach in the Inland Northwest. Now in his eighth year of bringing health and wellness through his writing, teaching and coaching, Judd delivers his well-rounded message of mindfulness, nutrition and fitness to readers and clients alike.