How Real is the Risk of Overtraining?
Concern about overtraining is common, but the truth may surprise you.
In response to the obesity epidemic, the fitness lifestyle has experienced a surge in interest. From classic cardio and weightlifting to newer styles of exercise like Zumba and CrossFit, people are working out more than ever before.
This increase in physical activity delivers numerous benefits - reduced body fat, increased cardiovascular health, greater muscle mass, and an overall improved quality of life - but it's not without its potential drawbacks.
As newcomers to training often find, the risk of injury is real. Leaping head-first into advanced training techniques like those in Dr. Jim Stoppani's Project X before the body has been adequately conditioned to the required levels of exertion can take a toll.
Muscle strain, tendon injury, and joint damage are things everyone is likely to experience at some point along the path of fitness, but the likelihood of suffering a setback like this is greater for the untrained individual.
While warnings about focusing on proper form, technique, and pacing are helpful, one concern that has increasingly cropped up is the risk of overtraining. Even advanced athletes are cautioned to limit the frequency and duration of their training sessions so as to avoid overtraining syndrome. But is this fear really warranted?
The Bad News? Overtraining is real. The Good News? You'll Probably Never Experience It.
You've seen the word used often enough, but what is overtraining, really? In general, the term is used to describe a wide variety of symptoms, usually comparable to exhaustion. Lower overall performance, persistent soreness, fatigue, decreased enthusiasm for training, diminished appetite, depressed mood, and sleep disturbance are commonly cited signs of having exceeded the body's limits.
And so what you see when the word "overtraining" is brought up is people making these general complaints - they're tired and sore the day after a workout, maybe they had trouble sleeping that night, or their workout the next day just didn't feel like it was as strong of a performance.
Is that a sign of overtraining? Not even close.
The truth is, the degree to which you might experience these symptoms varies - and actual overtraining syndrome is orders of magnitude worse than simply feeling sore for a few days.
Below, we'll walk through these stages of recovery - or lack thereof - and in the end, you can judge for yourself just how apt the term "overtraining" might or might not be for you.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness - aka DOMS
For newcomers to fitness, it can take just one workout session to be introduced to DOMS. For some it's the very next day, for others it takes a day or two, but we've all experienced that excessive soreness that plagues us for a day or even several days. To the veteran trainer, DOMS may no longer be an issue, as their bodies have adapted to the regular rigors of training. Some even view it as desirable, considering it the sign of a job well done.
For years, it was thought that this delayed and prolonged soreness was a result of the buildup of lactic acid, a natural byproduct of the body's metabolic processes - specifically the breakdown of pyruvate during anaerobic energy production, which takes place during high-intensity exercise like sprinting and weightlifting.
However, it has since been shown that while the build-up of lactic acid levels do play a part in fatiguing once production exceeds the body's capacity to clear this waste product away, those levels diminish to baseline shortly after exercise is over. In reality, lactic acid doesn't make you sore at all.
The real cause of DOMS is the purpose of exercise itself: The deliberate damaging of muscle tissue. It's during recovery and repair from this damage that progress is made in the development of muscle mass.
As Dr. Jim Stoppani, PhD, creator and owner of JYM Supplement Science and JimStoppani.com explains in his article Muscle Hypertrophy: Your Complete Guide to Building Muscle Fast, the microtrauma necessary to muscle growth typically happens in one of two ways: Physically, during the eccentric portion of a lift or movement; or chemically, due to the byproducts of oxidative processes that take place during endurance training.
This damage to muscle cells triggers an inflammatory response that, among other things, involves neutrophils - the most abundant type of white blood cell in the body - and another type of white blood cells known as macrophages. These specialized cells clear away the damaged muscle tissue and release enzymes that further break down muscle cells to make way for the repair work to come.
Especially in those new to exercise, this inflammatory response and healing process produces the prolonged soreness of DOMS. For some, DOMS can be extremely painful. However, **this soreness isn't overtraining** – it's perfectly normal and a part of the body's adaptive processes. And, as stated above, it's an experience that can be short-lived, where some no longer experience this soreness at all.
The next stop on the path to true overtraining is known as overreaching. For the vast majority of people, if you think you've overtrained, this is likely the more accurate assessment.
Overreaching is similar to overtraining, in that the symptoms may be similar - a decrease in strength or endurance, prolonged soreness and fatigue beyond the normal bounds of typical DOMS - however, the severity is far less, and short-lived.
While a newcomer may overreach by taking on too rigorous a program early in their training, the body is typically quick to adapt and increase overall conditioning. For more advanced high-performance athletes, overreaching requires a sudden substantial increase in training volume more drastic than the change from sedentary life to regular training.
In the case of overreaching, the cause is comparable to early-stage overtraining. Under the consistent strain of the increased training volume, the body's ability to respond to the inflammatory response is diminished. The breakdown of muscle tissue is increased, while the clearance of waste products decreases. The overall recovery process is slower, and this inevitably takes a toll on the trainer.
However, overreaching is fairly common - in fact, most athletes will experience it from time to time, to varying degrees. Once again, conditioning plays a factor, as do genetics as some are more predisposed to adapting more quickly to sudden increases in training load. And for some, overreaching - much like DOMS - can actually be a desired goal.
In his Six Weeks to Sick Arms program, Dr. Stoppani details the process of intentional overreaching for the purpose of achieving maximal muscle growth. "Several studies from the University of Connecticut have shown that when subjects overreach for several weeks, during the two weeks following, they grow significantly bigger and stronger while taking it easy. The key is to stop the overreaching just before it turns into overtraining."
As he explains, this is in large part due to gene activation and what he describes as a "staircase effect", essentially stacking damage upon damage to compound the resulting repair and muscle hypertrophy.
In order to maintain this intentional overreaching and prevent overtraining the program makes use of periodization - the systematic, gradual increase of weight lifted over time - as well as key recommendations regarding nutrition, which you'll see later plays an important part in avoiding overtraining syndrome.
One study cited in the program overview found that athletes were better able to maintain energy levels and overall strength better when supplementing with amino acids. Adequate nutrition is essential to combating the lasting effects of intense, frequent, or lengthy workouts.
In order to achieve this precursor to overtraining, the workouts involved are nothing short of brutal. But even six weeks of this increased training intensity isn't sufficient in causing overtraining syndrome - so what is?
Make no mistake, overtraining is very real. It just happens to be relatively rare, as it requires far more than the average fitness enthusiast's training regimen to reach it.
Overtraining is poorly defined. This is because, like many syndromes, it's less a specific condition and more a collection of symptoms that, when experienced in combination with each other, result in a particular state.
As was the case with overreaching, the body's ability to respond to the inflammatory response is diminished - only to a far, far greater degree. As the immune system struggles to keep up with the increased demand placed on it, neutrophil production decreases dramatically.
Additionally, the macrophagic release of proteins called cytokines is greatly increased. These can lead to further oxidative stress, inflammation, and a host of issues as far-reaching as overall decreased immune function and even mood disturbance.
There are other factors involved in true overtraining, but the key points are that, unlike overreaching, the results are not quickly resolved. In reality, overtraining syndrome is a systemic and chronic condition which can last for weeks.
Athletes suffering from overtraining syndrome require greater amounts of rest and a serious decrease in training load in order to recover completely.
However, the vast majority of cases do not involve the average fitness enthusiast, but rather elite athletes performing at the highest level of their chosen sport. Overtraining is a common concern for endurance athletes, for example, who train 4–6 hours per day and as often as six days per week. Even then, the risk of overtraining typically increases only when their training volume does.Simply put, if you're reading this the chances of overtraining are small, possibly even non-existent.
At the far end of the overtraining spectrum is the condition known as rhabdomyolysis - or "rhabdo" for short. This isn't so much an extreme version of overtraining as it's a condition commonly discussed in tandem with overtraining syndrome. As the incidence of rhabdo or rhabdo-like injury has increased among amateur trainers, it warrants some mention here.
Rhabdomyolysis is also known as "crush syndrome", as it has classically been a result of extreme physical trauma such as when one is literally crushed by something. The rapid breakdown of muscle tissue following the injury floods the body with byproducts and toxins which overwhelm the kidneys, leading to renal failure and even death.
As exercise leads to muscle damage and breakdown of muscle tissue on a smaller scale, the connection between the two is easy to draw. In cases where trainers inflict an excessive amount of damage on their muscles, it's possible to mimic the effects of larger-scale physical trauma, leading to the risk of damaging kidneys as with crush syndrome.
However, as with true overtraining, reaching this point takes an amount of effort above and beyond that of the average trainer. Consider one study which reported symptoms of the condition in 25 of 44 runners - all of whom participated in a 99-kilometer ultramarathon, a race 61.5 miles long.
On the other hand, a study looking at military trainees – whose training regimens clearly exceed that of the everyday fitness enthusiast – found incidence of exertional rhabdomyolysis to be rather low, as is the risk of recurrence.
If conditioning and nutrition are insufficient, and the training regimen well in excess of the body's ability to respond to the breakdown of muscle tissue, the risk of rhabdo-like symptoms can still be real for some. Adequate hydration is a must, particularly for the sake of facilitating the kidneys' ability to perform.
Additionally, sufficient protein intake can help prevent the excessive breakdown of muscle tissue, restricting it to the desirable levels necessary for muscle growth. Studies have shown an increased risk of rhabdomyolysis in those whose diets are low in protein.
Most cases of rhabdo or rhabdo-like symptoms in average trainers are simply a matter of overzealous training in an underfed, dehydrated state.
So if You're Not Overtraining, What's Really Happening?
As you can see, while the condition is real, you're not likely to experience overtraining. For most, even overreach is a rare occurrence, especially if only training a few hours per week. However, if your training still has you feeling excessively sore and fatigued, just what is happening, and what can you do to prevent it? It usually comes down to two things: Conditioning and nutrition.
Consider Your Conditioning
The conveniences of modern living have enabled us to become sedentary, and our jobs often require us to sit still for hours at a time. Our pastimes, too, tend toward inactivity. This takes a serious toll on our health, leading to a rise in cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, obesity, and shorter lifespans.
To counter this trend, the American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity performed five days a week -minimum. It's worth noting that they don't mention an upper limit, although there are those who would treat recommendations like this as strict prescription - no more, no less.
For people concerned enough about their health and longevity to take these recommendations to heart, the sudden introduction of physical exertion in the form of exercise can be a shock to the system - especially at first.
Newcomers to fitness find themselves feeling sore from using their muscles in ways they're not accustomed to, and more tired than ever as their bodies struggle to adapt to the new demand for energy.
Soreness, fatigue…the process of conditioning looks a lot like the description for overtraining. But as we now know, this isn't remotely the case. And if the goal is to bring the body up to speed, too much rest can be a bad thing. A return to sedentary behavior would only be counterproductive.
As Dr. Stoppani often remarks, the body is designed for constant physical activity. "Our bodies are designed to exercise all day long, and then rest for about 8 hours. And then get up and go at it again. Because it was about survival, and if you didn't do that, you died," he says.
"Lifting, hunting, farming, to survive - all day long, it takes. All day long. The only time you were allowed to sit is when you get a little break, and when you get to sleep."
The body is clearly capable of surviving frequent training, even if a sedentary lifestyle means reaching for that potential requires an adjustment phase.
Improve Your Conditioning with Periodization
However, you don't necessarily need to simply "tough it out". Studies suggest there are methods that can reduce the risk of overtraining. In addition to monitoring yourself for symptoms and managing your training schedule, one of the best options at your disposal is periodization.
As mentioned above, periodization is the gradual change in training volume or intensity over time. Classic, linear periodization is the systematic increase in intensity, or weight lifted. Reverse linear periodization, on the other hand, is the gradual increase of volume, or repetitions performed.
There are other forms of periodization, all of which lend themselves to the achievement of specific goals, but the net effect is the same - through gradual change, the body's adaptive processes are kept at an ideal balance: Conditioning increases while the muscles continue to be pushed to a greater degree, furthering results.
Dr. Stoppani's programs are notorious for making use of this training method, as is the case with his Six Weeks to Sick Arms program referenced above. A longtime proponent of periodization, he includes this style of training in many of his programs, like Super Shredded 8, his Full-Body Shortcut to Size program, and his more extreme training program, Project X.
This principle can be applied to any exercise or activity. In running, for example, gradually increasing pace while running the same distance would be seen as a periodized program. So too would be maintaining the same pace but increasing the distance run.
The main point here is that by respecting your level of conditioning while demanding more of it at a gradually increased rate, your ability to endure training will increase as well. You also need to be mindful of another often neglected factor: Your nutrition.
Adequate Nutrition is Essential
A proper diet composed of adequate, healthy nutrients provides a solid foundation for overall better health. This is true in a general sense, but particularly worth noting in combating the specter of overtraining.
Unfortunately, many people are at a loss when it comes to knowing exactly what a healthy diet looks like. They may be aware of basics like using whole ingredients and avoiding fast food, but the amounts of specific nutrients remain elusive.
Compounding this is the fact that many entering the world of fitness are also focused on fat loss, and inundated with countless fad diets and gimmicks that have them believing less is more when it comes to nutrition.
As explained before, Dr. Stoppani's Muscle Building Nutrition Rules lay out a series of principles regarding macronutrient intake — the amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in your diet — that are designed to fuel both workouts and recovery. His Dieting 101 plan, geared toward fat loss, further details the methods by which you can tailor your diet to help you meet your goals.
To many people's surprise, both plans call for eating far more food than expected. One reason for this is meeting the demands placed on the body by training. In fact, nutrition is often Dr. Stoppani's response to the very question of overtraining.
“I laugh when people ask about overtraining,” says Stoppani. “Sure, an athlete who's training several times a day and isn't getting the right nutrients can overtrain. But typically most people are undereating, under-providing the right nutrients.”.
Exercise involves the intentional damaging of muscle tissue. It's repair of this tissue that leads to greater muscle mass. But without enough protein to repair muscle, carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen, and fats to facilitate healthy hormone production, the body is ill-equipped to recover.
And so one of the easiest and best ways to prevent the delayed recovery that may lead to overreaching and overtraining syndrome is simply ensuring that you're fueling your fitness lifestyle properly.
The Bottom Line on Overtraining
As you can see, overtraining is real — and rare. It takes training at high intensity for several hours each day over the course of weeks or even months to reach that state, and let's face it—the average gym-goer just isn't putting in that kind of work.
For most of us, it's an hour or two at most, and even if our program does call for six workouts per week we're still not getting close to the level of exertion that elite endurance athletes and Olympians experience in their training.
For most people, it's something as little as an extra workout session in the day or “doubling up” that triggers cautions against overtraining. The reality is, at worst you'd be overreaching, and as we've seen that might not necessarily be a bad thing in the end.
It's important to be mindful of the way your training regimen affects you, and sometimes a little rest can do you some good. But it's essential to keep your conditioning on point as well or those first few days back can hit you hard, at least with some DOMS.
By following well-designed programs like those found on JimStoppani.com, keeping your nutrition on point, and supplementing effectively, you'll minimize the risk of developing any of the above-mentioned symptoms — and maximize your overall results.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease