For the majority of exercise enthusiasts, overtraining may never be a concern.
This is because it actually takes a lot of physical work and may include pushing through exercise with pain, soreness, and stiffness to become overtrained. Generally speaking, overtraining may occur more frequently in people who are very untrained and suddenly jump into more volume and intensity than they have ever done before.
Overtraining is probably more common in elite athletes who are more comfortable with pushing the limits, familiar with pushing through pain, stiffness, and even training despite injury. In elite athletes overtraining may be built into a program in order to test durability and max effort, or simply to get enough volume to elicit further adaptation in the body to take place.
Chances of experiencing overtraining syndrome increases when these two factors are increased individually or simultaneously:
- A sudden increase in exercise volume (increased running distance or frequency, or increased repetitions x sets in resistance exercise)
- Or a sudden increase in intensity (elevated heart rate during cardiovascular exercise or increased intensity in resistance exercise, > 1 RM)
One of the biggest reasons our immune system can become overwhelmed is because the healing process—or recovery process—from intense exercise utilizes inflammatory mechanisms. Our bodies don’t have separate inflammatory responses; it’s all intertwined to provide healing, whether it be exercise-induced or caused by an infectious invader.
Another big component has to do with elevated cortisol levels, which can suppress immune function. Cortisol can be released from physical stress after a workout or emotional stress from everyday things.
It’s important to remember that stress is cumulative
Imagine you’re an elite athlete putting in abnormally high training volume. Suddenly a loved one passes away, you’re around a group of sick people in your office, you’re struggling to pay your bills, or your marriage is on the rocks—the cortisol response is going to be through the roof.
Even positive things such as getting married, starting a new job, buying a house, moving to a new city, or having children can still be major stressors. It’s good to be aware of these things and take them into consideration when designing a workout program or just considering whether to dial it up or down during a workout.
The sum of all of these factors ultimately influences immune function. Some are under our control, and others only partially or not at all. Recognizing when excess stress occurs is easier if it just comes from one source.
However, all too often it is the sum of many small, difficult-to-recognize changes that tips the scales and sends an athlete into the whirlpool of overtraining and immunosuppression. Some studies have even found decreases in neutrophil function, decreases in serum and salivary immunoglobulin concentrations, and natural killer cell number and possibly cytotoxic activity in peripheral blood. Alone and in isolation these small changes would be manageable, but combined they can overwhelm.
Our immune system defends against foreign invasion by microorganisms, screens out cancer cells, adapts as we grow, and modifies how we interact with our environment. The stress of strenuous exercise on its own has the potential to suppress immune function. This interruption can provide an “open window” for a variety of infectious diseases—mostly upper respiratory viral illnesses—to take hold.
For example, it has been observed that two-thirds of participants developed upper respiratory infections shortly after completing an ultramarathon. Similarly, cumulative overtraining weakens the athlete’s immune system, leading to frequent illness and injury.
What is moderate training for some is overtraining for others
So how do you know if you’re overtraining? There is not one specific test that you can do that gives you a clear answer, but there are some things to look for:
- Upper respiratory infections (URI’s) that start occurring more frequently
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Signs and symptoms of flu with no infection
- Slow healing of bruising and cuts
- Altered resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Chronic fatigue
- Decreased efficiency of movement and physical performance
- Decreased maximum work capacity
- Frequent nausea/gastrointestinal upsets
- Impaired muscular strength
- Inability to meet previously attained performance standards or criteria
- Increased frequency of respiration
- Insatiable thirst
- Joint aches and pains
- Lack of appetite
- Lower percent of body fat
- Menstrual disruptions
- Prolonged muscle soreness and tenderness
- Prolonged recovery from exercise
- Reappearance of previously corrected mistakes
What can you do to ensure maximum healing is taking place?
Failing to eat enough healthy sources of protein, carbohydrate, and fat compromises immune function by not allowing the body to repair itself and recover for continued bouts of exercise. In addition, intense exercise requires more vitamins and minerals than what is recommended for a normal person to maintain the increased energy demands.
Adding more fruits and vegetables will only provide more nutrients, antioxidants, and essential chemicals as building blocks for new muscle, connective tissue, or wound healing.
Individuals who are serious about training may attempt to “work through” an illness, only to prolong symptoms or cause a recurrence, which further delays training at optimum levels. If you have a cold or flu, simply rest. Let your body deal with one thing at a time and maximize its ability to fight it off quicker.
Get enough sleep. During increased intensity and volume, you should also increase the amount of time you sleep. Typically, eight hours is sufficient, but serious athletes should even consider sleeping ten hours per day to allow proper recovery.
Muscular and cardiorespiratory adaptations take time. Some weight training cycles may be 3-4 months long with built in deload weeks or lighter lifting/intensity weeks. I would never recommend starting a program with the expectation that in 2-3 weeks you’ll notice considerable performance or aesthetic differences.
Weightlifters train for years to hit a 500-lb back squat or 600-lb deadlift, or marathons to run a mile under 4:30. We live in a microwave society where things can be purchased instantly online, a pill can promise instant results, and our food is delivered with instant request. This same line of thinking never works for physical goals. Put in the time, put in the work, and be smart about it. Results take time.
Frank Bodnar is 2010 graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic with a M.S. degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport and is certified in sports nutrition through the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN). He practices in Racine, WI where he lives with his wife and two children. He is passionate about using nutrition to improve patient outcomes, and enhance lifestyle changes through counseling and education. He can contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org, 262-930-2188, follow him on twitter @drfrankbodnar or connect on LinkedIn.