In Part 1 of this series, 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 talked about the time frame issue along with the “for a given athlete bit” I want to look in detail at the issue of “decrement in performance”.
What Defines Overtraining?
Scientists have spent decades looking for biological markers of overtraining. I’ll talk about some of them in a later part of the series but, ultimately, most of them aren’t relevant or practical to measure for athletes. So you’ll see discussion of the glutamine to glutamate ratio in the blood or the testosterone/cortisol ratio. With changes being indicative that they might be occurring.
And neither of them (and many others) being at all useful in the real world for the majority of athletes. And certainly not for the non-elites. Both require regular blood work and a large expense to measure any of it. Few have those resources and it’s still unclear if they are good markers to begin with outside of giving researchers something to wank about. I will discuss some far more achievable/affordable methods at the end of the series.
So what actually defines overtraining? Is it being tired? Hating training? Wanting to go sit in the corner and gibber instead of doing your next set? Sleeping more? Sleeping less? Appetite screwed up? It can actually be all, or none of that, and more. And as I’ll discuss, some of them are actually pretty good indicators that something is going wrong.
However, by the strictest definition, overtraining has not truly occurred unless the athlete’s actual performance level has fallen. He may be tired, he may feel run down but if performance hasn’t actually dropped, he hasn’t become overtrained. At least not yet.
Even there we have some problems. No athlete stays at their 100% peak year round, it really can’t be done unless that 100% simply isn’t very high (e.g. it’s more accurate to say that good athletes aren’t at 100% year round). Most coaches these days use some type of range where they want the athlete capable of achieving some percentage (perhaps 95-97%) of their best most of the year (or at least in-season). Facilities, arousal, residual fatigue from training all impact on their actual day to day performance level but so long as they are within some range of their best, things are probably fine.
Some systems (Olympic lifting, notably) will define training and competition maxes to take this into account. So you use your best gym lift to determine daily training loads (and goals) and that’s separate from what you can do in competition (rested, aroused, etc.).
Even that assumes that the lifter does in fact lift more in competition than in meet and this isn’t universally true. Some lifters are great gym lifters and terrible competition lifters. They will routinely put up more in the gym than at the meet. And others are the reverse. My own lifter, Sumi Singh gets an easy 10kg/20 lbs on her deadlift in competition, pulling weights she couldn’t touch in the gym.
Of course that assumes that they are the type of lifter that does more in competition than in training and that isn’t always the case (some folks spazz out under competition stress and always do more in training).
But the specifics are irrelevant, the point is that no elite athletes are expected to be at 100% of their best competition results all the time. So some sort of performance range is used to see where they are at on a day to day basis. Not being able to hit their peak on a given day doesn’t mean anything.
In some of the European literature when athletes hit that range of previous performance, this is referred to as the athlete “coming into form”. Basically, when they achieve some level close to their previous performance level it’s all starting to come together. That is, after a build-up of training, when they get within that range of their previous best, they are about to break through and hit new bests or whatever given some rest, the right competition conditions, arousal, stimulants, etc.
My point being that this can make it difficult to make the determination of actual overtraining. Is the athlete where they should be relative to their bests, is the fatigue just a residual part of a heavy training load, or are they actually falling off the edge and becoming overtrained? It can be a tough question to answer sometimes though I’ll give some guidelines at the end of the series to hopefully help.
Changes in Performance
Usually, in the case of true overtraining (or even overreaching), what usually happens is that you have an athlete who has been performing at some particular level and all of a sudden, they simply can’t hit their target numbers. This will be specific to the sport of course.
A lifter is looking at the weight on the bar (and often bar speed). A sprinter is looking at their track times. Endurance athletes might look at the relationship of speed and heart rate or effort. Even if they are hitting their goal speeds, if it’s harder, they may be starting to underperform.
Once again, “their numbers” are defined to some percentage of their peak. So the coach might have set some cutoff in training, an athlete is expected to hit 95% of their best on any day. And suddenly, for no apparent reason the athlete can’t even hit 90%. Or whatever the cutoffs being used are.
It’s often quite abrupt. The athlete is performing and performing and performing and then BOOM, they fall off the edge seemingly overnight. That isn’t universal, some will make a gradual downturn with things slipping and slipping and then suddenly they completely crater. This latter pattern is a lot easier to pick up from a coaching perspective since you see it happening more gradually. This assumes you actually do anything about it.
Individual variance makes it that much more difficult to determine what’s actually going on (except for after the fact). Again, I’ll talk about some indirect indicators at the end of the series that can be watched for problems before performance itself takes a hit.
Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Another way to look at it is that the athlete can hit the previous numbers but the effort has gone from “hard but doable” to “doable with absolute maximum effort”. Different sports have different ways of looking at this.
In the endurance world, a big increase in rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is often an indicator that a problem is coming; suddenly the workouts that felt good and easy feel real real hard. Or at least harder than they should or used to feel.
Although heart rate has its own share of problems (a topic that would require a separate article to address), you’ll often see that HR for a given pace or effort just goes through the roof. Unfortunately, there is often a situation where HR won’t come up at all. The athlete looks like they’re getting fitter but they are actually becoming overtrained. I’ll explain why this is later in the series.
Some have looked at things like lactate levels at a given intensity/RPE in a similar vein. If the athlete reports a higher RPE and a higher lactate level at the same workload, problems may be on the horizon if they aren’t showing up already.
But even that requires baseline lactate levels and the ability to measure them easily and consistently. And can be thrown by things like diet (e.g. low muscle glycogen will tend to lower lactate levels) and other factors that don’t necessarily mean the athlete is becoming overtrained.
In the weight room it’s a bit tougher but athletes will report that the same weights that they lifted easily just “feel heavy”. An attentive coach will see that the explosion or sheer strength (depending on the type of training) just isn’t there during warm-ups and/or work sets. The quality of performance is lacking even if the weights are still going up. This can be pretty subjective but things like bar speed or technical stability can all be watched. If they are looking worse and worse, a big crash might be coming.
Overtraining or Underperformance?
An added variable to all of this is that the athlete may not be overtrained at all, they may just be tired and the accumulated fatigue from training is masking any real fitness gains. Often when recovery is given they rebound (ala overreaching or just normal training), a topic I’ll come back to at the end of today. But even that should go away within a day or two of rest. Acute fatigue from a crushingly heavy workload is not overtraining or even overreaching. The athlete is just tired. And that’s just part of the training process.
But when the inability to perform becomes consistent, when the athlete is working tremendously harder to achieve the same results, or simply can’t hit those previous results no matter what happens, that’s indicative that a problem is starting. There are usually other indicators, which I’ll talk about at the end of the series. Attentive coaches and athletes look at other indicators along with performance itself to hopefully catch the problems before they start.
In this vein, the term “underperformance” has been thrown about in recent years where an inability to perform at previous or expected levels is a more accurate description than overtraining per se. Because, again, the training (whether too much or too little) isn’t so much the issue; athletes aren’t gauged on how much or how hard they train.
Rather, they are gauged on how they are performing. That’s the key metric and people would be wise to keep that in mind. The only true measure of performance is performance itself. Everything else is, even some of the indicators I’m going to discuss later are, at best, indirect.
And if they are underperforming (once again, performing well below their previous capacities despite apparently adequate training; that is they aren’t coming back from a 3 week transition block and are just out of shape) and simply can’t hit their bests or some percentage of those bests no matter what, they are starting to move into the realm of overreaching or overtraining. If the coach (or athlete themselves) catch it early enough and program some recovery, they may come back stronger in 2-3 weeks. Keep up the pounding and it can take much much longer.
Underperformance in Different Sports
Somewhat tangentially, I’d mention that there are differences between types of sports in terms of some of what I talked about above with endurance sports being a bit more insidious in how overtraining can come on compared to the pure strength/power sports or technical sports.
In endurance type activities, since most of the work is done at very sub-maximal intensities, it can be very difficult to know where the athlete is relative to their normal performance level. That is, if a workout that is normally a 75% effort is now 80%, they can do it.
It may feel a touch harder but maybe they are just dehydrated, or a little bit underfed or what have you. Regardless, the athlete can always pretty much always at least get through the workout. It’s a little more difficult but the endurance athlete can always grind the miles.
Contrast that to a pure strength/power athlete like an Olympic lifter. If the training calls for doubles at 90% and they are starting to fall off the edge, odds are they simply can’t do the workout at all. It’s not a function of it being harder than usual, when 90% has become 95% because they are starting to get too far into the hole, the workout simply can’t be completed.
The workout is either tanked or the intensity is cut way back and recovery can happen. The signs of impending problems show up a bit sooner and/or are dealt with more organically; since the athlete can’t do the workout in the first place, it’s either punted or made into an easier day and the recovery happens.
Activities with higher technical demands are also a bit easier to gauge. When an athlete who previously had spotless technique suddenly starts looking like crap in practice, that’s usually a sign that they are run down and need some recovery. Coaches are usually less likely to beat on them assuming they have any interest in the athlete performing technically well. Not all coaches do.
I’d note that bodybuilding/physique type activities, like endurance activities, can be a lot more like the endurance sports than the true strength/power sports. Since so much of the volume is often at submaximal loads, the athlete can usually at least get through the workout even if they should go home. But that doesn’t mean that problems aren’t setting in. It’s just that where an 8 rep set might have been comfortably completable one week, as the athlete starts to crater, it gets harder. But it can still be done.
What this means is that, as often as not, endurance athletes (and to some degree, bodybuilding/physique sports) tend to be able to dig the hole deeper more easily compared to other sports. Since they can always grind out most of the workouts (even if they shouldn’t be), they keep digging the hole. In a lot of ways (and there are other mechanisms at work here that I’m not going to discuss), pure power athletes are a bit more protected. If they are too fatigued, they simply can’t make the workout and go home for the day.
They can still be overtrained if you really put your mind to it, make no mistake about that. But some of the nature of their sport and the technical demands can protect them. When they are too ragged out and need rest, they simply can’t do the workouts. Sure you can always pull them back to an intensity that is achievable but most learn quickly to just call it a day or just do some very light technical work and get the hell out of the gym.
In contrast, a runner or cyclist can always go grind out the miles no matter how bad they feel. And keep digging that hole deeper and deeper.
One Workout Means Nothing
As a final point for today, I want to really drive home a point which is this: a single workout doesn’t tell you anything about anything. I see it all the time on forums “I had a bad workout, I must be overtrained.” Errr….no. Everybody has bad workouts from time to time and it would be rare for anybody to be at their best every single workout even if you’re defining that best in terms of a percentage of peak performance. A single poor workout doesn’t mean anything in the same way that a single great workout doesn’t mean anything.
When folks start freaking out over single workouts, they can really start to draw some poor conclusions and do even sillier things with their training than they would otherwise. They’ll have a bad workout and program a recovery week. Two bad workouts and they need at least a month off. Because that Lyle guy said they needed rest. Err…no.
Hell, even two bad workouts means very little. There may be all kinds of other things going on in the trainee’s life that just made that a bad couple of days or week or whatever.
Women have even bigger issues since performance can track with the menstrual cycle with some very big ups and downs in at least some women. One trainee of mine alternates between PR’s during some days of the month to being unable to hit 60% of her best on other days. In contrast, two other female trainees have at most blips during the month if they notice anything at all.
So with the first trainee, I can’t track performance week to week due to the biological variance built into her system. Rather I have to track it month to month, comparing the same time of one month to the next. So I might look at her performance 3 days after she starts menstruating or 3-5 day prior to ovulation and compare that to the same time in her previous cycle. If I paid attention to individual workouts, she’d never get anything accomplished.
My point is this: a single bad workout means nothing. A couple of bad workouts means very little. Stuff happens and you can’t freak out every time it does. Well, you can but you shouldn’t. It’s when the performance problems start to become consistent when an athlete/trainee has a series of piss poor workouts in a row where they can’t come close to their numbers or are working much harder to hit the same numbers that you have to start considering that a problem is brewing.
Certainly, there can be other things going in their life, and I’ll talk about this more in the next part of the series, that need to be considered. Sometimes there is an easy explanation for what’s going on and you needn’t worry about it too much (though training may still need to be adjusted).
But if there are no other clear reasons for why performance should be down or below some level, then you need to start considering that a problem is on the horizon. There are also some other decent indicators that can be tracked along with actual performance to let you know if problems are starting and they often occur long before performance itself drops. I’ll talk about those near the end of the series whenever that actually is.
Some Early Application Concepts
So where does that leave us? Clearly you can’t look at a single workout or even a handful of workouts to determine if the athlete or trainee is underperforming. Rather, you have to look at longer term trends over a week or more (and in the case of female athletes, often a month is required).
This is true even if you use a range of performance to determine if the athlete is where they should be. But let’s start from the assumption that, on any given day (assuming no major things like menstrual cycle), the athlete should be capable of hitting 95% of their best or whatever cutoff you’re using. What if they can’t do it? What’s going on? I’d look at it this way:
Are they at that level and at least showing signs of moving forwards and adapting to the training? Do they report feeling good, recovered, look snappy during warmups, is at least some indicator (perhaps indirect: a secondary exercise) showing signs of improvement? Then odds are there is no problem and the fact that they are a little below the cutoff 95% is probably fine. They are probably right where they need to be.
Are they below the cutoff and seemingly stagnant? Maybe reporting some fatigue or soreness (or the stuff I’ll talk about later)? Maybe feeling a bit run down, don’t have quite the snap or freshness during warmups that you’d expect? Well, there might be a problem and there might not be.
Sometimes athletes will stagnate or even fall back a bit right before they get the next adaptation that breaks them through to the next performance level. It’s one of those odd voodoo things but I’ve seen it and experienced it enough to know it happens: the athlete will regress and then jump forward a day or two later.
You sort of have to adopt a wait and see approach here. Maybe give them a couple of light days and see what happens. If they noticeably freshen up and you see improvement, then they are just in one of those phases of training where fatigue is masking gains or the body is reorganizing something adaptationally and they are about to jump. In that case, don’t worry about it.
But what if they are below the cutoff and there are other indicators that things are a problem? Maybe their overall performance seems to be moving backwards on a consistent basis. Are they reporting muscle or joint soreness, that their sleep is disrupted, motivation is down and other indirect signs (again, secondary exercises) are going backwards as well? Do they look like crap during warmups, no snap, loss of coordination on movements that were previously technically stable?
In that case, they’re probably heading towards a big crash. If the goal is explicit overreaching and they are supposed to feel like crap than so be it; keep beating on them but remember that you have to program the recovery block to make it work. But if the assault continues much longer, they are likely headed for a crash. You may not know when it’s going to happen, could be weeks, could be months. But it’s going to happen if you don’t recognize the signs and pull it back sooner rather than later.
And that’s it for today.