Over the Edge: Emotional & Physical Effects of Over-Training

Over the Edge

Educate yourself with common signs and remedies of over-training to stay on track.

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All athletic pursuits, bodybuilding included, require more than just rote, day-in/day-out training. They call for progressive increases in training, or overloading. No overload, no gains.

Let's put some numbers on that. Running at the same intensity and duration three times a week for three months produces an increase in maximum aerobic capacity of about 10 to 20 percent. Then you reach a plateau-unless you increase the training stimulus, you make no further gains. Running at a steadily increasing workout intensity and duration produces a different result though. You get an increase in maximum aerobic capacity of 44 percent over the same three months. Continued workouts after that point result in continued gains, with no plateau.

Overloading is fundamental to the optimum workout, but it can also lead to overtraining, a.k.a. staleness, overfatigue or overstrain. Overtraining refers to a state in which you are unable to perform or train at previous levels. Scientists don't know a lot about this condition as it affects bodybuilders, but it appears to be associated with emotional, behavioral, physical, biochemical and performance changes. Its symptoms include the following:

» chronic fatigue

» appetite disorders

» insomnia

» weight loss or fat gain

» muscle soreness

» anemia

» depression

» decreased athletic performance

Overloading turns to overtraining when workout intensity, duration or frequency is consistently excessive. Eventually, you reach a point where you cannot recover from one workout before you do the next, and chronic fatigue, along with some or all of these symptoms, sets in.

It happens all the time. There are no statistics available on bodybuilders, but 64 percent of elite female runners and 66 percent of elite male runners report having experienced overtraining at some point in their athletic careers. Our experience with athletes over the years suggests that, if anything, overtraining is more common among bodybuilders than among other athletes.

Overtraining diminishes with rest or, to a lesser extent, with a sharp reduction in training. Even so, your best bet is preventing the condition in the first place.

Can you receive the performance-improving benefits of overloading while preventing the performance-robbing effects of overtraining? Of course! But doing so depends on being able to identify when you're beginning to overtrain and then acting immediately. Several indicators can help you identify the onset of overtraining.

Resting Heart Rate

The best-known indicator of overtraining is an increase in resting heart rate. Trained aerobic athletes characteristically have resting heart rates that are well below average. This is generally thought to be a reflection of their better-than-average cardiovascular fitness. Elite endurance runners, for instance, often have resting heart rates that are less than 50 beats per minute; this is known as athletic bradycardia.

When a long-distance runner overtrains, his or her morning heart rate increases. No one knows why, but it may be due, in part, to intrinsic myocardial fatigue, or fatigue of the heart muscle itself.

In a study of 12 long-distance runners who doubled their training mileage overnight (presumably leaving insufficient time for recovery), morning heart rates dropped somewhat during the first week, but after 2 1/2 weeks they increased by an average of 10 beats per minute from where they were at the start. Thus, although the increased morning rates did reflect the subjects' overtraining, it did so rather late in the game. Two other signs of overtraining-persistent muscle soreness and an increase in serum creatine kinase-also developed in these runners, but much earlier than the elevated heart rates.

While morning heart rate has been studied as an indicator of overtraining for long-distance running, it really has not been well-studied in terms of bodybuilding and other sports. Some anecdotal evidence exists, however, and so many athletes in sports other than distance running monitor their morning heart rates anyway. This practice is probably more pertinent for athletes who are pursuing aerobic activities, such as distance swimming and cycling, than for those who are pursuing anaerobic ones, such as bodybuilding.

It certainly won't hurt to chart your own resting pulse rate in the morning to see if you detect a change at the same time you begin to experience other symptoms of overtraining. If you do, you have a valuable diagnostic tool at your disposal.

Other physical changes, such as temperature and blood pressure, are not reliably associated with overtraining.

Hormonal Changes

There is some evidence to suggest that overtraining causes a shift in blood levels of certain hormones. For example, overtrained athletes have demonstrated elevated levels of Cortisol, which is a stress-related hormone released by the adrenal glands.

Overtraining also causes a shift in hormonal responses. Overtrained athletes show impaired growth hormone (definitely not a plus for bodybuilding!), adrenocorticotropic hormone, Cortisol and prolactin responses to insulin. This suggests that overtraining alters hypothalamic function and possibly pituitary function as well.

Some researchers recommend that monitoring hormone responses may be a way of diagnosing overtraining and charting recovery.

Enzymatic Changes

Creatine kinase (CK) is a muscle tissue enzyme. Serum levels are usually low, but if muscle tissue is damaged, large amounts of CK can be released into the bloodstream from the damaged tissue. Exercise can damage muscle tissue, and this damage is reflected in serum CK levels. For example, serum CK levels of runners can reach 20 times normal after a marathon.

Distance runners routinely have serum CK levels above normal, reflecting the repeated tissue damage they subject their muscles to. The runners who doubled their training loads overnight showed CK levels that were four times higher than their usual high levels. CK returned to baseline after two days of rest but rose again when the doubled regimen was resumed. This suggests that substantially elevated CK levels, especially if combined with muscle soreness, might be a fairly sensitive indicator of overtraining.

Before you run out and start having blood workups done every two days, you should know that there may be a simpler (and much less painful) way to recognize the onset of overtraining. We'll pick up with that next time.

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