Overtraining Like Riding Your Bike

Overtraining… one of the most overused words in the fitness world. Plenty in the fitness industry use it as a mechanism of criticism towards an athlete’s methods or a coach’s training techniques… but only a percentage of them can tell you what the phases of overtraining are, what the physiological impact is, and why it’s important to know the signs and symptoms. I’m going to do my very best to make you an informed, critical thinking athlete, that will be able to make educated decisions about their own concerns with overtraining.

Think of us like a little kid on a bike; the first thing our parents tried to do is get us off the couch and on to the bike, then they give us a few pointers, and BOOM they roll us down the hill! I don’t know about your experience with learning how to ride a bike, but mine was filled with bumps, scrapes, and bruises… and maybe a few tears. Which has not been that dissimilar from my experience with fitness J. Once our parents had us up on the bike, their next job was to make sure we didn’t run into the neighbor’s car or hit the dumpster face first. As we started to go faster and faster, we started to understand that the thin line between going fast and crashing hard got smaller and smaller. That’s how we need to think of overtraining; as novice athletes we try to start out learning movements and mixing intensities, but to be honest at that level it’s much harder to reach the level of overtraining we should really be concerned about. The bike isn’t moving very fast, so the consequences generally aren’t as great.

Now, before someone stands up and screams “WHAT ABOUT RHABDO”! There are always outliers, and if you put yourself, or a coach puts a truly novice athlete(6 month of training or less) in a position where they have real rhabdomyolysis, like the “laying in the hospital bed for multiple days kind” and not the “I was really sore and my friend read an article kind” then I personally find your trainer severely irresponsible for putting you in that position, or you’re irresponsible for not following their direction and putting yourself in that position. That being said, it’s extremely rare for novice athletes to be able to provide the intensity and duration of training required to give themselves real rhabdo. There are also multiple other variables such as hydration, temperature of training environment, and nutrition that are huge factors there… that’s an article for a different day though!

Back on the bike! As I was saying, when you start to increase the speed of the bike or in this case the level of intensity and frequency of training, the room for error shrinks, and you can put yourself at risk of overtraining. The harder you push the pace in training, the more damaging overtraining can be, so bad that you may even break your bike and have to go inside… and nobody likes that.

As we get started diving into detail, I want to give you a few basic definitions to understand, let’s start with the less damaging of progression…

Functional Overreaching
A short-term reduction in performance that later leads to improved performance after a taper or a period of rest. (1) So, think of this as wanting to cool the engine a little bit before a big competition or performance, this will generally happen in the last week before the taper (or deload as we sometimes call it). Once the bout of intensity occurs, we’ll then allow the body to recover and come back to neutral, hopefully creating adaptions that allow us to perform at an even higher level, otherwise known as “peaking”. 

Non-functional Overreaching
 A short-term reduction in performance that recovers fully (but does not lead to improved performance), and only after a sustained period of rest.(1) This is when muscle damage has occurred, sometimes muscle damage is useful as it will create adaptions and more strength (see functional overreaching) but in this case so much muscle damage has been caused that the time it takes to fully heal is so long that the adaptions created by the muscle fibers are long gone.(2) So, although this is temporarily frustrating, it causes no long-term negative effects on training. Your muscle level returns to normal after a period of rest. This process can occur over the course of weeks to months, where as functional overreaching occurs over days to weeks.

What Causes Overreaching?
Reductions in performance can be caused by three things; central nervous system fatigue, metabolic fatigue, and muscle damage. (3) Metabolic fatigue is when your muscle response slows down because you’ve outworked the pace at which your body can provide an energy source, in this case ATP. Both metabolic fatigue and central nervous system fatigue as far as “overreaching” is concerned are very temporary, generally between 30 minutes and four hours. In most cases(3), any reduction in strength that last longer than 24 hours is due to muscle damage. So, to simplify it, we’re basically causing muscle damage, and then training again before our body has recovered from said damage. In terms of overreaching you shouldn’t be concerned, there isn’t a high risk here for long term effects, and for higher level athletes it may become completely necessary to improve.
Now the more important one…

Overtraining Syndrome (OTS)
OTS appears to be an adaption response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in negative feedback from multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes. (4) The important part to know is that OTS is a clinical diagnosis, where overreaching (functional and non-functional) are merely just a form of adaption created by muscle damage. 

How is it developed?

First, you should understand that it’s extremely rare to develop a clinical form of OTS. Second, you need to understand that this is an emerging science, which at this point has some guidelines, but is not a perfect process. OTS is developed when non-functional overreaching occurs over longer periods of time (3-5 months on average), the biggest difference is any type of overreaching generally won’t have an impact on the immune, endocrine (hormones), or neurological systems like OTS will. (4) Over the course of time you will notice a swift drop in performance, which leads us to…

What are the signs and symptoms?

Parasympathetic Alterations*Sympathetic Alterations**OtherFatigueInsomniaAnorexiaDepressionIrritabilityWeight loss (drastic)Bradycardia (lower than normal heart rate)AgitationLack of mental concentrationLoss of motivationTachycardia (higher than normal heart rate)Heavy, sore, stiff muscles HypertensionAnxiety RestlessnessWaking up unrefreshed

Kreher, Jeffrey B and Jennifer B Schwartz. “Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide” Sports health vol. 4,2 (2012): 128-38.
*More common symptoms in aerobic sports/training (running long distances)
**More common symptoms in anaerobic sports/training (heavy weightlifting/sprinting)
As you are probably aware, CrossFit fits into both boxes, it is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic stimulus. Which is why athletes need to be aware of symptoms in both systems. Feel free to look up sympathetic and parasympathetic systems to understand more, but their definitions aren’t as important in helping you understand the effects on your body. It is important to understand that just because you have some of these symptoms does not automatically mean you’re being over-trained or that you have OTS. They are symptoms that are developed by overreaching for long periods of time, and they are things that should help you understand the impact training with little or no recovery can have on multiple systems in the body.

How do I prevent OTS or non-functional overreaching?

The biggest step you can take to prevent anything like this from happening to you is to take extra care of the systems that OTS negatively impacts. Taking care of your immune system, your endocrine system, and your neurological system have the biggest positive impact in preventing overtraining. Getting an adequate amount of sleep, having a well-balanced diet that includes all the vitamins and minerals required, and creating adequate recovery strategies with a coach such as pre/post workout nutrition, contrast baths, hydration, and warm up/cool down techniques are the just some of the steps you can take. (3) 

Back to the bike…
The most important aspect in learning how to ride a bike always has been, and always will be a good teacher. For some it was mom and dad, for some it was brother and sister, either way it was always someone that cared about your well-being… most of the time J. That coincides identically with training and overtraining; you need to learn how to train with proper rest and recovery under the supervision of a coach that knows what they’re doing, and genuinely cares about your well-being around the clock, not just for the hour you’re in class or at the gym. Sure, you’re going to skid and crash a few times no matter how good the instructor is, but with your raised awareness and your coach’s care and supervision I hope you’ll be riding your bike when you’re 100 years old!
1. Simeon P. Cairns. (2013) Holistic approaches to understanding mechanisms of fatigue in high-intensity sport. Fatigue: Biomedicine, Health & Behavior 1:3, pages 148-167.
2. Richardson SO, Andersen MB, Morris T, editors. Overtraining Athletes: Personal Journeys in Sports.Champaign, Ill, USA: Human Kinetics; 2008.
3. Lehmann M, Foster C, Keul J. Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1993;25(7):854–862.
4. Kreher, Jeffrey B and Jennifer B Schwartz. “Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide” Sports health vol. 4,2 (2012): 128-38.

Jordan Lutz