Overtraining is a general term for the situation that can occur over time when the intensity and/or the duration of exercise someone does is more than what the individual can adequately recover from with respect to improved fitness. In other words, the person exercises so much—either the amount of time or the effort expended—that the muscles are unable to recover and actually lose strength rather than gaining it. Overuse of the muscles, or overtraining, can occur whenever sufficient time is not allowed between training sessions for the exercised muscles to recover.
Exercising is a great way to maintain a good fitness level. It strengthens the muscles, joints, and bones of the body. However, too much exercising can sometimes be detrimental to fitness, conditioning, and strength. A good balance between exercise and rest is essential for overall health.
Overtraining can occur to anyone that exercises too much. Its adverse effects can be behavioral, emotional, and/or physical in nature. Overtraining has been found to be especially frequent in bodybuilders because their main goal is to lift heavy weights, often on consecutive days, to build up muscle mass and strength. People who regularly exercise and are exposed to various situations can run the risk of overtraining. Some of these situations include poor nutrition, illness, overworking, mental disorders, menstruation (in women), and jet lag.
The cause of overtraining is doing too much exercising and not allowing adequate rest for the exercised muscles. Muscles that are not given time to recover degrade over time. Rather than growing, muscles actually decrease in size when overtraining occurs over an extended period.
Poor nutrition and excessive exercising is a bad combination because overworked muscles are not given the necessary nutrients to grow and become stronger. A protein deficiency develops when essential amino acids (those that must be supplied in the diet because it cannot be synthesized internally) in the body are used faster than they can be produced (because of a diet poor in such nutrients).
Diets that restrict calorie intake make overtraining a much higher risk because the body has too few calories to expend (burn). Consequently, the body cannot supply sufficient energy to the muscles so they can properly grow and perform.
A mental condition, such as anxiety, can lead to higher than normal levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It is released in response to stress in the body and can add risk to overtraining.
Other factors that may lead to overtraining are excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs; certain personality types; the external environment; and quality and quantity of sleep.
Overtraining fatigue sets in when the muscles begin to feel sluggish in the middle of a workout. Fatigue may continue after the workout and throughout the week. This sluggishness is usually the result of expending more calories than are taken into the body. It is important to maintain a well-balanced diet and consume energy-sufficient foods before and after the workout.
Symptoms of overtraining may include any or all of the following:
A doctor is likely to diagnosis overtraining by carefully looking at a patient's past medical history (including a detailed review of exercise programs currently used) and performing a complete physical examination. Heart rate irregularities and weight loss are two key indicators of overtraining, as is the feeling of fatigue.
The medical professional is also likely to perform various tests to eliminate other causes such as asthma or allergies, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, metabolic or hormonal imbalances, muscle diseases, nutritional deficiencies and anemia, psychiatric conditions, and other such medical problems.
When overtraining is mild, then resting for several days may be all that is needed to recover. Exercise can also be reduced in its intensity or duration. Alternating heat and cold compresses or other such devices can relieve sore and tired muscles. For instance, massaging the overtrained muscles may help in recovery. Additional sleep each night gives the muscles time to recover. Nutritional supplements (such as multivitamins) can increase nutrient deficiencies within the body. In addition, a nutritious and balanced diet is important during recovery.
If overtraining continues, then the condition may persist with increased fatigue and other, more serious symptoms.
Short-term overtraining (STO) involves minor symptoms such as temporary fatigue while exercising. It usually can be resolved with a few days of rest.
Long-term overtraining (LTO) is likely to cause overtraining syndrome. With LTO, more serious symptoms are present, such as fatigue whether exercising or not, mood state disturbances, and muscle stiffness or soreness. LTO is likely to require weeks or months before recovery is complete. Its prognosis is less favorable.
Overtraining can be prevented by resting muscles after they are exercised. More time is necessary if the exercise is especially strenuous or extra long in duration. If an intense workout is performed on muscles in the upper body on one day, then make sure the muscles in the lower body are worked out the next day. A day of recovery, such as an easy walk in the park or a relaxing bike ride around the neighborhood, will keep a person from overtraining their body.
If symptoms that lead to overtraining are present, then the amount of exercising should be reduced until the symptoms disappear. Get plenty of rest and make sure nutritious meals are eaten.
Overtraining can be minimized by:
See also Fatigue ; Weight loss .
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William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA