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The Overtraining Syndrome

By Dr. Philip Maffetone

The following text is excerpted with permission from “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing,” by Dr, Philip Maffetone, who is an internationally recognized researcher, educator, clinician, and author in the field of nutrition, exercise and sports medicine, stress management, and biofeedback.

He was named coach of the year by Triathlete Magazine and honored by Inside Triathlon magazine as one of the top twenty most influential people in endurance sports worldwide. He is the author of more than a dozen books on sports, fitness, and health. “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” is his most recent book.

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Overtraining is the most common problem that prevents endurance athletes from reaching their potential. It’s also the most common cause of injury and ill-health for millions of athletes. And overtraining is a problem that many athletes, coaches, and healthcare professionals don’t recognize until it becomes a more serious condition. As a result, overtraining is not recognized soon enough to prevent loss of training time, injury, ill- health, or poor performance.

Overtraining has been traditionally described as diminished performance that results from an increase in either training volume or intensity. Let me emphasize this point again: Overtraining is an imbalance in our simple endurance equation:

Training = Workout + Recovery

Let’s look at the big picture of overtraining, not just its more obvious components. This is a holistic approach. And to do so, we first need to take a look at how our nervous system works since this will have a profound impact on how the body responds to training.

Understanding the details of the brain and the rest of the nervous system, and all its components, including the autonomic system, can get quite complicated. So here’s an analogy. Consider a house with all the many wires going throughout, some wires being different types for specific purposes. All these wires represent different parts of the nervous system.

Some go to switches and lights, some to large users of electricity like air conditioners and refrigerators, still others to phones and modems, while others to low voltage devices like doorbells. The brain would be like the main electric box, and the autonomic system comprised of a cable of two wires, like those used for phone lines: one wire for sympathetic and another for parasympathetic.

The sympathetic part of the autonomic system raises your heart rate and blood pressure, increases muscle power and speed, and other actions used in a race, for example. We feel this as pre-race tension, an important way to prepare for competition. The parasympathetic part is important for recovery, relaxation of muscles, slowing the heart rate, and lowering blood pressure. And it activates the intestines for better digestion.

The sympathetic has been compared to the accelerator in your car, making things go faster, while the parasympathetic component is likened to the brakes, slowing it down. While the autonomic system functions automatically, we can influence it through lifestyle. The sympathetic part tends to be ready to go into action much of the time, so we often control autonomic function through the addition of more parasympathetic activities to balance both. We can do this by choosing to relax, by meditating, and by avoiding too much caffeine (a sympathetic stimulator).

When autonomic imbalance occurs, it’s usually associated with too much sympathetic and too little parasympathetic activity; with chronic imbalance, as seen in the third stage of stress, just the opposite occurs: the sympathetics “burn out” and can’t function well, and the parasympathetics take over. Overtraining follows this pattern and, the same as Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome, has three stages of stress.

The negative consequences of overtraining are often gradual. The body is quite good at masking the earliest symptoms. But overtraining is a canny adversary. The problems it engenders will triumph in the end, unless changes are made to training, diet, and stress level.

Stage 1 or functional overtraining: The onset and earliest stage, very subtle indicators can clue you in that you’re heading for more serious problems.

Stage 2 or sympathetic overtraining. Brain and nervous system and hormonal imbalances cause a variety of signs and symptoms.

Stage 3 or parasympathetic overtraining. A serious condition, it results in exhaustion, severely affecting the nervous system, muscles, and hormonal levels.

The overtraining syndrome typically results in poor athletic performance, structural injury, such as in the foot, knee, or lower back, secondary to muscle imbalance, and metabolic problems, such as fatigue, infection, bone loss, sexual dysfunction, altered mood states, and brain and nervous system dysfunction. The signs and symptoms go beyond training and competition problems; they can even affect a person’s quality of life, sometimes for many years. More importantly, in the earliest stage many of the problems of overtraining are somewhat vague and indistinct unless a careful evaluation is made.

While we think of overtraining as being only sports-related, other lifestyle factors may contribute to the cause. Increased work, family or job stress, social obligations, raising children, poor sleep habits, and other factors can significantly and indirectly contribute to overtraining.

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