Overtraining Syndrome

Working out is a wonderful thing. Regular and intense exercise keeps you at a healthy body weight, keeps your muscles toned, your bones dense, helps you to sleep better, feel happier more regularly, and joining group fitness programs can be a fantastic way to make long-lasting friendships. The benefits are quite extensive. But as with anything, you want a moderate amount of exercise in your life. Meaning not too much. But how do you establish how much exercise is too much? What are the results of exercising too much, and is it really such a bad thing?

Yes and no. Exercising too much is probably not really a thing for most people. This is because while it is amazing and yields a lot of benefits and humans need exercise/physical stimulation/movement in order to live well, exercise is also stressful and there is only so much most people are willing to put up with before saying enough and taking a break. Fatigue builds up and continuously nudges you to slow down and stop. So an individual training session is unlikely to have much of a detrimental value. If it is your first workout in a long while, pushing yourself may leave you quite sore and sleepy for a few days, but you heal and get stronger. No lasting damage. Just lasting awesomeness if you continue to move regularly.

Now the point of exercising, of going to the gym, is to get better at doing things. Lifting weights, running, jumping, gymnastics...using your body. In other words, you should be going to the gym to make adaptations. Changes in the capabilities of your body and mind. This means breaking your body down in some way so that it has to build itself back up stronger than before. Exercise itself does not make you stronger; RECOVERING from exercise makes you stronger. This is a vital point to understand. It is in-between the workouts, especially during sleep, that you adapt and develop. And it is when this recovery does not happen appropriately that problems will occur.

Overtraining syndrome is a condition used often within the realm of athletics. It describes a set of symptoms associated with a sustained fight-or-flight response. These symptoms include chronic indigestion, irritability, inability to sleep and focus, lack of healing/recovery from workouts and also any injuries, and a chronically raised heart rate. Amongst many other things. When discussing this condition, it is important to keep in mind the fact that human beings are ever-adapting creatures, constantly adjusting to stimuli in the environment, and creating lasting changes to any lasting stimuli.

When we workout, we go through (or at least really should go through) a warmup. A warmups purpose is to steadily increase your respiration, perspiration and body heat, and get the neuromuscular system (the part of your body in control of how your brain interacts with your muscles/movement) engaged to better allow you to move in whatever way it needs to in order to perform the exercises more efficiently.  For example, if your workout is going to be 10 reps of 400-meter sprints with a 90-second rest between each sprint, you may start off the session with jogging, lunging, stomping, squatting and other movements to exaggerate the ranges of movement used when sprinting. You progressively go through these movements with more and more intensity over the course of about 15-30 minutes or so. By the time you are ready to begin the sprints, you should be sweaty and breathing hard. If you are not hot and breathing hard at this point, you have not warmed up. Do more.

Physiologically speaking, what you did while going through that warmup was engaging your sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system that controls making you more stressed out. So increasing blood pressure and heart rate, giving you tunnel vision, quickened breath, amongst many other things. This is opposed to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the exact opposite, making you more relaxed. So when you workout, you engage the sympathetic nervous system while disengaging the parasympathetic. Sympathetic is stress. Parasympathetic is relaxation.

Going back to the human body always adapting to stimuli, this includes internal nervous system functions. This is otherwise known as creating habits. If you practice running frequently enough, you become better at running. If you practice playing the guitar frequently enough, you will get better at playing the guitar. Same applies to driving, archery, math, welding...any practice. Your body will make changes so that certain details of the practice can be performed on auto-pilot so you do not have to be constantly and consciously focusing on every little detail. Imagine how stressful driving was the very first time you got behind the wheel. With practice you became accustomed to steering, stepping on the pedals, controlling AC and temperature, radio and other functions. And instead of having to focus on each individual task, you could start to do things without much thought, becoming, hopefully, more efficient at driving. Instead of looking at the AC controls to change them, you can alter them as you want without looking. You have adapted to driving and made a habit of the skills needed to do so.

The sympathetic nervous system is not something that should persist for long. Not being able to digest, or sleep, or heal will kill you. The arousal developed from warming up should only last as long as the workout. Once the workout is completed, the parasympathetic nervous system needs to be engaged so that you can relax. However, if you never do relax, then the sympathetic nervous system can persist. Imagine an endurance athlete. A marathon runner. Someone who regularly goes for runs that last for hours at a time, and therefore maintaining a sympathetic nervous system for an extended period of time. Not just 10-30 minutes at a time. These individuals will, over time, have much more practice making an engaged sympathetic nervous system a habitual occurrence. Meaning that the likelihood of the sympathetic nervous system persisting, never turning off, becomes more and more likely as the athlete continues this form of training. Not suggesting this type of training is bad at all, but that individual or any individual who is frequently subjected to a lot of stress will need to balance out the stress with conscious relaxation. This needs to begin the moment the workout is completed. This is what the cooldown is. Disengaging the sympathetic nervous system and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.

A lot of athletes will often do their workout and then just simply carry on with their everyday life or job right after. No cooldown. Or at least no real cooldown. Sorry everyone, but spending 2 minutes on static stretching doesn't absolutely nothing of value. There is no disengaging the sympathetic nervous system intentionally. With an individual occurrence, things may not be so bad. Their heart rate may stay up for a while, but it is unlikely that any serious problems will arise, such as an inability to sleep or to eat without puking or pain. Eventually, the parasympathetic nervous system will engage on its own. But if this becomes a habitual occurrence for the athlete, skipping the cooldown and not performing any actions to intentionally relax their body, the sympathetic nervous system can become permanent. This is when they stop sleeping (deeply) even though they feel tired all the time, they can become perpetually sore as their body never recovers, and eating can be uncomfortable as the digestive tract will not work very well. It will also compromise their immune system, making it significantly easier to get and stay sick. This is when we say an individual has Overtraining Syndrome. And it can last anywhere from days to years. It depends on how much that person overworks their body.

The real problem here is not working out too hard or too often. The problem that creates this Overtraining Syndrome is the lack of relaxation incorporated between the workouts. Again, it is important to always remember that exercise does not make you stronger. Exercise breaks you down so that you can be built back up stronger than before. But that building up only happens after the exercise. In many cases, less exercise can really mean more results. If you can’t sleep or absorb nutrients, you won’t recover. And so you won’t get better at whatever it is you are going to the gym to do. So in a way, the exercise becomes futile at this point. A waste of time. Personally, I consider the warmup and cooldown to be the most important parts of the workout time. The workout itself is probably the more exciting bit, but a great warmup can significantly boost your performance in the workout, and a great cooldown can drastically enhance how well you recover from and get stronger from the workout.

Signs/Symptoms of Overtraining:

  • Chronic indigestion

  • Chronically sick

  • Trouble sleeping or even complete inability to sleep

  • Constantly tired between workouts

  • Chronically sore

  • Heart rate is chronically higher than normal

(This is all considering the individual is exercising a lot. However, other activities can create this. Essentially any activity that creates stress is relevant here. Being a drummer, having a desk job that always makes you want to pull your hair out.. you can use your imagination a bit.)

Some tips for having a better cooldown, and therefore mitigating against developing any of the symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome include the following:

  • Breathe deeply. Exercise takes your breath away. Focus on reclaiming your breathe ASAP to cool everything down in about the fastest, most efficient way possible.

  • Drink plenty of water before, during and after the workout. That includes throughout the day, every day too.

  • Practice a lot of stretching/mobilizing/deep tissue work after the workout. Especially in your upper back (Yoga Tune Up® balls are the best thing to use here) and also in your abdomen (the Coregeous ball is the best thing to use here). Getting a professional massage is also great.

  • Taking a cold shower or taking a full body dip in a tub full of ice water can help flush out inflammatory factors quickly. Doesn’t have to be a long exposure; just 30 seconds can be beneficial. Also, once you are accustomed to it, the icy cold water feels amazing!

  • Getting into a sauna or sweat lodge can help your body to relax as well. As with cold exposure, it doesn't have to be for a long time. Just a few minutes can begin to create change in your body.

  • Have a nutritious diet. Consuming enough fats, proteins, carbs, vitamins and minerals help your body to recover without having to eat itself. Speaking of carbs, insulin counteracts cortisol, one of your main stress hormones. Everything in moderation, but consuming some sugar can really help people to relax from a stressful event. This is why a person might be given a sugary drink after a stressful encounter like a fight. It’s easier to swallow a fluid than a solid and the sugar will help to counter the cortisol dump.

  • Do some deep tissue work right before going to sleep. It will help you get into a deeper parasympathetic response and can help you sleep deeper.

  • Spend a dedicated minimum of 30 minutes cooling down after a workout. If you don’t ever have the time after your workout, consider shortening the workout. Recovery is the priority. Recovery is when you get stronger. You exercise to get stronger in some way. So focus on your recovery to make use of the exercise.