What You Don't Know About Overtraining - Part 3!

A good coach will recognize overreaching and overtraining and will convince the athlete that a day off now is better than a year off later. Learn how time off, supplements and much more can help you recover faster and prevent overtraining!
First published at www.johnberardi.com, Jan 19 2004.

Note: This is part three, click here for part one.

Overtraining % Time Off

Coaches/trainers should recognize that there's a fine line between training adaptation and functional impairment due to overtraining (2). It is recommended that mood states be monitored for the early diagnosis of overtraining. Coaches must listen for overtraining clues from the athletes in their language.

Words to describe overtraining are "overworked," "stale," "overstrained," "burned-out," and "chronically fatigued" (4). Also look for visual cues: hyper vigilance, anxiety/worry, and a depressed mood state prior to competition may indicate overtraining syndrome (2). Coaches should use frequent questionnaires or interviews to determine mood changes, and they should be willing to adjust daily training volumes and intensities.

I know JB does this with his clients by regularly presenting a series of questions and adjusting bi-weekly training programs based on the responses. If the athlete is in a very rigorous training phase, I know JB monitors them even more frequently.

During times like this, accurate records of performance should be maintained and optimal rest and nutrition should be emphasized (7).

And when overtraining is knocking on the doorstep I've got two words for ya - TIME - OFF! If an athlete is not in the midst of a planned overreaching program and starts to exhibit symptoms, it's time to take a day or two off. If an athlete begins to see performance reductions, mood alterations, etc and this lasts for more than a week, it's time for a few days or a week off.

Most athletes will argue that they are fine. That's why objective measures are necessary. A good coach will recognize overreaching and overtraining and will convince the athlete that a day off now is better than a year off later.

Overtraining & Nutrition

Poor nutrition can certainly add one additional unnecessary stressor to an already overloaded stress system. Processed food, food difficult to digest, and food full of trans fatty acids can stress the sympathetic nervous system and, when added to all the other stressors an individual is subject to, lead to overtraining.

A diet full of fruits and veggies, post exercise carbs, high quality protein, and essential fats, on the other hand, can reduce some of the effects of the other stressors.

For example, low muscle glycogen stores are associated with muscular fatigue and inadequate fuel stores for the next bout of exercise. This alone may encourage the development of overtraining (7). Not only are carbs conspicuous in their absence, since they can moderate the cortisol response to training and also prevent reductions in immune function, it's clear that the presence of post exercise carbs is important.

In addition, many amino acids are precursors to neurotransmitters in the brain. The amino acid tryptophan is the precursor to the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin produces a calming effect, but an imbalance in the neurotransmitter may lead to chronic fatigue, lethargy, and depression (7). On the other hand, dopamine and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters increased by the consumption of high-protein diets, which promote alertness (20).

Fruits and veggies can improve oxidation status of the body, protecting cells from free radical damage. Also, many phytonutrients can assist in the clearance of toxins from the liver.

Overtraining & Supplements

To prevent chronic fatigue, and even depression, the supplementation of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine, and valine may be helpful. During prolonged exercise free tryptophan levels are increased, while plasma BCAAs levels are consumed for energy.

It is believed that when supplemented, increased levels of BCAAs slow the entry of free tryptophan into the brain. Since tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, the supplemented BCAAs may prevent the increase in serotonin and the ensuing central fatigue or depression (7).

Tyrosine is an amino acid precursor to the neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine, which, as previously mentioned, also regulate mood (20). Although supplemental L-tyrosine has been used to help alleviate stress, depression, anxiety, headaches, and allergies, this is a supplement that may be better suited for individuals prone to depression rather than anxiety (even though tyrosine may not make you more anxious, per se).

To minimize anxiety or stress, cut all stimulants (caffeine and sugar) out of the diet. Ephedra and thermogenic products, caffeine, and phenylpropanolamine can all increase palpitations and arrhythmias, augmenting anxiety. Since these products enhance sympathetic nervous system activity, it makes sense to avoid them if you are already stressed out.

We've all heard the stories of these products' association with adverse cardiovascular and central nervous system effects, including hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, (12), cardiac arrest, seizures, or permanent disability or impairment, such as neurological damage or coma, or death (22). It isn't clear why these adverse events have occurred in these people, but perhaps these unfortunate individuals were already in hyper-stressed states when taking such supplements?

Gamma (g)-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is formed by an amino acid, glutamic acid, in the body. In the central nervous system, GABA acts as a neurotransmitter to inhibit nerve cells from over firing. It can calm the body in a way similar to tranquilizers (Valium and Librium) but without fear of addiction.

It works as a relaxant and is purported to block receptor cellular sites to prevent anxiety and stress-related messages, especially when combined with inositol and niacinamide (do not substitute with Niacin). Warning, though, too much GABA can have adverse effects and worsen symptoms of anxiety (20).

Acting similar to GABA is an herbal supplement, Valerian root. It is also used to relieve anxiety by acting as a sedative. It's calming effects alleviate cramping (muscle and menstrual), nervousness, anxiety, stress, ulcers, insomnia, and irritable bowel syndrome (20).

And finally, if you don't know already, omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are the cure for everything! They may help to protect against the negative health consequences of stress, depression, and anxiety by improving autonomic function, baroreflex sensitivity, and heart rate variability. In doing so, they protect against cardiovascular disease and the risk of sudden cardiac death (12).


Stress wreaks havoc, disrupting immune and central nervous system responses in the body that can potentially lead to decreased performance, mood disorders, and potentially even more serious health consequences. As coaches and trainees we need to remember that exercise is a physiological stressor and that too much, along with lots of non-exercise stress, can overload our stress system and our ability to adapt.

Carefully monitor yourself and your athletes on a regular basis to watch for behavioral clues. Then take the necessary precautions to ensure proper nutrition and adequate rest before the excessive stress takes its toll and renders you or athletes unable to exercise or compete. Remember, it's better to take a day off now than a year off later.


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About The Author

Tammy Thomas is a registered dietitian and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) who holds a Master's degree in Exercise Science focusing on Nutritional and Exercise Biochemistry. Currently she does training and nutrition writing and consulting for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases at www.proactivitysupport.com. She can be reached at tammy@proactivitysupport.com.

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