If you are an avid reader of athletic training or bodybuilding literature, you have or will come across the concept of overtraining. The term overtraining has been in the literature for over 80 years. This is a very controversial topic in that there are experts who claim this concept is nonexistent, and there are other experts who claim overtraining is a common occurrence with most lifters and bodybuilders. The irony is that overtraining takes place in almost all training regimens.
What Is Overtraining?
Overtraining is simply the overload of an exercise stimulus, or an increase of work in your training program. The controversial issue is whether or not staleness exists because the scientific understanding of this occurrence is not fully understood. Staleness is the signs and symptoms of a pathological adaptation to exercise training, and is not synonymous with the term overtraining. The majority of athletes overtrain, but only some develop staleness.
The obvious reason that athletes overtrain is because human performance has not reached its potential in any sport, according to human physiology. This is why present world records, in most sports, are superior to world records in past decades. What accounts for the difference? Some may say that there is a change in the genes, but I think that we will all agree that genetically, all humans are very similar (in the past century at least).
Well, what about drugs or diet? This is probably a contributing factor, for diet at least. Most sports have a strict policy against drug use and enforce their rules with drug testing, so drug-use is probably not a major factor in the difference in performance over the past decades. In my opinion, the difference between past and present athletes is training programs. Almost every year, one or more athletes raise the performance bar for others to work towards. Sport and athletic training are becoming more and more scientific every year. As a result, training regimens are becoming more and more refined to maximize athletic performance.
As this occurs, athletes are being pushed closer and closer to their genetic limits, which can have negative consequences such as staleness from overtraining.
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The Consequences Of Overtraining
There are three potential consequences of overtraining. The fist consequence is staleness, which we have and will continue to discuss. The second possible outcome is injury. As you train harder and harder, your body is more susceptible to injury. Think about car racing for a second in order to illustrate this point. If you've watched car racing before you will have noticed that by the end of a race, almost every car has had some sort of problem that needed fixing. This is because the cars are running close to their maximum potential, and thus are at a higher risk of breaking down (developing injuries while overtraining is analogous to developing engine problems during a car race).
The third possible outcome is biologically and physiologically adapting to overtraining while psychologically adapting as well by maintaining adequate motivation and mental health. These adaptations will increase your overall performance. This final consequence is the one reason why you would want to overtrain in the first place. However, if motivation and mental health suffers, staleness is the result.
As previously stated, the major risk of overtraining is developing staleness. The concept of staleness is nothing new, but does get overlooked by many who talk about overtraining. Even the American Medical Association, during the 60's, included staleness in conjunction with athletic injuries. The problem with staleness is that the causes due to overtraining are not yet well established. However, there are physiological and psychological changes that are associated with staleness that may have some use in detecting and preventing staleness. There again, a problem arises in trying to find physiological or psychological markers that are sensitive to changes in training, specific to changes in training, and can be measured by a practical, easy method. It has been demonstrated that there are specific physiologic changes that occur with overtraining such as:
Physiologic Changes Occuring With Overtraining
- An increased resting heart rate
- A decreased VO2max and submaximal VO2 An increase in rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during exercise compared to normal RPE of the same exercise intensity
- (see A Quasi-Comprehensive Definition & Explanation of Intensity for an understanding of RPE)
- Increased blood lactate levels during exercise compared to normal blood lactate levels of the same exercise intensity
- Decreased muscular strength
- Increased muscle soreness
- Change in hormones like creatine phosphokinase (CPK) and Interleukin-1 (IL-1)
- Chronic fatigue
- Increased number of infections
- Loss of body weight
- Altered function of the endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems
- These physiologic markers are all associated with overtraining and staleness. However, the reliability and specificity of these markers for overtraining and staleness is still unknown.
- In addition to these physiologic markers, there are also psychological changes that accompany staleness such as:
Psychological Changes That Accompany Staleness:
- Increased irritability
- Increased apathy
- Lack of appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased mood disturbances
- Of these markers, mood disorders have been the most extensively reported on. Mood disturbances can be evaluated by using the profile of mood states (POMS), which is a questionnaire that aims to quantify the intensity of moods. The POMS questionnaire evaluates 6 mood states including:
The 6 Mood States
As you can see from this list, vigor is the only positive mood state that the POMS evaluates. There have been numerous studies to show that normal athletes score low on all mood states except vigor. This means that there are no mood disturbances present when an athlete has not developed staleness. However, once an athlete approaches staleness while overtraining, vigor begins to decrease, and all other mood states begin to increase. This change signifies a mood disturbance. Increases in training load are associated with a decrease in vigor and increase in fatigue (these two states exhibit the largest and fastest change in response to staleness).Additionally, mood disturbance increases with decreased performance and increased muscle soreness.
What is even more interesting is that as training volume decreases, or tapers off, mood disturbances lessen. To date, the only known way to deal with staleness is taking time off of training or significantly decreasing the exercise load of your training regimen. This is obviously a problem with staleness because decreasing the exercise load means the progress that you have made in a training program will diminish as you recover from staleness.
As you can see, the POMS may be a very useful way to evaluate staleness in response to overtraining. Since this is true, psychological monitoring or yourself or someone you are training/coaching can help prevent staleness before negative performance or physiological consequences occur. You don't necessarily need the POMS questionnaire to psychologically evaluate yourself. Although this a slightly crude method, you can simply ask yourself if you feel tense, depressed, angry, fatigued, confused, or vigorous. If you answer "yes" to all the states except vigor, you are probably developing or have developed staleness. However, if you answer "no" to all the states except vigor, keep increasing the exercise load!
As previously stated, quality experimental research is still warranted in this area of overtraining and staleness. However, the present evidence suggests promising ways to prevent staleness and maximize performance in athletes while overtraining.