The obvious signs you’re over-training

Andy Franklyn-Miller is a leading sports medicine physician, having worked with sports teams and federations in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US. He is based in Melbourne, Australia.

There are many terms used such to describe fatigue or a poor response to training. ‘Over training’ is probably the most common, but ‘under recovery’ or even ‘unexplained underperformance syndrome’ are also used to explain the same problem: an athlete performing at a level lower than their training expectation would suggest.

The key mental and physical performance symptoms are tiredness, muscular strength and size plateaus or decreases, poor quality sleep, irritability, low moods, frequent colds or viral infections, low sex drive, high resting heart rate, and muscular aches and pains, amongst others. In isolation, any one of these symptoms could simply be down to a bug or the result of a particularly tough training block. But when many of these symptoms are all present then you may need to take action.

These symptoms should clear with a two-week period of de-loading or relative rest. If you are training six days per week then for two weeks train twice  per week with the focus on intensity but reduced overall volume. If you are training three days per week you would reduce to one session a week, but that doesn’t mean do try to do three days’ worth of lifting in a single session. Rest means quality rest, because that’s what your body needs to properly recover. If you don’t find yourself bouncing back and feeling better after this extended rest, then that’s when you need to look a little deeper into what might be causing your mental and physical performance problems.

Marginal gains
We all train differently at various stages of the year, whether that’s down to your periodisation training programme, competition peaking and cycling, or work, family or travel commitments, yet most people are only ever focused on their progress. All they ever ask themselves are am I getting bigger, or stronger, or leaner? They often fail to ask whether they are getting enough recovery and the potential impact that this can have on the speed of their progress and development, whatever their training goal.

The current vogue is to look for marginal gains: the less than one percentage point benefits which, when all tallied up, result in a significant and perceptible physique or performance improvements.
But the problem is that many athletes, coaches and ‘performance directors’ now chase these marginal gains without addressing the underlying basics. An example would be an obsession with the performance benefits of beetroot juice or carnosine supplementation in someone who only trains once a week. In this example the relative impact is tiny and pointless.

Go online and Google the concept of overtraining and there’s no end of companies selling blood, saliva and genetic testing services that promise to reveal exactly how your body is performing. There’s some solid evidence behind blood and saliva monitoring – immunoglobulin A, salivary amylase, blood CK-MB, glutamine or glutamate ratios, and so on – but these are only of use if you monitor them daily because day-to-day variations in some of levels can be so great that most tests are effectively only a single snapshot of the moment in time the blood or saliva is tested.

Feed the engine
It’s important to understand that your body is a complex system that’s constantly striving for homeostasis through a multitude of highly-complex interactions to maintain balance or return systems to functioning within a normal range. Therefore, under recovery can be simply caused by inadequate dietary intake: if you’ve ever followed a strict diet or cutting phase then you’ll know how quickly a very unbalanced energy expenditure versus intake can affect how you look, feel and perform. This negative energy balance can increase the stress response – increased cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and glucagon – and reduced insulin levels.

If we look at cortisol, often called the primary stress hormone, it rises and falls throughout the day: highest in the morning – it helps us wake up – and lowest during the night between midnight and 4am. But if cortisol levels are elevated for longer periods through the day, for whatever reason – training, diet, work – the demands on the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, increase to try and stabilise this cycle. This indirectly effects insulin production from the pancreas.

This can cause further falls in blood glucose levels overnight that leads to disturbed sleep and a vicious cycle continues and significantly disturbs your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. This directly effects training energy, glucose availability and hence performance in the gym, and all the other various symptoms listed at the start of the article.

Take the test
So what’s the best way to measure and track how our bodies are responding to the demands of a tough training plan and strict diet if we discount blood and saliva tests?

The simplest way of getting a feel is by tracking your day-to-day mood, energy, sleep quality and stress and you can do this using a Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire. They are available online and whilst they are not perfect they do allow you to be more conscious of how you are feeling and performing so you can identify what may be the root cause of your under-performance.

Another great indicator you can track daily is heart-rate variability (HRV), which is the difference in the time intervals between heartbeats and is directly related to the homeostasis of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Broadly, the greater your HRV – meaning the bigger the difference between your heart rate during exercise and during rest – the better, because this demonstrates a higher level of fitness. Too little variation, especially if your heart rate is consistently high at rest, could suggest you are under excess stress, or never give yourself the chance to sufficiently recover.

HRV can be tracked using apps, smart watches or dedicated monitoring kit, or can be done simply using your fingers to count the heart beats on your opposite wrist. Counting the number of beats per minute when resting and comparing it to your maximum heart-rate when training will give you a relatively accurate idea of the difference between the two.

Ultimately there are many causes of poor physical and mental performance but monitoring daily mood and stress levels and tracking the variability of your heart rate are important first steps to assess the likely contributing factors. If you are still struggling then you may need to get a more comprehensive check-up with a registered professional to identify and then eliminate the root cause or causes.