Hitting the wall- overtraining

Have you ever reached a state where in spite of regular training you see your performance starting to decrease? Where instead of climbing you project you’re struggling to climb the stairs? Have you ever found yourself suffering from a complete collapse in your energy and motivation levels?

There is a name for this phenomenon. In fact there may be several names depending who you talk to. Athletes and coaches call this overtraining. Physicians talk about chronic fatigue syndrome which shares a lot of similarities. The core symptoms are fatigue, muscle aching, loss of motivation, reduced immunity and reduced physiological function/performance. If you’ve ever seen the climbing film Wideboyz 2 both guys talk about how run down they were after their trip to climb century crack in 2011. Both were ill for 2 months and Tom Randall got injured. Again.

It used to be thought that overtraining was due to insufficient rest between training sessions not giving tissues time to recover from the micro trauma created by training. The next session then did more damage until the muscles became weaker and injured. There is likely some truth in this but I suspect it is not the whole story. To see the wider picture, and to help us find ways to avoid this scenario you have to look at the body’s hormonal  response to training and other stresses. Now this is beyond the scope of this blog but suffice to say that a key player in this response is cortisol, a hormone made in your adrenal glands. Cortisol is there to allow you to deal with stress. It has a multitude of affects in the body ranging from affecting your blood glucose and blood pressure to your muscle protein metabolism and body fat percentage. It has a role in altering your appetite- if you are under stress and crave chocolate you can (partly) blame this hormone.

To understand overtraining you have to understand 2 things. Firstly, the body does not differentiate between causes of stress. It responds the same way to training for climbing as it does to a 60 hour working week as it does to an infection or emotional trauma. This accounts (along with genetics) for how different people can vary hugely in their susceptibility to overtraining. The athlete undergoing serious training 5 days a week and the weekend warrior with the stressful lifestyle are both applying the same hormonal pressure to their body, just from different triggers. Secondly, this response can not be perpetuated for ever, cortisol was never meant to be a long term measure. When the system is saturated, your can no longer compensate and you get the symptoms of overtraining (i.e. you become decompensated).

There are some excellent articles on overtraining here and here which go into a bit more detail and show how bad this can get. I’ve never heard of anyone actually dying of overtraining but it can make you wish you had! So how do you prevent it? Well, resting and controlling overall stresses are key. I am personally very prone to this as I use exercise to combat my own stress levels but this is a recipe for overtraining unless you get the regime and nutrition spot on.

In the next post we’ll start looking at how you can reduce the likelihood of this happening to you.

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