In the literature you find also the terms short-term overtraining instead of overreaching. This may perhaps the better term, because it implies that they are both species of the same kind, that differ only quantitatively. Overtraining is often going along with a shift from an autonomic parasympathetic condition towards a sympathetic predominance. Balanced training overload is characterized by a balance between a sympathetic and a parasympathetic state. Status shifts and imbalance in either direction can be indicators for the development of an overtraining state. Data suggest that heart rate variability* is a good surrogate marker to indicate an autonomic balance or imbalance due to training overload respectively. Overtraining is characterized by a decrease in flexibility to adapt to demands be it in a race or in training. The result is decreased performance.
I raise this topic today, because I am amazed how many professional endurance athlete have to retire due to heart problems or other health hazards. Heart condition in young athletes like cardiomyopathies, myocarditis or disturbances of the conduction system of the heart are in my opinion a consequence of a chronic training overload, a consequence of a lack of recovery over many years. Stress, a dysfunctional immune system and hormone imbalances induce a broad variety of specific and unspecific symptoms due to regulatory disturbances within the nervous system, the immune system and hormones. The more unspecific the symptoms (loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, unstable mood, drop in performance, injuries that won’t heal etc.) are the more they are ignored by the athlete and put into a misleading cause-effect relation.Stress and the subsequently induced immune suppression over the many years of a sports career fosters inflammatory processes in the body, that never get a chance to heal in case of imbalanced training overload. As a consequence the susceptibility to infections increases, and healing processes in most general sense of the word are protracted. Viral infections like EBV are probably the best example for an ongoing tissue damaging process of the heart, and not only the heart. The process can affect connective tissues, joints and ligaments, organs like spleen and liver etc.
Conclusions in very brief:
Training can thus be defined as a process of overload that is used to disturb homeostasis which results in acute fatigue leading to an improvement in performance. If one accepts this definition, overreaching and overtraining are condition states on the same trajectory. Both have got physiological, mental, immunological, biochemical, endocrinological, and stress aspects. Depending on the scientific discipline and expertise that is dealing with the respective problem the focus of causal explanations shifts. If one prefers a pragmatic approach, one can say overtraining is a body condition involving the body as a whole, the approach to treatment has to take this into consideration.
The diagnostic approach is tricky, not simple at all, and the therapeutic options are scarce: Rest without remorses, eat well, sleep a lot, take biestmilch into you dietary regimen. Complete recovery can at least one year!
Here a check list that may help you to find out the reasons for your underperformance:
Is the athlete suffering from:
- Unexplainable underperformance
- Persistant fatigue
- Increased sense of effort in training
- Sleep disorders
Are there confounding diseases?
- Epstein Barr virus (EBV)
- Other infectious diseases
- Muscle damage (high Creatinkinase)
- Lyme disease
- Endocrinoligical diseases (diabetes, thyroid, adrenal glands …)
- Major disorders in feeding behavoir
- Biochemical abnormalities (bloodwork)
- Injuries (musculoskeletal system)
- Cardiological symptoms
- Adult-onset of asthma
Are there training errors?
- Training volume increased (> 5%)
- Training intensity increased significantly
- Training monotony present
- High number of competitions
- In endurance athletes: Decreased performance at “anaerobic” threshold
- Exposure to environmental stressors (altitude, heat, cold …)
Other confounding factors:
- Psychological signs and symptoms
- Social factors
- Recent or multiple time zone travel
- Are there baseline values to compare with (performance, heart rate, hormonal, lactate …)
- Maximal exercise test performance
- Submaximal or sports specific test performance
- Multiple performance tests
*Heart rate variability reflects the continuous oscillation of the R-R intervals around its mean value, providing non-invasive data about the autonomic regulation of the heart rate in real-life conditions.
Literature Meeusen R, Duclos M, Gleeson M, et al: Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome. European Journal of Sport Science, 6(1): 1-14, 2006
Mourot L., Bouhaddi M, Preey St, et al: Decrease in heart rate variability with overtraining: assessment by the Poincaré plot analysis. Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, 24: 10-18, 2004
Gleeson M: Immune function in sport and exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 103: 693-699, 2007