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Exercising too much leads to overtraining that is harmful to health
As is well known, playing enough sports is one of the most important everyday measures to strengthen health. Not only does physical activity help you get rid of excess pounds, the training also helps to improve condition, strengthen the immune system and generally support body functions positively. However, you can also overdo it with sport. In this case one speaks of overtraining.
What is overtraining?
Over-training means sports doctors a chronic condition of excessive stress on the body. As a result, this reacts with signs of fatigue such as increased risk of injury, a drop in performance and a number of physical symptoms, including headache and sleep disorders.
The complaints mentioned show that overtraining is definitely to be understood as a condition with disease value. However, the precise conceptual definition of this disease state has been very difficult so far, since there are different interpretations of the term "overtraining" and the associated symptoms. In general, however, there seems to be at least agreement that this is a pathological syndrome. This thesis is also supported by the English term "overtraining syndrome" for the acute phase of overtraining. The only "conclusive" classification of overtraining in two different stages comes from the English-speaking world. These are as follows:
- Overreaching or OR - The overload is the result of a long-lasting imbalance between stress and recovery phases, whereby the stress phases predominate. The consequence of this imbalance is an unplanned and mostly unexpected drop in performance, which initially does not lead to any additional symptoms apart from a loss of performance. In a way, overload is the preliminary stage to overtraining.
- Overtraining / Overtraining Syndrome (Overtraining Syndrome or OTS) - Overtraining is also known as overtraining syndrome or staleness for “exhaustion”. It is the result of an untreated overload, with additional complaints in addition to the drop in performance. According to some medical hypotheses, these complaints differ in overtraining primarily from overworking in that they are no longer just performance-related and therefore physical in nature, but can also sometimes lead to psychological and neurological symptoms such as depressive mood disorders or sleep disorders. However, since there is still no generally applicable definition, one is currently restricting the syndrome to overdue according to time guidelines. According to this, there is overtraining if the drop in performance persists for at least two weeks or longer.
Based on the attempt at definition shown, it becomes clear that it is still difficult to precisely characterize overtraining. This is mainly due to the fact that experts have so far not agreed on the path of origin, nor on the causes or symptoms. Some describe possible symptoms as the actual causes of the syndrome. Others, however, do the opposite in their hypothetical explanation. Some also believe that overtraining syndrome or overworking is not a phenomenon that can occur in sports alone, but also when there are imbalances between stressful and relaxing factors in everyday life.
As a result, there is a striking similarity between overtraining and the so-called fatigue syndrome (burnout syndrome), which usually occurs in the case of overwork in the professional area. This is also supported by accompanying psychological symptoms such as depressive moods, headaches and sleep disorders, as well as conceptual synonyms such as being burned out or chronic fatigue, which are already being used for overtraining.
Causes of overtraining
As already mentioned, the causes of the occurrence of overtraining have not yet been finally clarified. However, there are some discussed influencing factors that seem particularly medically plausible. These can be roughly summarized in three categories:
- Training habits,
- Nutrient supply,
- mental health.
Overtraining due to wrong training habits
Above all, an excessive amount of training plays a crucial role in overtraining. An imbalance between stress and recovery phases can arise here in different ways. The design of the training plan is of particular importance:
Training time too long
Overtraining is a complaint that is especially associated with top athletes. For them, sport determines the course of their career, which is why sport professionals naturally aim to improve their sporting performance as quickly as possible. For this purpose, many professional athletes work "overtime" in training. However, if the recovery phases are not adapted to the longer training sessions in the same turn, the risk of a dysbalance between stressful and relaxing factors increases.
Too intense training
Even if top athletes suffer from overtraining relatively often, it is a mistake to believe that beginners cannot face the same fate. Especially at the beginning of an athletic build-up of fitness, many people are very exuberant and believe that positive results can be achieved more quickly thanks to more intensity in training. As a result, weights that are too heavy are lifted, the speed when running is increased too quickly or the body is stressed too quickly and otherwise in another way. An extensive drop in performance due to overwork is usually not long in coming and often ends in the so-called low performance and motivation level of the sporting beginner stage.
Monotonous training processes
Variety is a very important aspect in sports. On the one hand, because muscle building only works if all muscle parts are constantly being challenged. On the other hand, because with harmful monotony in training, the risk of overloading increases. Evidence of this came from a study carried out in the Netherlands in 1994, in which scientists examined the markers for overtraining on racehorses. The researchers came to the conclusion that racehorses who continuously switched between intensive and light training units during training hardly suffered from overtraining, whereas horses with training that was exclusively characterized by intensity showed corresponding symptoms significantly more often.
Wrong training implementation
It's no secret that improper implementation of training processes increases the risk of injury. And a drop in performance is also promoted by such misconduct. In this context, let's look again at sensible recovery phases. Relaxation is not synonymous with a complete movement stop and extensive "sitting exercises" in front of the television or even a feast and snack to the fullest. Rather, the recovery measures should aim to strengthen the body again through healthy eating, moderate exercise and productive relaxation measures such as yoga, stretching exercises or wellness after the training sessions. If this does not happen, the discrepancy between training progress and counterproductive behavior for training is too large and the body will react with a high probability in the form of an overload reaction at the next exercise unit.
Lack of nutrient intake and overtraining
It is needless to say that in addition to the right training behavior, sport also requires the right nutrition. For example, muscle building only works if athletes eat enough protein-rich food. A vitamin-rich diet is also important to provide the body with the necessary energy for training. When it comes to overtraining in particular, according to current research, another completely different nutrient is of particular importance: glycogen.
Glycogen is a special carbohydrate that is popularly known as liver starch. However, this term is more than misleading when you consider that only a third of the body's glycogen is stored in the liver and the remaining two thirds are in the muscles. The muscle's glycogen stores are indispensable, especially for sports training. In this context, competitive athletes even take special diets before competitions in order to increase the storage capacity of their glycogen deposits.
With good reason, because glycogen is used to produce the energy source adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for muscle work. On the one hand, this is needed by the body to maintain muscle functions - above all, the ability of the muscles to contract, without which muscle building is impossible, cannot do without ATP. On the other hand, an increased ATP supply also ensures longer stamina when exercising, which creates better conditions for top athletic performance in the competition phase.
As early as 1998, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwauke found that the glycogen-dependent performance factors also play a role in the development of overtraining. Accordingly, a low glycogen level in the muscles inevitably leads to exhaustion. According to the study results, intensive training units, in which a particularly large amount of liver starch is consumed, additionally promote reduced glycogen availability, since the depots are exhausted faster than average. An inadequate supply of glycogen via the diet also has a negative effect on the storage capacities of the glycogen depots.
The body can compensate for such nutrient deficits for a short period of time. However, if you exceed the limits set by your own body in the long term during training, the organism makes this clear with various warning signals, such as sore muscles or muscle weakness. If the corresponding signs go unnoticed, the muscles may become overloaded or overtrained, as well as a sustained decline in performance during sport.
Overtraining due to poor mental health
One aspect that repeatedly causes discussions about the development of overtraining is psychological symptoms. Some experts speculate that the mental state of those affected already plays a decisive role in the development phase of overtraining syndrome. Others explain the syndrome's psychological symptoms by the fact that the continuing lack of nutrients associated with overtraining disrupts the body's metabolism in such a way that it also affects the production of mood-influencing hormones such as serotonin.
The truth may be somewhere in between. After all, complications such as unhealthy exercise behavior in the form of exaggerated stress can only occur if there is a misjudgment of one's own performance. Especially with extreme and top athletes, it is often a fine line between healthy performance improvement and a real delusion to improve yourself and to constantly outperform others. In many cases, this extreme behavior is based on dangerous compensation dynamics, for example to compensate for a lack of self-confidence, self-confidence or an inferiority complex through sporting success. There are also other psychological factors that promote an unhealthy use of sporting performance as a means of compensation. These include, for example:
- Stress at work,
- psychological trauma,
- Dependence on addictive substances (in sports especially anabolic steroids),
- Eating disorder.
How do you recognize overtraining?
Since the treatment of overtraining can sometimes be very difficult, it is advisable to prevent a serious course of the disease by taking early countermeasures. For this it is of course imperative to recognize the first signs of a possible overload in a timely manner. The following are conceivable:
- Fatigue and tiredness,
- unusually long sore muscles,
- increased susceptibility to injury,
- High blood pressure,
- sudden drop in performance during training,
- lack of motivation for training,
- Condition and concentration problems.
If athletes ignore these first warning signals from the body and train them to the usual extent or even beyond, the path from an initial overload to complete overtraining is unfortunately quickly cleared. At this pronounced stage, other serious symptoms may also appear, such as:
- permanent fatigue
- Listlessness and listlessness in all areas of life
- sleep disorders
- a headache
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle pain and muscle wasting,
- Ligament and tendon problems,
- Cardiovascular problems,
- increased resting and stress pulse,
- depressive moods,
- Immunodeficiency and increased risk of infection.
Consequences of overtraining - a vicious cycle
The consequences of overtraining are very broad and do not only relate to athletic performance. In addition to setbacks in training, the condition also affects other areas of life.
Consequences in training
First and foremost, overtraining leads to an unwanted drop in performance in athletic “performance”. The athlete no longer manages to perform as usual or has to work harder to achieve the usual results. As a result, many affected people incorrectly try to further increase the training intensity. In despair, some even resort to anabolic steroids. However, this only affects muscle activity even more, since the muscles are not yet ready for a new training impulse, let alone be able to withstand the influence of performance-enhancing drugs.
This mechanism of misinterpretation and incorrect reaction inevitably results in a vicious circle with constantly worsening symptoms. The persistent tiredness and exhaustion also leads to training sessions being carried out improperly because the concentration suffers. This further increases the risk of injury and can even end up in the hospital due to serious sports accidents.
Consequences on the body
Through permanent training - in the worst case also through the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs - the body is inevitably put in a permanent state of negative stress (so-called distress) during overtraining. In addition to the higher susceptibility to injury described above, this also reduces the body's own defense mechanisms.
As a result, pathogens can no longer be combated as usual by the immune system and the susceptibility to infections increases. Since the immune system also remains on permanent alert due to the constant stress, the risk of developing autoimmune diseases such as an allergy also increases. Foreign substances that did not matter to the body in the past are suddenly recognized as intruders by the stress-plagued and thus hypersensitive immune system and are combated accordingly with excessive reactions.
In addition, the constant stress also provokes disorders in the hormonal balance. Because with stress, the stress hormone cortisol is increasingly released in the body. A not entirely harmless hormone, which in excess can massively affect the hormonal balance of the body. For example, an elevated cortisol level leads to a decrease in the male sex hormone testosterone.
The hormone not only has a regulating effect on muscle building and body fat percentage, but also on the psyche, motivation, libido and the immune system. It is no wonder that over-trained people suffer from susceptibility to infections, muscle breakdown, loss of libido and depression. Incidentally, hormonal disorders are exacerbated when those affected use doping agents such as anabolic steroids. These consist of artificial steroid hormones, the effects of which on the hormone balance can hardly be controlled.
Consequences in other areas of life
As shown, the perception of the drop in performance in training often means that affected athletes focus even more on their athletic performance without achieving the desired performance. This can also have an impact on professional life, because side effects such as lack of concentration and the general feeling of being tired also cause an increased source of errors in the field of work in the later course of the syndrome. In addition, the drop in performance is of course noticeable in professional challenges.
Warning: In the worst case, athletic overtraining is followed by a professional burnout syndrome.
Overtraining and the associated psychological dimension also have negative consequences for private life. The mere fact that the attention of those affected almost only revolves around their own athletic performance sooner or later creates tensions between those affected and their social environment. Partners feel neglected, appointments with friends can no longer be kept, and the enthusiasm for social interactions also decreases with athletic performance.
Treatment of overtraining
Overtraining cannot be treated with a regular tablet. Sports physicians are also hesitant, if at all, to recommend the use of dietary supplements, antidepressants or hormone preparations, since the preparations do not treat the cause, but only the symptoms. It is therefore much more important to awaken sensitivity to the causal factors in those affected. They have to realize that they have an unhealthy relationship with sport and are doing their training completely wrong.
The first measure is therefore to take a break from training to reflect on yourself, even if it is difficult. You should take the time and make it clear what is better - a short training break to give the body the necessary rest or a break of several months due to injury to get the body back into motion at all.
During a break from training, it is then advisable to work specifically with a sports doctor, if not a specialist therapist from the field of behavioral psychology, in order to jointly determine further measures. The training break should be based on the degree of overtraining and can last from a few days to a month or two.
In some cases, for example in the preparation phase for a competition, it is advisable not to cancel the training completely, but to reduce the amount and intensity of the training very clearly.
Once you have decided to take a break from training, there are further steps to be taken to improve your own training and everyday behavior. The most important points are:
- Change of training plan with sufficient rest phases and optimal balance between training impulse and regeneration,
- harmonize the training plan with everyday and social requirements,
- Give family, friends and work more priority,
- adequate sleep phases in good quality (at least 6 hours of sleep) and no training shortly before bed,
- improve your body awareness and self-awareness or train your body, its needs and warning signals,
- use good and high quality nutrient sources,
- Glycose, protein and vitamin-rich food, i.e. eat lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meat and fish
- Don't forget to enjoy yourself and treat yourself from time to time - important so that you don't fall into a training frenzy.
Prevention against overtraining
As mentioned earlier, overtraining is better than cure. The body actually sends appropriate warning signals early enough to show the athlete that it is too much of a good thing. Sore muscles, for example, are not necessarily a good sign of effective muscle building. If it lasts longer than two days, this is more a sign of a damaged muscle that urgently needs regeneration.
And even if you have to force yourself to fulfill your training plan and are no longer happy to be there, it is an unmistakable sign with the fence post that a training break is urgently required. Because training goals in all honor, but sport should always be fun.
In order to avoid overtraining and the associated, sometimes serious consequences, it is important to react to the initial warning signals of the body and to check its training volume and the current regeneration phases. Incidentally, you can also provide physical regeneration and still do something for the body. Stretching and meditation sports such as yoga are a very pleasant alternative.
Nutrition is also an important factor for a good balance between training and regeneration. Regardless of whether fat loss or muscle building is the goal of physical activity, the body needs a certain amount of energy to be able to achieve the desired performance at all in the gym or on the running track. In view of the nutrients that are so important for athletes, it is advisable to rely on the following foods:
- Fruits and vegetables: Athletes can finally get their heart's content when it comes to plant-based foods, which unfortunately unfortunately often fails to work out as part of a training-promoting diet. In order to stimulate good digestion and to use the plant nutrients as efficiently as possible, it makes sense to always pre-cook hard vegetables so that the gastrointestinal tract is easier to digest. Fruit should also only be consumed when it is ripe, since vitamins and the like could only be fully developed after ripening.
- Lean milk, fish and meat products: milk, fish and meat contain both proteins and glycogen. For this reason, these food groups are very important nutrient sources for athletes. However, a distinction must be made here between high-fat and low-fat products. Foods such as low-fat curd cheese, cottage cheese, turkey, poultry or salmon are therefore clearly preferable to substantial products such as Gouda or pork belly. In the area of meat products, it is also a good tip to rely on muscle meat and animal liver in order to optimize the glycogen intake.
- Sufficient drinking: Since there is always an increased loss of fluids during sports training, athletes in particular have to pay particular attention to an adequate intake of fluids. So the motto is drink a lot. However, it should also be the right drink. Eating only energy and sports drinks is definitely the wrong approach here. Instead, mineral water, teas, spritzers, fresh smoothies and fruit juices are the order of the day, with unsweetened drink variants should clearly predominate.
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Vogel, Roger: Overtraining: Definitions, etiological hypotheses, current trends and methodological limits, Swiss Journal of Sports Medicine and Sports Traumatology, 2001, sgsm.ch
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- Kreher, Jeffrey B. / Schwartz, Jennifer B .: Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide, Sports Health, 2012, journals.sagepub.com
- American College of Sport Medicine: Extreme Conditioning Programs (accessed: July 10, 2019), acsm.org
- Carfagno, David G. / Hendrix, Joshua C .: Overtraining Syndrome in the Athlete: Current Clinical Practice, Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2014, journals.lww.com