My introduction to overtraining/overtaxing/CNS fatigue:
People would throw around the word overtraining all the time...
"Oh, don't take on too much too fast, you might risk overtraining,"
"You work out a lot, are you ever worried you're overtraining?"
"I had to take a break from working out, after I went to hard and was overtraining."
I never worried about it, and thought it was garbage for the average fitness enthusiast. And then, it happened to me. [dum dum DUM!]. It wasn’t extreme, I was just more-so surprised as to how off my body felt after a week of overtraining (or whatever the equivalent was to my body at the time). To give you an idea, here's what happened leading up to my cerebral freak out:
I was working out in my 60 minute Crossfit class anywhere between 3 - 5 times a week consistently for upwards of 5 weeks (this was normal for me).
The Crossfit Open was coming up, so I thought, "well I better up my game a little bit", and I started adding 1 to 2 supplementary 1.5 hour workouts at a separate gym, mostly incorporating accessory upper body work, some olympic lifts, and cardio.
Then the Crossfit Open 17.1 workout came along, and though it wasn't overly challenging (I did the scaled version for the dumbbell power snatch and over the box burpees workout), and the next day the "overtraining" caught up with me.
Here's what happened next:
Day 1 post workout: My back and upper body were so sore and stiff, I stayed on the couch all day alternating hot and cold packs.
Day 2: The soreness felt as though it spread to my entire body and I still couldn't workout.
Day 3: Still super sore, couldn't workout and I thought I was getting the flu. That's when I said to my friend Krista: "Man I feel like I'm getting the flu" and she said "Your CNS is probably shot from 17.1" And I was like "Say whaaaat?"
This is where I discovered after a super tough workout (or a series of them), your central nervous system (CNS) can take a beating to the extent where your entire body aches and gives you symptoms of having the flu. This was a light bulb moment.
Day 4 - 7: I finally felt better to do a workout. Stretching and a long warm up helped loosen up my muscles, though I still didn't feel 100% when 17.2 came around.
So given my surprise with my bod, I went into research mode. And while I maintain the primary shock to my system was the workout from 17.1 (even though it was super awesome and fun), it was a shock to my CNS. And that's what had been missing from my understanding of overtraining. It's not just ‘overworking’ or a little extra fatigue.. its that your central nervous system freaks out as a way to say "back off for a few days! Geez!". Therefore, I’m here today to give you the rundown of what overtraining means, why it can be risky for your CNS, and how to deal.
What is overtraining?
Overtraining happens when you kick so much ass in the gym, but may not be balancing out your recovery - Your body literally can't keep up/recover, and your performance may end up suffering. Of course, the textbook definition is a "physiological state caused by excess accumulation of physical, psychological, emotional, and chemical stress". This can be brought on by suddenly altering your frequency, intensity or duration of training. You may start to feel muscle/joint tiredness, stiffness, disrupted sleep patterns, decreased appetite, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, fatigue/feelings of lethargy, and decreased strength.
Overtraining and the 'Workout Hangover'
If you put too much stress on your central nervous system (CNS), you might get a 'workout hangover' - a term coined by professional bodybuilding coach Paul Carter - meaning you can lack focus, energy, motivation, headache, etc. You might also be impacting your system by constantly releasing cortisol and exerting your adrenal glands. While cortisol is good in that in gives us energy during our workouts, if production remains too high post-workout it can lower testosterone. This might then lead to inhibiting your ability to build muscle, burn fat and maintain a normal libido. These feelings will be amplified if you have other stuff going on in your day-to-day life that take a toll on your mental state i.e. job/relationship/money drama.
Things that push your CNS to the max
Overtraining, workout hangovers or overtaxing your CNS are most likely to come from high stress training environments, constantly attempting big lifts, heavy weights and new PRs. Strength and conditioning coach, Christian Thibaudeau also states that doing more than 4 reps above your 90% exertion level in big lifts and doing more than 6 sets to failure in a workout push the nervous system too hard and doing these on a regular basis can lead to periods of stagnation and/or regression. Strongman competitor Brian Alsruhe also talks about kinds of workouts that are super hard on your CNS including yoke walks and heavy deadlifts, explaining that this super heavy weight for high reps can “work your soul, so your happiness gets sore”. (Thats be the best quote ever. And 100% accurate). He explains when you tax your CNS in this way, it’s not just one muscle group that gets sore, it’s your entire body, so you feel like you have the flu. And that sucks. How can you expect to get your summer bod when you have perma-flu?
Overtraining and the common-folk
Let’s be real; overtraining, as it pertains via the textbook definition is rare and more common among higher level athletes. However, this doesn’t mean you may not be experiencing some aspect of it, even if it is just overtaxing or a workout hangover. I maintain this is what happens to me. That being said, it’s important to know how to balance your workouts, especially those centered around big/heavy lifts, workouts that focus around big end-date goals (such as competitions), and how to recover if you start to feel the symptoms
How to avoid overtraining/overtaxing/workout hangovers
1. Don't change too much too fast.
Keep proper programming in mind while being conscious of your training load, performance measures (such as PRs), mood, and sleep. If you know you have a goal, competition or specific event coming up in the near future, be practical with your training plan, and don’t jump into things like daily PR attempts for weeks on end, two-a-days, or an extreme shift in reps and sets. Plan ahead, take care of your body, and ensure adequate recovery.
2. Respect recovery, rest days, and sleep.
Training is defined not only by the work you do, but by the recovery you give yourself. This includes a proper cool down, stretch, foam rolling etc. This can also include next level recovery like massages, ice baths, chiropractic treatments, what have you. If these types of recovery are a form of respect to your physical body, then rest days and sleep are a form of respect to your mental state. Only when you allow your body sufficient time to recover, rest and recharge, will you be able to get the most out of it, offset injuries and stress, and reach your goals the most efficient way possible. You don’t expect your cell phone to work all day when you only charge it for 20 minutes, so you can’t expect the same from your body.
3. Don't let your ego get in the way.
You’ll only be able to achieve the two previous tips if you’re not able to put your ego to the side and recognize that you’re only human and your body deserves rest too. To read more about our views on this, read one of our previous blogs ‘Fitness and The Ego’.
4. Build your workout and program properly.
Above all make sure you have a solid workout as part of a comprehensive training program. This includes proper warm up, strength training, accessory work, and stretching. Here's a great guide from our friends at Sports Fitness Advisor on how to build the perfect workout.
If you need help with long-term programming, think about hiring a trainer or a coach to ensure your workouts make sense in the long term to help you reach your goals without the risk of overtraining or overexertion.
For further information and hypotheses relating to overtraining, check out these resources:
Kreher, J.B., Schwartz, J.B. 2012. Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health, 4(2):128-138. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3435910/