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Overtraining and Injury Prevention
by Stacy Sims

Training for improved performance, trying to gain that edge from competition to competition, from year to year. 

We all engage in our training religiously knowing that our goal is to enhance performance and peak at the right moment. But how do we draw the line between heavy training for peak performance and overtraining? Without some thought and planning, it can be difficult. But listening to your body and recognizing fatigue and overworked muscles can clue you in to cut back.

Let’s back up a minute and define some of the hub words. We have three different areas to consider: heavy training, overreaching, and overtraining.

Heavy training is what we do to achieve peak performance. Your body needs to be stressed just beyond its normal capacities in order to adapt to that workload, enabling you to become stronger, faster, better. The best way to do this, we know, is to gradually increase our mileage and intensity with adequate rest so that our muscles can recoup and respond the way we need them too.

Sometimes, however, our competitiveness and drive gets the best of us or our daily lives interfere with the rest and recovery process. We may do a series of workouts when we are fatigued, logging in "junk miles" thinking it will benefit us in the end. We think "what’s the harm in pushing through a little fatigue?". The consequences far outweigh the benefits of this mentality.

Continually pushing tired muscles and fighting fatigue will put you in a compromised state known as "over-reaching". Overreaching is the intermediate between heavy training and overtraining. It is acute overtraining characterized by training fatigue, reduction or stagnation in performance, tight and tired muscles, disturbed sleep patterns, irritability, and often a persistent upper respiratory tract infection (the dreaded summer cold that won’t go away). Recovery from the over reached state only requires 2-3 weeks of reduced training (about a 40% reduction of your normal training load). However, if you chose to ignore the symptoms and take only a day or two off, you can push yourself over the edge into overtraining. Overtraining is characterized by a definite immobilization of performance, extreme fatigue, and illness. As well as a noticeable change in your mood state. The seriousness of this condition lies in the fact that it can take up to one year of very minimal activity to fully recover.

Now that we have identified the logistics of the overtraining syndrome, I’d like to discuss the physiological happenings in your body. Whenever you start to exercise, your body releases stress hormones, or adrenaline (epinephrine). This series of hormones initiates the increase in heart rate, causing more blood to get to the working muscles, getting glucose and oxygen to the tissues in need. The hormones also stimulate fat metabolism. So as you continue to exercise and your body needs more fuel to continue, more of the stress hormones are released to kick your body into "fat burning"mode.

The usual build up of stress hormones is normal during exercise and your body can handle it. But, with heavy training, and the common 2-a-day workouts of many triathletes, there is less time for your body to clear out the hormones. This causes your body to become less sensitive to the hormone so it must release more during your workout to get the desired response. This build up can set you up to some serious harm.

First of all, an increase in the resting amounts of adrenaline increases your resting heart rate and resting blood pressure (there is constriction going on, caused by the response of the vessels to adrenaline). Secondly, the increased adrenaline inhibits the amount of the amino acid glutamine in the plasma. Why is this a concern? Well, glutamine is the precursor amino acid to produce immune cells (leukocytes). Without enough glutamine in the plasma, your body’s ability to make white blood cells to fight off infections is hindered. So you become more susceptible to viral infections. (This is why many heavily trained athletes catch colds easily and also why you are five times as likely to catch a cold the week after a half Ironman distance than someone that trains for the race but doesn’t compete.)

Heavy training is also a major cause of skeletal muscle oxidation, damaging the cells immensely. If you do not recover and rest, you are doing serious damage to the skeletal muscle at the cellular level.

The third thing that happens with an increase in stress hormones is the effect on your mood. Adrenaline suppresses your body’s production of seratonin and dopamine. Without these hormones, you do not get the calming effect your body craves. Instead you become "on edge": being irritable, cranky, anxious, and can’t sleep as well as you should. (Your body is now constantly in an "up" state).

With all this on the table, what steps can we take to train hard to improve but not cross the line of illness? First and foremost is the necessity of rest. I don’t mean necessarily putting your feet up and being a sedentary couch potato (unless that is what you want to do!) but doing something other than going for a run or hammering on your bike. Try yoga, tai chi, stretching, walking, gardening----something light that will allow your muscles to rest enough to recover and refuel.

Next, one recent immune study on overtraining (from the Gatorade Labs and Dr. David Neiman, 1998) has shown that if you start to take in a carbohydrate beverage while you are training, even if it is a light workout, at 30 minutes (well before the known 60 minute marker), it will reduce your body’s production of the stress hormones. Why? Because you are giving your body a quick, easy fuel source. So, your body will be able to concentrate on delivering that fuel instead of trying to produce it. Also, adequate post-workout refueling is essential. If your muscles have substantial glycogen stores, there is less need for your body to release a surge of adrenaline early to get into the fat burning mode. A reduction of stress hormones would be a tremendous training boost for your body.

Some experts have also recommended supplementation: using L-glutamine and vitamin E to counteract some of the negativities of heavy training. If you do decide to use supplements, don’t think you are in the clear, they are just a facilitator, not a means to eliminate the problem---only rest will do that for you.

Finally, if your muscles hurt, you are tired, or you are feeling a bit under the weather, train smart: don’t push it. And, if a race falls at the end of a sickness, really listen to your body, try not to overdo it, even if that means not racing. All of this doesn’t mean you can’t push yourself and train hard, it just means you must really be in tuned to your body. The overtraining syndrome is nothing to be taken lightly. It has been the death of elite athletic careers and the hospitalization in the subelite.

Race smart, but train smarter.

Stacy Sims is an avid runner and involved in exercise science

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