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Overtraining and Overreaching: Part 3

In 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 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 underrecovery as a bigger issue than overtraining per se.

What Causes Overtraining?

A long standing question among sports scientists is what the actual “cause” of overtraining is.  Cause here can mean a couple of things.  Scientists are often looking at the biological underpinnings.  That is what is going on physiologically when overtraining occurs.   A lot of ideas have been studied or examined with factors such as muscle glycogen levels, muscle damage and others being thought to play a role.  But none of those are practically nor easily measurable.

So here when I talk about the “cause” of overtraining I’m looking a little bit more globally.  Specifically I’m looking at the two major and interaction processes related to training which are:

  1. The training load: volume, intensity, frequency, etc.
  2. Recovery processes: representing a whole mix of different stuff.

You can also think of it in terms of stress one side and recovery on the other side. Where the balance of the two factors determines whether an athlete improves, stagnates or regresses.  In a simplistic conceptual sense we can say that:

  1. Performance improves when recovery > training load
  2. Performance stagnates when recovery = training load
  3. Performance regresses when training load > recovery

With the distinction between overtraining and overreaching being an issue of how long #3 is continued.  If a coach or athlete deliberate lets training exceed recovery for 2 weeks and then pulls back, hopefully they get a functional overreaching situation and performance improves.  If they keep hammering for too long before taking a rest, either non-functional overreaching or full-blown overtraining ends up happening.

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.

It is the long-term balance between the training load (and in fact all stressors on the body) and recovery that 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.

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.

The Training Load

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.

And this holds true for almost all sports.     Some minimum of training will allow you to finish the event but maximizing performance will typically take considerably more than that.

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.   The logic here starts with the assumption that an athlete needs X amount of training to reach the highest level.  If an individual athlete can’t handle X, they can’t ever reach the highest level.

All of which is just a repetitive way of saying that training can only be cut back so much when the goal is reaching the highest levels of performance.  Yes, we can argue about what those limits are and how much training is truly required. But there is some lower limit.

And let me really try to drive the point home that this is more true when you’re talking about high-level athletic performance than general fitness training.  Even in the latter there is some minimum amounts of training required to achieve certain goals or stimulate certain adaptation.  It’s just a lot lower than what a high performance athlete will need to do.

Which ultimately means that focusing only on the training end of things in terms of the overtraining issue won’t work.  You have to do a certain amount of training to reach the goal to begin with.  Even if an athlete stops progressing, you can’t automatically assume that the goal is to cut back.

Yes, fine, many training systems use too much volume and too much intensity too frequently.  But even here, at the risk of being repetitive, you can only cut it back to much. Eventually you’re not doing enough to make progress.

And any time there is limit to how much you can change one side of the equation, that means you end up having to address the other side.

Recovery Processes

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 and such) 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 nutrition.  Ultimately, 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.

In that vein, a recent survey of athletes found that overtraining was not only linked to excessive training but just as likely to be related to insufficient calorie or macronutrient intake, poor sleep or high mental stress.

Overtraining or Underrecovery?

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, a a general rule.   It can’t be overtraining (in the sense of being too much) if it’s the amount that is necessary.  The training load isn’t the issue.

Rather, insufficient recovery is.  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 Part 1.  Age, gender, genetics, hormones, all play a role.  But short of taking drugs (and maybe some supplements if something is deficient) 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.  For example master’s athletes can’t recover from the same amount of training in either volume, intensity or frequency as younger athletes.  Training should be reduced to accommodate that.

Recovery Modalities

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.  Some of them even do something real while others are likely nothing but placebos.  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.

There is more attention to diet, better around workout nutrition and targeted supplementation as needed.  Athletes are taking regular naps after training if the time is available along with partying less on the weekends.  It all adds up to improve the athlete’s overall recovery so that they can adapt to the training more effectively.

And the end result is that the same training load that was previously excessive is now being handled and can be adapted to.  All without changing the training side of the equation.  Rather, it’s improving the recovery side.

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.  Simply, the load that had been sufficient before (given a certain level of recovery) might now be suboptimal when recovery is improved.  Certainly one benefit of drugs is allowing athletes to survive the often insane training loads that are required at the highest levels.

However, this is not always 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.

My speed skating coach believed that the way to apply drugs was to find the maximal training load the athlete could survive naturally and then add drugs and change nothing about the training.  No, we did not test this.

Finally I’d note a mistake some athlete make which is to ramp up training far too much when they get their recovery working better.  This is all too common with anabolic steroid use where people will go on drugs and triple their training volume, frequency and/or intensity.  And they end up overwhelming any benefits the drugs might have provided.  Essentially their training stress to recovery equation is still imbalanced because the training load was increased far too much for the increase in recovery to have helped.

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.

It’s More Than Just 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.  This means that all stresses increase the total stress load on the system (this is called allostatic load in research).   So while looking at both the training program itself is useful, it’s not all that has to be considered.

I made brief mention of this in Part when in the “For a given athlete” section but it’s really worth 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.  Al 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 has 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.  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.

A job is a huge potential stress in terms of whether or not the athlete has to have one to begin with, what it is (i.e. manual labor versus a desk job), whether the athlete enjoys it and how many hours they are 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.

A Mini-Rant About European Training

Similarly 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 was during that time that training volumes, intensities and frequencies got pushed to the limits.

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).

Back to Stress

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.  I’ve known athletes who tried to train twice a day around work.  It’s a nightmare.

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.  To follow the Eastern Block training model, you have to have the Eastern Model lifestyle model in place.

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.  They all add up to the total (allostatic) stress load on the athlete.

Not only does that increased stress require more recovery, they often impact on recovery directly.  Working night shift is not only a stress but interrupts sleep.  A crazy schedule makes it difficult to eat properly to fuel or recover from training.    As a coach or athlete, if you ignore the big picture, bad things often happen.

Long Term

While the ultimately causal effect of overtraining is an imbalance between the training load (along with all life stress) and recovery, it’s critical to understand that it is a long-term imbalance that causes the issue.  One insane workout can’t cause overtraining.  One insane week can’t cause overtraining.  It’s a long-term effect.

I bring this up for the reasons I outlined in Part 1, where people have started to use the term overtraining as a synonym for “being tired.”  So you’ll see someone say  “I ran a 10k yesterday and I’m exhausted today, I think I’m overtrained.”    Umm, no.  I’ve also seen people state “I really trained the hell out of my legs yesterday and I’m exhausted today.  I think I’m overtraining.”  By this point in the series, I hope you realize that that’s not what overtraining is or represents.

The point being that true overtraining only occurs when the imbalance between stress and recovery persists for a fairly long period of time.    How long is up to debate and probably varies quite a bit.   But fundamentally:

  • You can not overtrain from a single workout (unless it’s the last workout after many months of screwing it up).
  • You can not overtrain in a week of hard training.
  • You can not overtrain in two weeks of hard training.   In fact, the studies that try to do it invariably just make people fitter.
  • By the time you get to a month of imbalanced training and recovery, you might be getting close.  Or you might take 2 weeks off and rebound because you were only overreached.
  • And by the time you’ve put in 2-3 months or more of imbalanced training, it’s getting serious.
  • I think you get the idea.

But again we’re talking a long-term imbalance here.  Months of just hammering the body with insufficient recovery.  Something that most won’t do or can’t do because of the way life works.  But something that high level athletes both can and are willing to do.

I already gave some examples.  My teammate who wasn’t satisfied if he wasn’t exhausted from every workout.  Day-in, day-out for months he’d hammer himself.  It took him a year to come back.  My own coach training 2-3 times per day every day for months.  Eva who did the same.

In my 20’s, I did it to myself.  I was on my bike nearly every day, on my skates as much as possible, lifting and doing interval work in the gym.  I didn’t take days off or easy days.  Every aerobic workout was at the threshold range whether it was on the bike or my skates.  And I went heavy every time I lifted.

And after a couple of years of this, I was finally done.  There is no doubt I was underperforming long before the end.  But one day I looked at my skates and said “I can’t do it anymore.”  I put them away and wouldn’t touch them for nearly 10 years.  Not for fun and certainly not for training.  I was simply done.

Long-Term Means Long-Term

The point is that this is a long-term effect.  And, as I noted in a previous part, this is really something that only can or will happen in a few situations.  The first requirement is the willingness and ability to never miss training and go too hard all the time.  I think it’s more endemic to endurance sports sine you can always grind the miles.   In technical sports, it’s harder to do and high-intensity sports tend to limit themselves because you get hurt or can’t do the workout and go home.

Usually its in dedicated high-level athletes who never let anything interrupt their training and tend to push harder when their performance drops.   Or at least fail to change the training.  You see this in coaches too, usually team head coaches who will watch their athletes falling off the edge and change nothing.

Usually they are paying attention to the one athlete who is actually surviving the training and couldn’t care about anybody else.  They work from the model that so long as one of their athletes wins, their program has been a success. Even if everyone else in the group fails to improve.

Now, if your goal is simply winning or a medal, this approach works.  If you’ve got 20 athletes and one wins it all, you can claim to be a great coach.  The other 19 don’t matter.  These coaches bury everyone with as much work as they think is necessary (and usually everyone gets the same training program) and see who can survive it.

A Side-Note About Grinder Systems

Quite in fact, a lot of the communist countries take this very approach.  Bulgarian Olympic Lifting was incredibly successful.  It also broke roughly 65 out of 66 athletes.  The Chinese system is similar.  They throw millions of athletes into the grinder and destroy most of them.  And they don’t care so long as someone wins gold.

Because given sufficient athletes, this approach can actually work well if “well” means winning a gold no matter who you ruin.  And this is unfortunate because it then promotes the idea that that system can or should be used by everyone.  Just bury your athletes and see who survives and they will probably win.  And forget everybody else.

And it does work when certain conditions are in place.  Mainly you need a lot of athletes.  Because if you start out with 1000, maybe 100 will survive the training.  Of those 100 maybe 10 thrive on it.  Of those 10 maybe 3 hit their peak just right.  And one of those 3 can actually pass the drug test.  You win a gold medal and only had to ruin 990 athletes to do it (numbers are for illustration).

It helps to have athletes who will do what you say for the glory of the country.  That is, Communist and Socialist systems.  Even here, Germany did not use a grinder system since they didn’t have the numbers.  Russia and China absolutely did.  They threw millions of athletes into the system and only needed 1 in any given sport to win to prove their political superiority on the world stage.

And it’s required that the athletes be full-time athletes.  Those countries throw (or threw) enormous resources at their athletes.  They trained full time, got massage, recovery, everything they needed.  It was Russian training in the 80’s that pushed the volumes to the extreme.  Without that, it can’t be done except perhaps for short periods of time.

But, by and large, outside of those situations. Many sports don’t have the numbers to sacrifice to the beast to begin with.  The athletes have to be willing to shut up and do what their told as well.  And this isn’t common in Western countries.

I am actually aware of one grinder system in the United States which is USA Rollerskating of all things.  Indoor skating is huge in this country and the dominant coaching approach is “Run ’em hard and send whoever survives to nationals.”  But by and large it doesn’t work.

It’s why I have a big issue with the people’s attempts to adopt those training ideas wholesale in the west (or, say, popularize them for a sport like powerlifting).  When you only coach small groups or individuals, you can’t risk destroying even one of them with this type of training.

No, I’m not saying that there isn’t something to learn from those systems.  I’m simply saying that you can’t adopt them without considering the context from which they derived.

I even experienced this when I was skating.  One year we trained with another group of skaters with a Russian coach using the old Russian models.  He buried everyone in volume, including my team, from the get-go.  His logic was that it was an Olympic year and you must train hard.  And everybody but me got hurt because I would tell little lies to skip the truly ludicrous shit he recommended.  Like finishing an exhausting workout with 100m sprints.

Even he got hurt with this nonsense but he never picked up on the problem.  This is what he was taught in the 1970’s and it’s clear he hadn’t learned anything new.  After all was said and done, exactly one athlete stayed with him. And actually hit a huge peak….two months after Olympic trials had passed.  Yeah, he was skating like the wind.   Just too late for it to matter.

Ok, off my soapbox.

Long-Term is Long-Term

My point is simply that true overtraining can only possibly occur when someone is in a situation and has the mental drive to maintain a months or more imbalance between stress and recovery.  There are usually a host of other interactive variables that have to be present as well.  They are situational, psychological and physiological and I’ve mentioned some of them already.    In fact a new book called Overtraining Athletes came out a few months ago that looks at some of them (in a case study, interview sort of fashion) which is part of why this topic is on my mind.

Which is probably why, despite the generally obsessive psychotic nature of athletes, true overtraining still isn’t as common as you’d think.  It happens but only in a percentage of athletes.  Even those percentages are hard to come by since they are usually self-reported retrospectively.  The point being that not all athletes overtrain themselves.

It simply requires the perfect confluence of the right sport, the right coach (or lack therof), the right physiology (that can hammer every day), and the right psychology (the athlete who pushes harder when they perform worse).  Throw all those things together for a few months and the athlete can and probably will overtrain.  If you’re lucky, it only messes up that year for the athlete.  Really do it right and you can end a career.

And having finally finished an analysis of the definition, I can finally move on to more practical issues in how you can monitor or address the above to prevent it.

Read Overtraining, Overreaching and all the Rest Part 4.

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