Overtraining Or Under-Recovering

A common expression among various fitness circles is “there’s no such thing as overtraining, just under-recovering”. Regardless of your stance on the topic of overtraining it warrants further discussion.

For instance, an individual may experience all the symptoms of overtraining but simply not be getting sufficient sleep to support their recovery. Once sleep is corrected, their performance will return to normal and they can continue making progress. However, it’s also clear that there is a limit to how much training you can physically recover from. And no amount of sleep or nutritional support can make up for this once it reaches past a certain threshold.

Thanks to Daniel DeBrocke for writing this great article. For more info on optimizing your recovery, download his recovery strategies eBook by joining his newsletter.

Overtraining and Nutrition

A paper by Stellingwerff and colleagues aimed to highlight that the symptoms of overtraining syndrome can be brought on by low carbohydrate and energy availability and not simply just excessive volume load (1). Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) has been defined as the result of insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure. Consequences of this low-energy condition can alter many physiological systems, including metabolism, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and cardiovascular and psychological health” (2).

Whale symptoms of RED-S have significant overlap with overtraining syndrome; there are distinct differences between the two.

For instance an individual requires a certain amount of training volume to stimulate a positive adaptive response. If however, the individual in question is chronically underfed they may not even be capable of recovering from a maintenance training volume insufficient to even induce positive adaptations in the system. And although they may experience overtraining symptoms, it’s clear that the volume load is not the driving force behind these symptoms.

In Stellingwerff’s paper the researchers found “We have presented evidence to suggest that decreased EA [energy availability] and CHO availability may actually be a confounding factor in a significant number of training-overload/OTS [overtraining syndrome] studies (Table 2), resulting in misdiagnoses of training-overload/ OTS, instead of LEA [low energy availability] leading to RED-S” (1).

The main takeaways from this article are as follows:

  1. Progressive overload is a prerequisite to athletic development. Insufficient recovery can lead to the accumulation of fatigue faster than the body can adapt. Thereby stunting performance and subsequent progress. If left unchecked this can lead to overreaching and potentially overtraining. It is therefore critical to ensure sufficient energy and macronutrient intake to promote recovery.
  2. Overtraining syndrome is distinct from RED-S. Each one must be clearly delineated in order to determine the specific cause of the reduction in training performance, or to prevent blunted performance from occurring. Most of the overtraining syndrome literature has not accounted for RED-S as a confounding variable and risks inaccurately attributing the phenomena to training volume load rather than insufficient carbohydrate and energy availability.
  3. Overtraining syndrome exists, however there is no objective marker for what training volume load is ubiquitously appropriate and must therefore be individually prescribed and monitored. Optimizing training performance is therefore influenced by several variables, including proper nutritional requirements and correct allocation of training volume. Failing to dose training and nutrition appropriately may lead to symptoms of overtraining, regardless of whether or not the athlete actually has full blown overtraining syndrome.