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A Guide to Overtraining and Overreaching

Since the 1980’s, when everybody tried to follow the drug-fueled training models of the Eastern Block Countries and got completely broken off, a constant cry and fear in the training world is that of “overtraining”.  People throw around the term in the most interesting of ways and most of those ways are incorrect.  This is especially true in the general fitness/physique world where ‘overtraining’ has come to be synonymous with ‘I got kind of tired’ which is not what it means at all.

But it’s clear that the concept of overtraining (and I’ll admit that I tend to be a little bit free in throwing the term around from time to time) is very unclear for folks.  So I want to set about unclearing it by looking at a variety of concepts.  Two of the primary ones are overtraining (aka the overtraining syndrome or OTS) and a related idea called overreaching.

This is more than just a semantic distinction, mind you; although the definitions tend to be a little less than useful as you’ll see by the time I get to the end of all of this.  I’ll also discuss a couple of more recent terms called ‘underperformance syndrome’ and the new catch-word/phrase which is ‘under-recovery’.

Since, as usual, I’m too wordy, this is going to be divided up into multiple parts.  In an ideal world, I’d finish with Part 2 on Friday.  Don’t be surprised if I go longer than that and run to at least a third part to cover everything.

Defining Overtraining

To get this party started, I want to present a seemingly pedantic as hell, detailed definition of the term overtraining.  As you read the article, hopefully you’ll see why I went to so much trouble to define it this way:

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.

Ok, that wasn’t so bad was it?  And I’d note that I’ve seen even more tedious definitions than this, be glad I managed to get it into this few words.  But there are a few key words/phrases in that definition which I now want to look at in some detail.  I’m going to look at them out of order of the quote itself since some of the sentence assumes information in later parts of the sentence.

Overtraining vs. Overreaching

It became clear early on that true overtraining, whereby it took months to recover to previous performance levels, was fairly rare.  When athletes started to perform badly and were given a couple of weeks of rest, they tended to come back quickly and strongly (often exceeding previous fitness levels).

For that reason, scientists and coaches started to distinguish between true overtraining and what they called overreaching with the distinction being this: if you recover within 2-3 weeks, you were only overreached.  By definition, overtraining only occurs if it takes longer than that roughly 2-3 week period to get back to or past your previous performance level.

In fact, this distinction has gone further with some now differentiating functional overreaching (where you come back stronger and fitter after the recovery period) and non-functional overreaching (where you don’t).   This is relevant as it’s sometimes asserted that functional overreaching, in the sense of pushing the athlete a little into the hole is a key aspect of raising performance. And at least in endurance athlete this seems to be the opposite of true with even overreaching dampening training adaptations. But this isn’t something I want to get into deeply here.

The Realities of Overtraining and Overreaching

In any case, this distinction is an important one.  Most people will never experience true overtraining for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that, when most people start to perform badly or get tired all the time, they will cut back their training.  Basically, they don’t have what it takes to truly become overtrained.

This isn’t meant to be insulting, it’s just a statement of fact.  Most people in most gyms aren’t working as hard as they think they are in the first place.  If and when they start to feel run down, workouts are going to get dropped or conveniently ‘missed’ and recovery will take place long before a deep enough hole is created to qualify for even overreaching, much less overtraining.

Another factor is that, as Dan John puts it, “Life gets in the way”.  By this he means that most folks will have something come up that will force a recovery period due to work, family, etc.  They won’t be able to maintain the other parts of the definition I’m going to look at to really dig the hole that deep.

A holiday will come up, a vacation will come up, something will keep them out of the gym for a few days or a week or what have you.  And that gives them recovery.   Because it ultimately prevents the type of chronic high-load training that can generate overreaching and overtraining.  They simply can’t happen.

Between those two things, overtraining or even overreaching tends to be rare in the general population.  Not impossible, mind you, just rare.

Extreme Athletes are Different

But hardcore athletes often show this amusing psychology whereby, when they start to perform badly, they will not only fight through crappy training and competition but train even harder.  They see failure as a challenge to be overcome and if they aren’t performing well, assume they need more training (when they usually need much less).

And since they rarely miss training in the first place and go at it week in and week out and month in and month out, they can really do themselves some damage when they start falling into that trap.  When you finally do get them to rest, it can take months or longer for them to come back (I’ve seen it argued that some never come back but I’m not sure how much truth there is to this).   That’s true overtraining.

Now, there is actually a very silly question in the literature to the effect of “Does overtraining exist?”  Effectively, since research has been unable to generate true overtraining (since they can’t destroy people for the 6+ months it takes to generate true overtraining), they aren’t sure it’s real.  In the short-term studies where they just beat on people for a couple of weeks, usually it just makes them fitter.  You simply can’t do the studies to test it directly.

Rather, any research showing overtraining is typically retrospective or looking at athletes cross-sectionally.  So you take a bunch of athletes, identify them as recovered, overreached or overtraining and then see what is different between them.   And while overtraining still isn’t as common as many might think or claim, any coach or athlete who has experienced it will tell you that it’s very real.

Is Overtraining Really Real?

In that vein, I was asked at a seminar I gave if I had ever seen true overtraining.  As I found out later, the guy was a snowboarding coach so I’m not surprised at his question. Snowboarding is an amazing activity, amazingly skilled and I love watching it just like I love watching skateboarding.

But those guys aren’t “training” in the way that most athletes are.  I’m sorry but dicking around in the snow just isn’t the kind of physiological stress that trying to run 200km per week is.   Yes, there is a physiological aspect of it muscularly.  But it’s still mostly skill work on “tricks”.  The training just isn’t the same and I doubt a coach of that sport would ever see overtraining.

Some Anecdote About Overtraining

He’ll probably never see true overtraining.  But I have both seen it as well as done it to myself.  Here are a few case studies of athletes I personally know.  Read them as nothing more than that.

One teammate of mine during my time spent in SLC speed skating was a chronic overtrainer.  He would subject himself to a constant high-volume, high-intensity work and he wouldn’t listen to our coach to cut back.   If he didn’t walk out of a workout completely exhausted, he just wasn’t happy.  He dug himself so deep in the hole that he came back a full year later and set PR’s after nearly no training.  His comment “Man was I overtrained.”

My own coach set massive PR’s on the ice a full two years after he stopped training so hard.  During his career, he had trained 2-3 times per day 7 days/week for years leading up to that.  Then he burnt out, too years off and came back and skated better tahn ever.

A friend, Eva, got so deep in the hole at one point that it  took her 6 +months of reduced training before she even started to come back to her previous level.  Prior to that she would have to literally will herself to climb the stairs to the oval before grinding through another 2 hour workout.  Mentally she’s still not recovered even 2 years later.

Those are examples of true overtraining.  Being tired the day or day after a hard workout is not.

Is overtraining common?  No.  Will most people experience it?  Probably not.  Does it happen? Absolutely.

Back to Overtraining vs. Overreaching

But if you recover in 2 weeks, you weren’t overtrained, you were simply overreached.  Think of it as overtraining light; the same types of overload that generate overreaching in the short-term eventually lead to true overtraining when continued in the long-term.

Some coaches will deliberately try to cause this effect by beating on their athletes for about 2 weeks and then giving them a recovery block.  That is, they use short-term overreaching to try and bump fitness to the next level.  Usually when their athletes stop adapting to more standard loading parameters.  Note: this is only for advanced athletes and most people screw it up by continuing the loading block too long and forgetting to do the recovery bit.

I’ve done the same sort of things with some specialization cycles for bodybuilders.  First you beat on them for 3-4 weeks (maximum) and then give them 2 weeks to recover and grow.  But, again, the key is to keep the loading phase short enough and not forget to do the recovery phase.  This is where people usually screw it up.  They forget the recovery part.

I’d note that this may be the most useless part of the overall definition since you can only know if you were truly overtrained or simply overreached after the fact.  That is, the distinction has little predictive value: it’s only descriptive and only long after the fact.  You only find out the very hard way if you overtrained the athlete.

That is, if it took you 2-3 weeks to return to the same or higher fitness level, you were only overreached.  If it took you longer than that, you were overtrained.  Interesting but hardly useful when you’re the one who can’t perform anywhere close to your previous bests and don’t know how long it will take you to get back to form.

I’d note, finally, that even knowing whether you are truly overtrained or overreached doesn’t really matter if you find yourself in that position: the fix is the same.  You reduce training volume and intensity significantly until you recover and performance comes back to normal or above.  If it takes 2 weeks, great; if it takes 2 years, that’s the way it goes.  You can’t make it happen faster and you keep resting and recovering until you come back.  And hopefully don’t learn a very hard lesson during that time.

In any case, that’s the first part of the definition that people need to understand: the distinction between true overtraining (which is rare but happens) and overreaching (far more common).  Summing up for those who skipped the above, overreaching has happened when it only takes 2-3 weeks to recover to previous performance levels; true overtraining, by agreed upon definition, takes longer than that.

For a Given Athlete

Ok, this is the next phrase I want to look at.  I can’t count the number of times I have seen someone throw up a specific workout or week of training and asked “Is this workout overtraining?”  And the answer is a duck.  This is my stock standard answer when someone asks a question so vague as to be meaningless and “Is this workout overtraining?” is one of those.  It’s not a question with any sort of potential answer that will mean anything without context so the answer is a duck.  Maybe a mallard.

Simply, what will overtrain one will undertrain another and be the perfect training load for a third.   It’s that old context thing again, which you have to consider to even examine the question meaningfully.

For example,  a 40 year old male with falling hormones, a stressful life (job, home, etc.) and no real background in training would get destroyed by the same training that an 18 year old with great hormones, no real life stresses (thanks mom and dad) and who had already been training a few years would find to be too little training.  Youth and stupidity will get you pretty far for a while but only if you have both.

A huge number of variables go into this, mind you.  Genetics is one, hormones are another, age is a third.  The hormones thing is not trivial and a big part of why anabolics work so well.  They let you do more work (or the same work at a higher average intensity) without blowing up.  It’s also why following the training models of drug users fails so spectacularly for non-drug using athletes.

There are still more. How many years of training has the person done? This is relevant as recovery and training capacity can improve although most are too impatient to let it happen (it’s a slow non-sexy process).  This is important when people fall into the trap of “I want to be an elite athlete so I’ll train exactly like an elite athlete.”

They forget that that elite athlete spent a decade or more building up to their current training volume, intensity and frequency.  Had the athlete started there in his first year, he would have gotten nuked.  Even at the 5 year mark it would have been too much.  Looking at what elites are doing at the 10 year mark is useless for someone just starting out.

The most amusing way I may have seen this put was an interview with the head Greek Olympic Lifting coach who said (roughly paraphrased) “This is big training, you need 10 years build up to do this. Without that build up, you will die.”  Yes, that’s right.


Yet many figure that to be elite, they should just model the training of the elite.  And they die.  Or simply wish they were dead after a few weeks.  Because without the buildup, the gradual increase in training tolerance that occurs with intelligent training, that type of thing simply can’t be handled.

I’d note that the entire Greek team also got popped for anabolics before Beijing.  So apparently you not only need a 10 year build up but sufficient drugs or YOU WILL DIE.  Just something to keep in mind the next time you want to copy what the elites in any sport are doing.

Training tolerance and recoverability can be increased.  But it’s a slow process and most people are impatient assholes.  But ideally, when you start a sport (or lifting for example) you should do the least you can to make progress, only increasing that amount when you need it.

Overall fitness tends to play a role, people with better general fitness seem to handle heavier training loads better than those with less. Workouts end up being less stressful overall (for a variety of reasons) and they get better recovery between those workouts because a lot of the recovery processes depend on overall fitness levels.

This is a good reason to do some general fitness work from time to time and many athletes alternate periods of higher volume (and lower intensity) to improve overall work capacity with periods of higher intensity (and lower volume) to improve fitness.  The improvement in work capacity gives them the ‘base’ to handle and adapt to the higher intensity work.

How Much Training for a Given Athlete?

Which raises the question of how much volume or intensity is appropriate and here there are few answers (I’ll try to make some applicational statements at the end of the series so people don’t complain at me again).   Most coaches, over time, develop sort of rules of thumb in terms of what a given trainee might or might not handle.  Based on age, gender, training status, etc.  But that’s all they are: rules of thumb.

Of course, good coaches are always adjusting training at the same time (a topic I’ll talk about in the future when I get around to writing about periodization).  But they have at least starting points on where an athlete might start and how to make adjustments (to frequency, volume, intensity, etc.) if the results aren’t forthcoming.

It might be mileage or days in the weight room or whatever but they have starting points built up over years of coaching.  Beginners will start at a certain level and additions will be made (e.g. add a 4th workout to the three base workouts after 6 months of training) as they progress and adapt.

I’d note again that this is a place where anabolic steroid use has really caused problems in training folks.  Drugs let you get away with so many mistakes and can cover up problems for a really long time (in fact, they build muscle without training).

I still see coaches trying to use the methodologies of  the 1980’s Eastern Block countries but they only work with the drugs and the years of buildup (along with the hundreds of athletes that you can destroy) endemic to those countries.  In naturals who don’t spend 10 years building to those loads, folks get destroyed.

Foreign coaches are often amazed that they are expected to prepare athletes “without supplementation”.  They just don’t know how to get it done without the drugs to support the training.  And they know that athletes won’t ever get to the top without the drugs.

The point of this section being that you can’t look at a single workout or a single week or even a single block of training and say ‘This is or isn’t overtraining’.  It might be too much for one, just right for another, or too little for a third.

The specifics of the situation factor in and, again this is more of a hindsight thing, you can only know after the fact if the training load you gave was right or not.  If the trainee made progress on it, it was either just right (or certainly not too much).  If they didn’t, it was too much. If you did that too much for too long, badness might happen.  You end up overtrained.

The best thing you can do is watch what’s happening in the short-term (again, I’ll make some actual application comments towards the end of the series).  Unless your goal is to overreach an athlete, if they are looking ragged at week 3 of your “perfect training” program, odds are it’s too much.  The sooner you cut something back, the better off you and the athlete will be.  Because if you don’t and they fall off the edge, it may take months for them to get back.

I would note as a final comment for today that it is always better to do a little bit too little than too much.  Because even a little less than the “optimal” amount of training is still generating a training effect. The athlete might progress a touch faster with more training but they will still progress (assuming the training isn’t completely insufficient) at a level that is slightly below that.

In contrast, too much training always eventually catches up with the athlete.  They might get hurt or burnt out or walk down the path into overreaching and finally into true overtraining.   And once that happens it could take weeks or months to recover.  Weeks or months that wouldn’t have been lost at all if a more survivable training load had been in place.

Simply, when in doubt, do less not more.

Read Overtraining and Overreaching Part 2.

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