Overreaching and Overtraining

written by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D., MSS, International Sports Sciences Association

In order to perform optimally, athletes must be adequately trained. However, if athletes train too intensely and/or too often, they may be susceptible to short-term and/or long-term decrements in performance capacity as well as myriad reported physiological, medical, and/or psychological symptoms of overreaching and overtraining. While the etiology of overreaching and overtraining is completely understood, understanding the theorized pathophysiology, physiological and psychological markers, and possible ways to reduce the incidence of overreaching and overtraining may serve to decrease the prevalence of overreaching and/or overtraining in athletes.

This preamble appeared in the flier announcing the International Conference on Overreaching & Overtraining in Sport: Physiological, Psychological and Biomedical Considerations, held July 14-17 in Memphis. All I can say is, Mamma mia! Scientists -- those intrepid sleuths of Academia -- have a neat way of pontificating, donít they? I went to this conference, and learned a thing or two, so they do know some real neat stuff!

If we can accept the tenets of the quote above, then we can infer that both overtraining and overreaching are caused by stress. Lots of different stressors out there folks! Also, the various symptoms of overreaching and overtraining ("markers") are equally multitudinous. Too many questions!

These questions may seem to you to be bordering on the trite, but I assure you they are not. They are the essence of training science as we know it! How much stress, what kind of stress and how often to stress, they are the questions for which all of us seek answers every day of our existence!
So letís look for answers systematically (there are some, you know!). First, letís talk about stress. Then about how it causes overreaching and overtraining, and what to look for as markers. Finally, how can we control it.

Interrelated Stressors:
Every day of our lives we are all bombarded with a variety of stressors. More often than not, these stressors are of low enough "intensity" or so subtle that they donít affect us negatively in the short term. But most take their toll over time, you can book that! Whatís worse, of those that do have a more immediate negative effect, their intensity is often compounded by the mere presence of the many other stressors. For example, any number of environmental stressors can have physical or physiological consequences. And oneís psychological state is inextricably intertwined with oneís biochemistry.

Consider some of the more common stressors, with an eye toward how they interact to aid or hinder our training efforts, and especially how they can affect overreaching and overtraining (defined below).

Environmental Stressors Stemming From:

Psychological / Sociological Stressors Stemming From:

Physiological / Biochemical Stressors Stemming From:

Anatomical / Structural Stressors Stemming From:

As a general rule-of-thumb, you want to eliminate or (if you canít eliminate it, minimize the ill effects of) all stressors except the last five. These, you want! But ONLY if you can CONTROL them.

Now, weíre getting somewhere! There are at least seven Laws of training we all must obey if we want our training efforts to pay maximum dividends, and Iíve spoken of them in several recent issues of Muscle And Fitness. The one overriding Law of all forms of training in regards to controlling stress to make it work FOR you instead of against you is called the GAS Law.

General Adaptation Syndrome ("GAS"):

The GAS is comprised of three stages according to its originator, Dr. Hans Seyle:
1. The "alarm stage" caused by the application of intense training stress,
2. The "resistance stage" when our muscles adapt in order to resist the stressful weights more efficiently, and
3. The "exhaustion stage" where, if we persist in applying stress, we do not recover or adapt. Easily inferred is the notion that you must rest between severe bouts of weight training to allow both recovery and supercompensation to occur. In the short run (days or weeks), failing to do so causes an "overreaching" syndrome, and, in the long run (months), an "overtraining" syndrome.

It is these two syndromes that interest me. What are the markers of each, are they actually different form one another, and how can we avoid or reduce them without actually "undertraining" in the process? These questions are of critical importance to you in successfully achieving your maximum ability in sports, fitness or bodybuilding. First, letís take a look at the working definitions of the terms "overtraining" and "overreaching" that the scientists used at the Memphis conference.

Overreaching: An accumulation of training and/or non-training stress resulting in a short-term decrement in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining in which restoration of performance capacity may take from several days to several weeks.

Overtraining: An accumulation of training and/or non-training stress resulting in a long-term decrement in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining in which restoration of performance capacity may take from several weeks to several months.

Well! Circumloquitousness is not one of the attributes the conference organizers were lacking in, thatís for sure! The definitions they used, in case you didnít see it, are identical except for the time factors involved. Both are induced by training stress.

Not to worry! While, at first blush, the term "overreaching" conjures images of training-related trauma that causes tissue damage, in actuality that only happens to bodybuilders if they lift too much weight or do too many reps or sets. So, assuming that you donít go that far (few bodybuilders do on any consistent basis, primarily because fatigue intervenes), the low-level overreaching that bodybuilders typically do may be regarded as just another term for "adaptive overload." It is what is needed to force an adaptive response to be initiated in your body. But, once you have overreached, you must pay attention to the GAS Law! Continued overreaching -- indiscriminate and continued overload over time -- eventually leads to the far more serious syndrome, overtraining. It looks like this:

Program Design Errors in Overtraining:

There was consensus among most of the lecturers at the conference that training protocol errors are by far the most common factor in overtraining. While there is no question that the ill effects of too much training stress is easily exacerbated by the presence of concomitant stressors (menioned above), all we can do is attempt to minimize the others and control the training stressors.

Factors such as excessive training volume and training intensity, over time, can accumulate to produce decrements in strength, speed, explosiveness, endurance and skilled (motor) performance. So too can consistently poor nutritional status, lack of rest, choice of exercises, order of exercises, or lack of variation in exercise.

But, by the time youíve observed such symptoms, itís too late. Consider these common examples. Is it better to treat obesity (the marker being excess storage of adipose tissue) or avoid it in the first place? Is it better to take your car in for periodic checkups or fix it after itís broken down (whereupon the marker becomes whatever it was that broke)? No, fellow iron freaks, the best approach lies in avoiding the appearance of such markers in the first place.

The markers of such performance decrements may vary among the following (to name a few):

These were among the markers of overtraining that were presented in the Memphis symposia. Clearly, each has its own set of stressful sub-problems (and therefore sub-markers) which may have potentially devastating effects on performance. These effects may manifest themselves over time or more immediately. But the main point is that, with few exceptions, these markers cannot be easily or readily identified by us -- we who train regularly. Muscular or joint pain, appetite changes, psychological changes and decreased strength, speed and explosiveness are quite noticeable, however, and these markers are the main ones weíve relied upon over the past few years to determine our own training status. The others, well, weíve left them to the A-Team sleuths.

The Most Interesting Tidbits From The Memphis Conference:

Peter Snell, Ph.D.

(UT Southwestern Medical School):
Dr. Snell spoke about long, moderate intensity running being well tolerated and beneficial beyond any form of interval training in producing beneficial training effects among middle- and long-distance runners. He cited many examples of how interval training is abused by runners, and how it causes overtraining.

William J. Kraemer, Ph.D.

(Pennsylvania State Univ.):
Most of the research on overtraining has focused primarily on endurance athletes, and that the markers for an overtrained state among anaerobic athletes (strength athletes) are quite different in many instances, and that overtraining is certainly more prevalent than among aerobic athletes. For strength athletes, the acute training variables, 1) choice of exercises, 2) order of exercise, 3) volume of exercise, 4) the training load and 5) rest must be manipulated carefully to avoid overtraining. Special reference was given to the inverse relationship that must occur between volume and load if overtraining is to be avoided. He repeatedly insisted that it is typically "training mistakes" that carry us there. These mistakes are easily avoided through careful periodization procedures being put in place in oneís training.

Michael Stone, Ph.D.

(Appalachian State Univ.):
Dr. Stone presented interesting research he and his colleagues did with the members of the US Junior Weightlifting team (mean age of 18 years) at Colorado Springs. A serendipitous outcome resulted from the USOCís allotment of too little time to adequately force these youngsters into an overtrained state. Stone and his colleagues challenged the lifters severely by imposing a wicked triple-split weight training regimen upon them for a full week. Volume, relative intensity, exercise intensity, exercise selection and rest were increased to what the researchers believed would be intolerable levels of stress. The result was that none showed any signs of overtraining or overreaching. Instead, they tolerated the training exceptionally well as was evidenced in improved stress-related markers (physical and biochemical) across the board. After a three week taper period, 75 percent of the youngsters posted personal records (as compared to the control group, 75 percent of which posted lower-than optimal attempts). Overcompensation had taken place after this three week taper more than had occurred in the conventional peaking cycle used by the controls. His response to questioning on this point was that US lifters simply do not train hard enough, making the point strongly that had he carried out the triple-split system much longer than the allotted weekís time, they would probably have overtrained. Judging from the abysmal placing of the male contingent of US weightlifters in international competition, Stone is probably right about the lifters undertraining -- it certainly has been my personal experience that this is so. Stone, as Kraemer, concluded that periodization is both the key to avoiding overtraining and improving peak performance. "Stress is Additive" was one of his central themes.

Andrew C. Fry, Ph.D.

(Memphis State Univ.):
Unlike the field research designs used by Drs. Kraemer and Stone, Dr. Fry and his colleagues conducted a more controlled laboratory experiment. He had his subjects perform high volume/high intensity squats on a "Tru-Squat" apparatus which effectively isolates the quadriceps. After conducting a pilot study which showed decreased isokinetic strength and motor performance (but no change in 1RM), he greatly amplified the stress, resulting in significantly reduced 1RM, motor performance and isokinetic strength measures. Furthermore, there were only a few significant changes in the endocrine markers Dr. Fry monitored, and they were quite different from those typical in endurance overtraining studies, citing some important differences between intensity-related stress and endurance training-related stress.

W. Benjamin Kibler, MD

(Lexington Clinic):
He presented his "operational" definition of overtraining as "physiological, biochemical and anatomical stresses causing cellular tissue breakdown, which lead to a decline in matrix production and homeostasis. The "material" failure which causes overtraining stems from cyclic or repetitive movement, tensile overload, vascular deficiency and/or hormonal imbalances. Mechanisms of the process were cited as being calcium ion influx, proteolysis and eccentric loading.

My Personal Observations:

First, I heartily agree with Dr. Kiblerís analysis. On the other hand, thereís too little evidence to flatly accept or reject the others. I sat next to Dr. Stone during this presentation, and his comment was that Dr. Kibler had aptly described "overuse," although such homeostasis decrease and tissue disruption could also accompany overtraining. I canít WAIT to be enlightened more on this distinction! Makes one wonder what the difference is between overuse syndrome and overtraining, and also between overreaching and overload!
In the talks over beers that ubiquitously accompany such symposia, it became quite clear to me that the only way overtraining among anaerobic (ATP/CP and glycolytic athletes) is ever going to be fully understood is 1) when longitudinal studies are done by researchers who are highly experienced in the art and science of resistance training, 2) when a team approach is used to gather data on athletes from all levels of experience across the US and in other countries who are experiencing overtraining/overreaching symptoms and then retrospective analyses are carried out in a joint effort to determine root causes, and 3) when the information gleaned from these field studies is taken into the laboratory for scrutiny and ultimately validated in further field studies.

Concluding Comments:

By far the most commonly referenced cause of overtraining is "cumulative microtrauma." Cellular damage from an overreaching episode that gets worse and worse over time (remember, stress is additive). There are two ways to cope with cumulative microtrauma. You can avoid it, or you can treat it. If you have to treat it, itís too late! You avoid it NOT by avoiding lifting or by avoiding a small amount of (normal) cellular destruction, but instead by not letting microtrauma accumulate! You do this through:

So, it all boils down to a simple plan. Most of the coaches of elite athletes in the USA will tell you that the single biggest problem with their athletes is not that they don't train enough, but that they train too much. I used to believe this too. Now, after years in the trench myself, I disagree. I think they can tolerate MUCH more training and benefit commensurably from it. This is definitely true of bodybuilders. First, you must "periodize" your training adequately. All progress must be gradual and orderly. What you do must be predicated upon what you've just accomplished. No system of training is like a "silver bullet." None will give you immediate success at your sport. Indeed, sticking to one program can actually hamper your progress. Take your time, be scientific and thorough, and -- above all -- follow the guidelines listed above. It's the best way to avoid overtraining!

Return to Nutrition and Weightlifting Page