Strangely enough, I’ve seen lots of denials that overtraining exists, that it’s not a real phenomenon, on sites devoted to weightlifting and bodybuilding. The attitude seems to be that, since there’s no such thing as overtraining, you’re a wimp or lazy if you don’t want to, or can’t, hit the gym four, five, or more days a week. The guys that say this also seem to be young. Much of this comes from users of anabolic steroids, one of the main effects of which is to allow better exercise recovery and hence more exercise without overtraining. Of course most of these users don’t admit to using steroids; they’re “fake naturals”, they don’t reveal the secret of their remarkable staying power in the gym, but denigrate those who don’t have their powers of recovery.
Overtraining doesn’t exist for users of anabolic steroids
Androgenic anabolic steroids, such as testosterone and trenbolone cause increased rates of muscle protein synthesis, and as a consequence allow for better exercise recovery. Through increased insulin sensitivity, they also allow lifters to eat more without getting fat. If a lifter on steroids feels overtrained, he can up his dose and proceed back to the gym.
Overtraining does exist if you don’t use steroids
On the contrary, coaches and elite athletes in just about every sport know very well that overtraining exists, because they need to guard against it if they’re going to win competitions. Take a look at a PubMed search for “overtraining”: 727 items returned. Overtraining is real.
How can you tell if you’re overtraining?
An article at Men’s Fitness lists 12 signs of overtraining, and they include fatigue, depression, insomnia, reduced immune function (you get sick a lot), and constant muscle soreness.
For the average gym rat, among whom I include myself, you feel reluctant to head to the gym, and if you do get there, lifting seems much more difficult. You will be unable to match your usual weights, sets, or reps.
Muscle soreness is common, and by that I don’t mean the usual delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that invariably follows a good gym session, usually in a day or two. In overtraining, one feels heavy and just sort of achy all over.
Mood takes a hit also. One feels a lack of ambition, and a kind of anhedonia.
Overtraining hits women harder and more frequently than it does men
Interestingly, female athletes seem even more likely to suffer from overtraining, since they are more likely not to eat enough, and especially of the right foods. They are less likely to eat enough meat, which is a potent source of iron, and they need more iron than men. Meat is of course a great source of protein, which athletes need to repair their tissues – whether they’re a strength athlete or not – and if women don’t eat enough meat, they’ll suffer from that as well.
Chronic fatigue and overtraining are similar
Those who have had chronic fatigue understand what it feels like to be overtrained, as they are similar in many ways. One of the most prominent symptoms of chronic fatigue, in fact used to diagnose it, is exercise intolerance. The person who has chronic fatigue takes far longer to recover from an exercise bout that a healthy person – assuming he can do it in the first place. When I had chronic fatigue, I usually managed to take a daily walk. But too fast a pace, or walking an extra 15 minutes, could set back my energy levels for days. So one way to look at overtraining is as a form of chronic fatigue. It is. (For more on this, see my book, Smash Chronic Fatigue.)
How you can treat overtraining
So what do you do about it? The first thing is, of course, lots of rest. If you’re genuinely overtrained, don’t go back into the gym (or run, or whatever other intense exercise training you do) until you feel completely well. For weightlifters, you need to have the ability to perform at your maximum weight and/or number of reps and sets for each exercise. If you can’t (unless you’re just having an off day), you need more rest.
Use nutrition to prevent and treat overtraining
But nutrition can play a large role in recovery from overtraining. Consider the following: Contrasting plasma free amino acid patterns in elite athletes: association with fatigue and infection (pdf). The authors looked at three groups of athletes: Group A were track and field athletes with no signs of overtraining; Group B were judo athletes who reported heavy fatigue at night but who recovered with a night’s sleep; and Group C, track and field athletes with chronic fatigue from overtraining who were unable to train at their normal levels. The study analyzed free amino acids in their blood, and found contrasting patterns.
Most germane to the analysis is that the persistently fatigued, often ill, and overtrained group had low plasma glutamine levels. The researchers advised some of them – leaving others that they did not advise as controls – to increase their protein intake, “to consume additional protein (an average or larger helping of lean meat, fish, cheese, or soya), at least once on most days a week, and to supplement protein intake with skimmed milk powder in cereals and drinks.” This was additional protein of “a minimum of 20-30 g protein a day”.
Most of the overtrained, fatigued athletes then recovered quickly, within three weeks, and their amino acid patterns returned to normal.
How much protein do you need to recover from overtraining?
So, to recover from and prevent overtraining, make sure that you get enough protein in your diet. The authors suggest that elite athletes in maintenance training need at least 1.6 g protein per kg bodyweight daily. That amounts to about .75 grams per pound of bodyweight.
So for example:
Bodyweight 200 pounds, you need about 150 grams of good quality protein daily.
Bodyweight 150 pounds, you need about 112 grams a day.
That’s a fair amount, and you may not get that without supplementation. Whey protein is the best way to supplement, as it’s high in leucine and cysteine, two of the most critical amino acids for athletes.
The best whey is cold-processed and undenatured, like NutraBio’s.
I normally take one 25 gram whey shake a day. If you eat enough high quality protein at your regular meals, this may be more than enough to get you up to the optimum protein intake per day. If for some reason you can’t get enough protein at your regular meals, you may need a couple shakes a day. Higher protein intakes are perfectly healthy.
If you practice intermittent fasting, a whey shake is a good way to mark the end of your fast, ensuring that you get your protein intake up to speed and get that muscle protein synthesis moving.