Do any of these sound familiar?
- That helpless feeling of ‘hitting a wall’
- Pushing hard in a workout or event and feeling beat for a few days
- Needing to give yourself a motivational speech in the mirror to work out.
These experiences are a normal part of sports adaptation: push hard, feel tired, recover, push hard, recover. The ability to hang in during hard workouts and events but keep working despite signs of fatigue is what makes an athlete! Problems can occur, however, when the ‘push hard’ to ‘rest hard’ ratio becomes unbalanced, and push comes to shove…you on the couch and out of commission. Short-term temporary performance loss due to factors including improper recovery is called Functional Overreaching. A more severe version of this imbalance can escalate to a state called Overtraining Syndrome, which is a long-term decrease in performance along with other symptoms. Prevalence of overreaching is thought to be up to 60% in athletes. Check out the chart below which demonstrates the deviation from normal sports recovery up to Overtraining Syndrome.
Overtraining Categories and symptoms
The following symptoms can vary from person to person and range in severity:
Functional Overreaching (FOR):
- Short-term decline in performance and temporary psychological distress, brain fog, heaviness, sluggishness, lower reactivity or agility
- Under a week needed to recover
Non-functional Overreaching (NFOR):
- Fatigue, higher rates of illness, mental distress, and inability to perform at expected levels
- Weeks to months to recover
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS):
- Higher severity of fatigue, higher rates of illness, mental distress, and inability to perform at expected levels, increased resting and exercise heart rate, loss of appetite and weight loss, irregular menses for female athletes, chronic muscle soreness, sleeping difficulty, loss of libido, irritation or aggression with increased sensitivity to stressors, and loss of competitive drive and desire to train
- Months to years to recover
How Overtraining Happens
Many factors are responsible for contributing to overreaching or overtraining:
- an increase in training load without increased recovery
- staleness/monotony of training regime
- excessive competition schedule
- poor sleep or sleep disturbances
- stressors in personal life
- a heat injury episode
- nutritional factors
Check out the image below which shows how outside factors can contribute to an otherwise normal cycle of training and recovery. When something outside of the norm interferes, it can push our bodies into the realm of overreaching or overtraining. Notice on the left there is “partial recovery” vs full recovery before continuing on to more hard training and competition. That is the point that starts the slide into overreaching, and eventually getting to overtraining.
5 Ways to Prevent and Recover from Overtraining
Besides ensuring proper rest periods, here are five great nutritional-focused strategies to prevent and recover from overtraining.
1. Eat Enough Calories and Carbs
It is well-known that carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source, and so it makes sense to pay attention to carbohydrates to ensure adequate fuel in the tank for training and competition. Depending on your body composition, sport, training duration, frequency, and intensity, you (or your trainer or nutritionist) can calculate how many carbohydrates to eat before, during, and after your training or events. Disclaimer: if you are an adapted ketogenic athlete, you may not need to think as much about carb intake as you do overall calories. Athletes sometimes have a hard time getting enough total calories due to convenience, hunger levels, and weight management. Make sure to consult with your trainer or a nutritionist to be coached on how much, what types of foods, and an eating schedule to work best for you and your sport.
2. Get Enough sleep
Okay so sleep is not exactly in the realm of nutrition, but it is SO important! Sleep is regarded to be the number one thing an athlete can do to promote recovery, however, sleep disturbances are reported to be associated with overreaching and overtraining. This can potentially lead to a vicious cycle: overreaching leads to poor sleep, poor sleep worsens overreaching. It’s important to notice whether your sleep is being impacted and whether it’s the result of overreaching, changing environments due to competition (night events, travel, altitude), or something else, and address it. By the way: naps definitely count.
3. Eat a Diverse Diet Rich in Plants and Including Fermented Foods
This is a huge category of health, and can’t be simply stated in a list item…but let’s try! The more quantity and diversity of plants you eat, the better are your odds of getting all of the complex and synergistic components your body needs for proper recovery and metabolism to support your sport. Plants contain magic: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals that our bodies need for repair and growth. Active research on the huge importance of our gut and microbiome in relation to our immunity and overall health is booming. Particularly interesting are the studies that correlate proper gut health and improved recovery from sports and infections related to overreaching or overtraining. Fermented and cultured foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and yogurt are incredibly helpful to bolster the balance and diversity of our gut bacteria. Besides any acute microbiome dysbiosis or nutrient deficiency, eating a colorful diet full of plants will give your body the goods it needs to recover from brutal training and competitions.
4. Eat Good Fats
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are imperative to recovery and repair in the body, and many athletes are sorely lacking adequate high-quality fats due to factors such as calorie restriction, difficult training and competition schedules, travel, and lack of proper nutrition education. Athletes can particularly benefit from the EFAs Omega-3 and Omega-6 as they have been shown to reduce many symptoms of overreaching such as performance, muscle soreness, and mood stability. Make sure to include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, as well as a variety of nuts, seeds, coconut, and avocados in your diet. Talk to your trainer or a sports nutritionist to get tips on the best timing of fat in your day.
5. Get Enough Protein (and the right kind)
Protein is essential for proper tissue repair, blood oxygenation, skin, bone, hair, and teeth health, and pretty much all cellular functioning- no big deal, right? In particular, Glutamine, the most abundant and versatile amino acid in the body, is particularly important for proper immune system functioning. During times of stress, like during intense training and competition, glutamine can become scarce in the body, since our needs for it are way higher than normal. Glutamine is present in most animal protein sources and widely accessible in the diet. Besides making sure to eat high quality animal and plant sources of protein, talk to your trainer about whether protein (or glutamine) supplementation would be beneficial for you.
Where to Go From here
As you can see, the recommendations here are VAST! If you feel your are lacking in any of these categories, take your adjustments one small step at a time. The first place to start: sleep. Next: check in with yourself on your diet, maybe track your food for a week and get data so you can assess what to change, or meet with a professional who can help you assess and develop a custom plan. Overreaching and Overtraining are issues that you will likely face to some degree during your career. The best time to address and correct a recovery imbalance is when you first notice symptoms of overreaching. Following the list above is a great step towards preventing or regaining your particular balance of “get after it” to “chill, bro”.