Updated: Feb 23, 2021
OVERTRAINING VS OVERREACHING
Functional overreaching is a common concept in many training programs. A short term decrease in fatigue and reduction in performance followed by a brief taper can allow an athlete to increase performance for a competition for example. Functional overreaching is a necessary part of being a powerlifter and shouldn't be confused with overtraining. Non-functional overreaching is a long term state that can last from weeks to months. Non-functional overreaching doesn’t bring about any performance benefits and can cause a reduction in performance, physiological changes and mood changes. Non-functional overreaching interferes with long-term progress so we want to avoid this if at all possible. If left unaddressed, overreaching can become overtraining.
WHAT IS OVERTRAINING?
Overtraining is a serious medical condition that is defined by a number of complex symptoms that can last for months to years. A person becomes overtrained when they exceed their body’s ability to recover from training and do not have a sustained period of rest to recover from long term non-functional overreaching. With this definition you can see that a level of stimulus that causes a person to become overtrained at one point in time might not cause them to become overtrained at another. A perfect example is if recovery factors like sleep and nutrition aren’t managed efficiently, an athlete’s ability to recover can reduce significantly and they can show signs of non-functional overreaching and in time, overtraining.
WHAT ARE SOME SIGNS OF OVERTRAINING THAT YOU LOOK OUT FOR?
Signs of overtraining can be broadly split into three groups. Training, lifestyle, and health related.
Unusual muscle soreness after a workout (unusual being soreness we would not expect given any programming changes etc.)
Inability to train or compete at a previously manageable level
Delay in recovery from training even when recovery factors are managed well and kept consistent.
Prolonged performance plateaus or declines
Thoughts of quitting or skipping training sessions - mental fatigue surrounding training.
Prolonged general fatigue
Increase in tension, depression, anger or confusion
Inability to relax or poor quality sleep
No energy or reduced energy, decreased motivation, moodiness
Getting sick more often
Increased blood pressure and morning/rested heart rate
Irregular menstrual cycle or loss of menstrual periods
Involuntary weight loss, appetite loss
HOW WOULD YOU APPROACH AN ATHLETE THAT BELIEVES THAT THEY ARE SHOWING SIGNS OF OVERTRAINING?
I would make sure that their mental approach to training is in a good place and that it wasn’t a situation where they were only mentally burnt out and not overtrained. This can often happen and is one of the first things I look at in situations like this. I would very likely look to adjust or better manage their externals (factors that impact recovery outside of the gym i.e. sleep, stress, nutrition etc.) before I even look to make any programming adjustments unless there are obvious, alarming issues. Amongst other things, I would check their nutrition to see if they were in a caloric deficit and to see whether a nutrient timing approach was being used e.g. are they fueling their sessions optimally. I would go through a checklist of recovery factors and find out if there were external factors that might be impacting their ability to train and recover.
If I can see that all recovery variables are covered appropriately, I would look to find out what stimulus exactly is causing the overtraining. Is it volume on a certain exercise causing issues? Or overall volume? Or is RPE/intensity too high for too long, is RPE being adhered to? Sometimes instead of cutting back training in specific areas, it’s more appropriate to change the athletes direction of training stimulus for a short period, by coming away from the style of training they are doing and having a controlled pivot week to change the stimulus direction and change the amount of comp specific movements they are doing. This addresses both issues of mental and physical fatigue and if an athlete is genuinely overtraining.