Nutritional Status And Overtraining

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

The International Conference on Overreaching and Overtraining in Sport: Physiological, Psychological and Biomedical Considerations, held July 14-17 in Memphis, featured noted scholars from around the world speaking about overreaching and overtraining. They presented their views and research in the traditional academic fashion, and much of what was aid was covered in my last article on overtraining.

But the symposium presented by Jackie Berning, RD, Ph.D. (University of Colorado), on energy intake, diet and muscle wasting took me by surprise. The Conference announcement read, "Dr. Berning's discussion will focus on the dietary needs and energy intake of athletes. She will address the issues of appetite suppression, muscle wasting, and the female athlete triad in her presentation." But, the main point of her discussion was -- well -- "logical." If you "underfuel" while training hard, youíll experience muscle wasting, and more easily overtrain. Now, Iíll admit that she was on topic, but I had expected at least that thereíd be some information on how one would be able to avoid overtraining through manipulating and controlling balances of various hormones in the body with food. Macronutrients and micronutrients. You know, Dr. Mauro DiPasqualeís "Anabolic Diet," Dr. Barry Searsí "Zone Diet," and other such techniques. I had expected to hear at least a little something on important nutritional supplements such as BCAAs, L-glutamine, essential fatty acids, creatine monohydrate and various other substances which are able to reduce stress-related catabolic agents such as cortisol. But, alas, nada.

I say alas, because I believe strongly that your ability to change hormone balances through diet and supplementation is not only possible but ubiquitous. It goes hand-in-glove with careful periodization of oneís training. Together, they are the absolute KEY to avoiding overtraining while still being able to tolerate (and maximally benefit from) training stress at levels of frequency, duration, volume and intensity far beyond the norm.

But let me back up for one moment, and refresh your memories on how the conference scientists defined overtraining and overreaching. Then Iíll look at some easy ways you can maximize your training effectiveness -- WITHOUT overtraining in the process -- through natural hormonal manipulation techniques of dieting and supplementing.

"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."

These two definitions are clearly identical except for the time periods involved. So we can put these definitions into clearer perspective, the conference organizers also pointed out:

"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."

OK, letís look at whether improper eating habits or supplementation can contribute to overtraining and overreaching for a moment. Since both are caused by stress, can we assume that the stresses of improper diet and lack of appropriate supplementation can also cause overtraining? Absolutely! In fact, probably faster than training can! And what are the markers associatied with poor diet and supplementation? I mean, besides the earth-shattering observation made by Dr. Berning that undereating causes muscle wasting and thus overtraining?

Let me repeat a point I made in the first article of this series on overtraining. By the time youíve observed such markers, interesting though they may be to inquiring academic minds, itís too late for we who live in the trench. Consider these common examples. Is it better to treat obesity (the marker being excess storage of adipose tissue) or to prevent it? Is it better to allow your insulin levels to fluctuate wildly by disregarding sound dietary and supplementation techniques (therby predisposing you to increased catabolic activity and thus overreaching / overtraining), or to eat and supplement carefully to prevent catabolism and overreaching / overtraining?

No, fellow iron freaks, the best approach lies in avoiding the appearance of such markers in the first place. But it isnít just about insulin and catabolism. Overtraining and overreaching have several markers (symptoms) that even non-scientists are able to discern. The table below describes some of the more common markers and identification methods that bodybuilders can easily employ.

First, you should be aware that most scientists are in agreement that overtraining and overreaching markers are generally different for anaerobic and aerobic athletes. Bodybuilding is an anaerobic activity because you remain in the ATP/CP and Glycolytic pathways of musclualr energetics, rarely (if ever) venturing into the aerobic pathway. Of course, this may not apply to those of you who ill-advisedly spend endless hours on the treadmill or exercise bike. There is ample evidence that some of these markers are powerfully affected by both the composition and the frequency of your diet, and also by the use of various nutritional supplements.

Anaerobic athletes (including bodybuilders), then, usually experience "sympathetic" overtraining symptoms (called "basedowian overtraining"), whereas aerobic athletes are more susceptible to parasympathetic overtraining (called "addisonoid overtraining"). Briefly, the sympathetic nervous system speeds up bodily functions thereby increasing energy needs, and the parasympathetic system slows down bodily functions thereby conserving energy. Together they comprise the automomic nervous system, which acts on blood vessels, glands and internal organs. The somatic nervous system, on the other hand, primarily innervates your sleletal muscles. Here are a few of the markers that are common to bodybuilders, how to detect them, and how to prevent them:

Marker (Symptom) Detection Avoided By
Psychological Profile Changes Mood changes such as irritability and inability to concentrate are among the easiest to detect. Simply be objective with yourself, and donít shrug off such psychological markers as merely fleeting or unimportant. Often, your diet is responsible. Controlling blood sugar has the net effect of altering hormonal balances in your body, particularly insulin, glucagon and the adrenal hormones.
Cardiovascular and Hematological Manifestations Altered Heart Rate And Blood Pressure, as well as hematological alterations including iron status, protein status, electrolyte balance, phosphorus / calcium balance, elevated blood urea nitrogen, elevated uric acid, and a skewed lipoprotein balance (including cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids) Keep tabs on your resting heart rate and blood pressure (mornings, before getting out of bed). Radical changes can signal overtraining. An occasional blood test is certainly in order for anyone in hard training in order to detect fluctuations in these markers which are frequently dietary in nature.
Changes In Endocrine (Hormone) Profiles An occasional blood test is certainly in order for anyone in hard training in order to detect fluctuations in these markers
Musculoskeletal Problems Abnormal aches and pains, nagging injuries that seem not to heal, or other related symptoms are usually brought on by "cumulative microtrauma," the most frequent cause of most symptoms and markers of overtraining. When this happens, itís frequently the result of improper periodization in your training. However, if you feel that your training protocol is adequate, look to your diet and supplement protocol. You will probably find that you are not controlling catabolic responses to exercise.
Immune Suppression Accompanying Illness Rates Succumb easily to cold or flu bugs or other pathogens in our environment. Resolve to begin periodizing your training, and follow some simple guidelines for dieting and supplementing such as those mentioned immediately below.
Appetite Suppression. Muscle wasting or easily put on fat despite low calorie dieting. Blood sugar levels that are both too high (hypo-glycemia) and too low (hyperglycemia) can cause this to occur. Clearly, this is a dietary problem that can easily be solved by eating frequent (small) meals with adequate protein, carbohydrates (preferably low glycemic index carbs) and fat (preferably unsaturated fats such as canola or olive oil).

Your Hormones and Overtraining:

Let's set the record straight right now on the importance of controlling your hormones. How you eat, sleep, train and supplement has an effect on hormone balances. In turn, hormones will determine your rate of muscle growth and repair, and also whether youíre getting rid of fat or avoiding putting it on in the first place.

Steroidal hormones are produced from cholesterol in the gonads and the cerebral cortex, while polypeptide hormones are manufactured in the many other glands from various amino acid combinations. Hormones regulate almost all your bodily functions. They regulate growth and development, help you cope with both physical and mental stress, and they regulate all forms of training responses including protein metabolism, fat mobilization and energy production. In a nutshell, they do it all.

The hormones will act in three different ways, basically. They can alter the rate of synthesis of your cellular protein, change the rate of enzyme activity, or change the rate of transport of nutrients through the cell wall. Careful dieting and supplementing can help you become far less likely to succumb to the ill effects of overtraining simply because many of your hormones are controlled by how you eat and supplement. Letís look at some of them and how eating and supplementing can aid in avoiding overtraining.

Insulin: Insulin increases cellular uptake of glucose, which in turn causes increased synthesis of muscle glycogen. This leads to a decrease in blood-borne glucose, which causes a decrease in insulin production. During prolonged workouts, this reduction in blood glucose and the attendant decrease in insulin production causes an increase in the mobilization of stored fat. Beware, however! Insulin levels skyrocket with too much carbohydrate in your diet, which in turn causes the glucose to be stored as fat. Wild fluctuations in your insulin level -- hypo- and hyperglycemia -- are easily avoided by careful control of your carbo-to-protein ratio at each of 5 or more meals daily.

Glucagon: Lowered blood glucose (from prolonged exercise or not enough carbohydrates in your diet) stimulates the release of glucagon, which performs the opposite function of insulin. It raises the level of glucose in your blood by stimulating both glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis in the liver. The glucose generated in this fashion is released into the bloodstream, thereby once again raising the insulin levels. The process of gluconeogenesis -- the conversion of liver glycogen into glucose -- activates yet another process. Blood-borne amino acids are taken up by the liver which can adversely affect your ability to grow because of the reduced availability of the amino acids during protein turnover promoted by exercise. Again, controlling the ratio of protein-to-carbohydrates meal per meal keeps glucagon at optimal levels for greater protein synthesis and avoiding fat deposition.

Cortisol: Cortisol is pretty nasty stuff. It's catabolic, which means it causes a breakdown of protein in your muscles. Increased cortisol secretion also acts as an insulin antagonist by inhibiting glucose uptake and utilization. High cortisol levels causes your liver to split the fat molecules that are mobilized via cortisol activity into ketoacids. High levels of these ketoacids in the extracellular fluid can cause a dangerous situation to persist called ketosis. This is a common occurrence among those who have been on a carbohydrate-restricted diet (such as before a bodybuilding contest or to make weight). This is also a good reason to do your dieting well in advance of your competition.

The above-noted chain of events is quite controllable, as it happens, and doing so will improve your chances of avoiding overreaching or overtraining by:

1. keeping your workouts short and intense,
2. regulating the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrates in each meal, and
3. The prudent use of nutritional supplements.

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