Overtraining manifests itself in total exhaustion and a drop in learning ability

Training in cycling : Overtraining – When nothing works anymore

Some athletes know this condition. Suddenly, nothing works. One recovers more and more badly from stress and it seems as if the training does not bring any more success. On the contrary – you get worse, despite the training. Is that overtraining then? What is overtraining anyway? Is the term clearly defined and can it be clearly diagnosed – if it has come to that? And if so, what helps in such a situation?

Sports training is always based on the principle of stressing the body with subsequent regeneration. During recovery (regeneration), the previously stressed systems are strengthened and improved (supercompensation). They will then not be so easily overloaded the next time they are used. This principle, consisting of load-regeneration-supercompensation, is widely used in sports. These adaptations are still being researched in detail, because which training stimulus leads to which adaptation and why is not yet known in detail. The training theory here is still largely based on the experience of the trainer. The training principle of periodization is based on this and training schemes, theories and applications use this effect to enable the athlete to improve performance.

However, if stress and regeneration are not in balance and adaptation cannot occur, overreaching occurs. The overload in itself is not a catastrophe, it can be overcome relatively quickly, if recognized, by a rest period of several days followed by a calm training build-up. As a rule, it takes 7-10 days until you have recovered. Exactly this overload, however, also represents a springboard for the overtraining syndrome mentioned above.

But what exactly is it? Unfortunately, the definition and diagnosis of overtraining syndrome is far less clear and unambiguous than athletes, coaches, doctors and scientists would like. It is most comparable to the “Burn-Out Syndrome” which, according to the ICD (International Classification of Diseases), has been given the equally unhelpful definition as a “state of total exhaustion”. So what constitutes overtraining syndrome, how does it develop, and most importantly, how do you get out of it?

The overtraining syndrome

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Overtraining can also be caused by stress

The above-mentioned “state of total exhaustion” in the overtraining syndrome, unlike some might expect, is not mainly physiological, i.e. physical, factors but is also very much based on psychological, i.e. mental, influences. The athlete must be considered holistically. Physical performance and stress have a great influence on psychological factors and vice versa.

Regeneration is the key

Thus, physical performance alone should not be the sole consideration when planning training and the season. Other influencing factors such as psychological stress, time pressure, social stress and family problems also play a major role. They all influence the regeneration of the athlete. Unfortunately, it is not just a matter of refilling the carbohydrate stores after training and making sure that sufficient amino acids, vitamins and trace elements are taken in. In any case, you should also take the time to recover mentally. A good example of this is the day of rest. It’s often the case that you work longer on the rest day, get things done and such, in order to be able to train a bit more the rest of the week. In principle this is not a bad tactic to “create” training time, but unfortunately the “rest day” was not very relaxing. This alone can lead to a reduced overall performance capacity. In sports and also at work.

This brings us to a crucial difference between professionals and amateurs. Professional cyclists have much more time for training, mental and physical regeneration and can escape to warmer climes for training more often than working people. They do the sport as a hobby and have to struggle to get a few hours a week to do it. Just being able to fully concentrate on training and regeneration, or not, makes a big difference in physical performance. In practice, this means that you alone cannot train like a professional because you do not have enough time to recover physically and your head is not free enough to relax optimally.

And this is exactly the reason why overtraining is not something that can only be “achieved” with inhuman training volumes and intensities, it can affect anyone if load and regeneration are not in balance.

An example

We’re having a cold winter by our standards, I don’t think there’s any denying that. This, of course, makes training more difficult. Large volumes and intensities are often not possible. “But luckily, it’s off to training camp in a few weeks, so you can finally get some real practice in.” Our example of an ambitious athlete who lives in cold Germany and manages to do 8-10 hours of cycling training a week in 2-3 hour sessions is based precisely on this thought experiment. In training camp, he heaves himself up for sessions lasting 4-6.5 hours at a time. A training stimulus he can’t regenerate.

An overload occurs. To a certain extent, this is also desired in order to set the training stimulus. But it can also be too much. With proper regeneration, however, even such a shorter overload can be compensated for after the 7-10 days mentioned. In such a case, the right training setup afterwards is very important.

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In the second example, the athlete does not immediately recover from his overload due to stress and illness. After overcoming an infection, he feels he has to make up for lost training time and slips further and further into overtraining syndrome. Due to the subsequent drop in performance, he puts himself under further and even more pressure, tries to train more and neglects his regeneration phase even more. The set training stimulus can now no longer be implemented by the body and only leads to further overload and fatigue. In such a phase, one thing leads to another. Psychological work stress further reduces performance and hinders regeneration. At this stage, a two-week break from training is no longer sufficient to regenerate the overload, especially as the daily work routine does not allow for optimal recovery. We are already spinning on the hamster wheel of overtraining syndrome.

Symptoms and signs of overtraining syndrome

Individual signs of overtraining are usually relatively easy to detect, but are not significant enough in themselves to make a diagnosis. This is illustrated by the characteristics listed in Table 2.

Taken individually, they can almost all be the result of a single high load, but only in combination do they allow the diagnosis of overtraining. Especially the listed blood values can be relatively inconspicuous. A latent long-lasting overload often does not have to lead to strongly conspicuous blood values. Furthermore, stress tests and performance diagnostics often show a reduced maximum power, an impairment of speed and anaerobic short-time performance as well as reduced lactate values at the stress levels.

Considerably more valid indications of an incipient or latent overtraining can be determined by regular monitoring of the personal condition. For this purpose, it is advisable to use a special questionnaire that records psychological factors related to stress and overload (e.g. POMS by Mc Nair or EBF-81 Sport by Kallus). This allows a very accurate determination of mood swings and a general deterioration in mood, which correlates strongly with a state of overload. Thus, in the event of a probable overload condition, rest and regeneration measures can prevent an overtraining syndrome.

Table 1: Stress factors and components of recovery.

Factors influencing the workload (stressor)Recovery/Regeneration
Physiological stressorsPhysiological regeneration
Sleep Deprivation
Unbalanced diet
Nutrition (carbohydrate stores, amino acids, vitamins, trace elements)
Stretching programs
Compensation Training
Psychological stressorsPsychological regeneration
Occupational stress
Social stress / private conflicts
Emotional stress / loss situations
“Do nothing for a change”
Relaxation exercises (autogenic training etc.)
Clear objectives, check them and draw a conclusion
Reflection and adaptation of the life situation to possibilities / needs (target/actual comparison)

Table 2: Symptoms of an overtraining syndrome

General signs:

  • Power drop
  • Decreased resilience/lack of strength
  • Rapid fatigue
  • Emotional instability
  • Decrease in morning resting heart rate
  • Pulses at the same load level decrease => This is often misleading, as it is assumed to be a positive adaptation to the training.
  • The maximum pulse can no longer be reached
  • Increased susceptibility to infections
  • Respiratory quotient decreases (with low carbohydrate content in the diet, the respiratory quotient decreases, i.e. a lot of O2 is needed to metabolise amino acids and fats)

Possible abnormal blood work:

  • Free testosterone decreases
  • Urea increases
  • Serum creatine kinase increases (CK value)
  • IGF (growth hormone) decreases
  • KMF
  • Cortisol increases
  • Serum ferritin and serum iron decrease
  • Lymphocyte count decreases
  • Limited lactate formation

Text for Table 2:

All of these signs/symptoms can be present in overtraining syndrome, but the blood values in particular do not have to show abnormal values and do not provide enough evidence on their own to make a definite diagnosis. Only the overall picture of physical and psychological factors allows the conclusion that it is an overtraining syndrome.When the child has fallen into the well: How do I get out of the crisis?

If it is a real overtraining condition, then only a longer break from training will help. After that, it is important to create a stable system again through a calm and targeted rebuilding. Particular attention should be paid to the documentation of the training. In addition to the pure training data such as kilometres travelled and times in the training areas, factors should also be recorded that document how you feel. These can be, for example, the “sleep behavior” and the “general condition”. This is of course always useful and should also be used by athletes who have not been overtraining to avoid such a situation.

Overall, a good training control and analysis of the training by an experienced trainer should be used to achieve a targeted training build-up. The athlete should “listen” to his body sensitively and give the coach good feedback if possible. This way, you can purposefully rebuild after such a crisis or even prevent it from happening in the first place.

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