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Creative Commons License photo credit: cf-nl

Overtraining is a phrase heard often in CrossFit and the fitness community. It is a popular buzz word that is often connected with symptoms such as decreased performance, appetite decrease, insomnia, fat gain and a host of other issues.

 

Is overtraining real? Or is it merely a myth people use as an excuse for not “keeping up”?

 

A great cyclist once said “If you are over-trained you didn’t train hard enough to train that hard”

 

Kelly Starret, the CrossFit mobility boy wonder who runs mobilityWOD reflects on the above statement and adds;

 

“What’s preventing you from training that hard? Tissue recovery? Joint position? Injury? Nutrition? Not good enough. We can do better than that. There is no such thing as a day off anymore.”

 

He also claims

“If you are really trying to find out the limits of human performance, there is no such thing as a day off.”

 

On the flip side, if you Google “overtraining” you will have a thousand and five articles telling you symptoms and causes of overtraining. Including doctors of sports medicine and “research” done on the topic.

So is this for real? Or is it a poor excuse for under-recovery?

 

WHAT IS OVER TRAINING?-

 

There is no universal definition for over-training; instead, it is an umbrella term used to describe a wide array of symptoms that revolve around one simple point: too much stress, not enough rest.

 

Wikipedia (the all knowledgeable go-to) states “Over-training is a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual’s exercise exceeds their recovery”

 

In other words, too much stress, not enough rest.

 

John Berardi, PhD (in nutrition science) and owner of Precision Nutrition, defines overtraining as “a syndrome occurring in athletes who train too frequently/in excess OR who may not allow for adequate recovery from intensive exercise”

 

Overtraining does not just sneak up on you one day and show its head. Instead, a slowly progressing phase called “overreaching” occurs first. This is typically categorized as performance decrease and reduction in maximal capacity for up to 2 weeks. Overreaching is typical in athletes and some coaches/athletes even plan for it. This planned phase of overreaching is followed by a planned phase of rest/recovery. Some benefits have been shown regarding performance increase after this planned rest phase. This comes from strategic and smart self-programming.

 

If no rest is planned, overreaching could turn into overtraining. How serious is overtraining? Once passed the overreaching phase (the point of no return) overtraining could last months. If left unchecked performance regression and mood/stress/hormonal imbalance could necesate rest up to a year. Yes, if severely overtrained you could potentially need a year to get back on track.

 

HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU ARE “OVEREACHING”?

 

Unfortunately, there is no specific “test” or way to know you are being overreached.  Typically, decreased performance, having trouble lifting the weight you normally would, or trouble working at intensities you previously didn’t have much trouble with are vital signs. Personally, I have found decreased drive or “want” to work out is a sheer sign of overreaching.  Do not confuse this with merely being tired and not wanting to work out, I am talking about not having the drive to workout on a regular basis when normally you would be excited to hit that next WOD or lift.

 

Dr. Lorean Cordain, author of the Paleo Diet and The Paleo Diet for Athletes explains when you feel these symptoms setting in, its best to rest a couple days then see how you “feel” about working out again. If you are enthusiastic about it again, you are good to go. If you still don’t have the drive or the want, or are making 500 excuses why it’s best you don’t workout (“because I’m flossing my cat” is my personal favorite) take 3 days off again and see how you feel.

 

WHAT CAUSES OVERTRAINING?

 

This is the most important question/point of overtraining and also the reason why it is such a misunderstood condition.

 

It’s probably understood that overtraining is too much stress/working out and not enough recovery. However, what exactly constitutes as “stress” and “recovery”?

 

STRESS-

 

Interestingly, physical stress is not the only player in becoming overreached or overtrained. Stress from relationships, career, social or schedule complications can heavily impact stress levels and thus, potentially shift your status to “overreached”.

 

I was once told by Dutch Lowy (one of the original best CrossFitters, owner of CrossFitATM) that your body perceives stress no different physically then emotionally or any other stressor in life. This means, to your body, working out intensively can impact your body in a similar way as stressing about your relationship or money, for example.  He also stated that if you begin to stress out about those other non-physical parts of your life; you will have to decrease your training in the gym to account for it. You can see how much this could affect an athlete. Every day is a day to go hard and make gains and stay on route with a carefully planned training schedule, if you have to decrease this volume and thus, gains, because you have a bad relationship, others will surpass you. As Kelly Starret said in relation to mobility (another post to come) and nutrition;

 

“…I get a week ahead of you training, and you can’t catch up. There are only 52 weeks in a year, and if you give up a week, I’ve got you. Especially since the difference between first place and last place is one percent”

 

Now I won’t go into relationship/career advice but this is just one reason why it’s so important to do what you love in life and settle for no less. Hopefully, what you love doesn’t take part in the evil chair and desk empire that makes you look like a hunch-back troll.

 

RECOVERY-

 

This is, by far, the MOST important part of this article. Let me put this bluntly: 9 times out of 10 overreaching and overtraining is caused by shitty recovery rather than too much stress.

 

While it is certainly possible to only workout 3x/week and be overtrained, due to the above social stresses, it’s also possible to workout 6 days a week and hit 2-3 WODs per day and  be completely fine. How? By eating, sleeping, stretching, mobilizing and properly recovering.

 

If you are eating like a dough boy and take part in the whole “but it’s dark chocolate” kick, you will be overtrained a lot more quickly then someone eating normal human food, that is, if you can even workout enough to get to that point. Post-WOD is time to restore lost amino acids and glucose/glycogen above other things. Supplements, such as creatine can help here as well.

 

If you sleep 4 hours a day and believe you can lift or train as hard as anyone because you have “adapted” to shitty sleep, chances are you also “adapted” to shitty performance. Sufficient sleep is not convenient; it is required on the quest of human performance. This means 6-8 hours a night. Period. What’s preventing you from getting that? Is it the same stressors that are also compounding the overreaching phase? See the pattern here? As Kelly Starret says, “there are no more excuses”.

 

Mobilizing or “cultivating position” is essential. If you cannot mobilize into the right positions or break up scared muscle tissue or cramps, it will inhibit your performance and lead to yet more stress on your body. This is a biggy and will be a topic of its own post to come. In short, if you look like those scary cats we see on Halloween when you are deadlifting, something is up.

 

Scary deadlift position

Scary deadlift position

 

OVERTRAINING OR UNDER-RECOVERING?

 

This is the real question. Are you overreaching or under recovering? If you came up to me in the gym and asked if I thought you were overtraining I would abruptly ask “What was the last thing you ate, and how much sleep did you get last night?” If you answer “a doughnut” and “4 hours, because I was studying for X excuse” you are not overreaching by any means, you are simply “recovering” like Lindsey Lohan.

 

MAN THE ‘F’ UP – THE OTHER ARGUMENT

Of course, this post would be no good with out the ole “man the ‘F’ up” side to overtraining. Some are convinced that overtraining is simply poor recovery and a great way to use excuses to tell yourself why you can’t handle your training.

If you want to read more about this attitude, check this forum out: http://www.wannabebig.com/forums/showthread.php?118731-Over-training-more-myth-than-reality. Look for “RhodeHouse”.

 

CONCLUSION –

So is overtraining real? I think so, do you have it? Not likely. Unless your training is solid, diet even better, and stress is not getting at you, you are most likely recovering poorly. Put down the glorified candy bars (insert your favorite protein bar here), get some sleep (insert your favorite excuse why you “wish” that were possible) and train smart.

Now, lets go hit some weights!

 

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  • Evan peikon

    Great article.
    quick question though: If I’m hitting 6 WOD’s per week mon-sat and still recovering fine and improving what can i do as an active recovery workout on sunday. I feel like i wouldn’t be able to recover well enough hitting a WOD full out but Id like to still be active and do something.
    and advice? (as of now I’ve just been running 5k and doing mobility on sundays).

    • http://www.EliteFitBlog.com Devin Ford

      Thanks Evan! 

      More then anything I would focus on your intensity for those 6 days. If I had to guess I would say you started CrossFit not too long ago? Reason I say this is because no matter how much stress, you will always see gains in the beginning. Its also common that the intensity at each WOD is not at full capacity. 
      I would add strength workouts to your “on” days along with the typical WOD so your hitting 2 a days. I would then take an extra day off. On those rest days your body should crave the rest. Mobility and easy running/rowing or body weight movements are best. 

      Everyone is different so its tough to judge without seeing your numbers but this is your best bet. Hit strength and metcons 4-5 days a week, take 2 off and focus on mobility or light recovery. 

      Also depends on your programming, do you program yourself or follow the WOD?

  • Evanpeikon

    I train at port crossfit and follow their program (http://www.portcrossfit.com/).
    We follow a strength biased program so I’m already hitting strength/ met con every day.
    and i did crossfit football for three months then i joined my box three months ago . but, I have a pretty good engine though from training 7 days a week for 4 years in varsity wrestling/ cross country.

    • http://www.EliteFitBlog.com Devin Ford

      Sick man! Focus on strength until you hit some high numbers (high 300 squat, over 400 deadlift, high 100s press, etc..) OLY lifts are what I have seen to be the best. Other then that keep doing what your doing! I don’t see overtraining being a problem for you, running or mobility is fine for your rest days. 

      Goodluck! Let me know how it goes!

      • Evanpeikon

        itl be awhile before i hit those considering in only at 125-130 bw. but so far I’m squatting 160, dl 250 and ohp 95 and my oly numbers are 85 sn and 105 c&j

        • http://www.EliteFitBlog.com Devin Ford

          Screw that! You can make it happen, check this article out http://elitefitblog.com/train-smart-gained-muscle-lost-fat-added-30lbs-lifts/ I needed to gain mass/strength as well. You can do it, just need to get smart about it. Game on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/wesley.d.jonge Wesley de Jonge

    Dude, must say I like your writing. thumps up

    • http://www.EliteFitBlog.com Devin Ford

      Thank you!!