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Developing Optimal Training Stimulus and Avoiding Overtraining

This is an excerpt from Fitness Professional's Handbook 8th Edition With HKPropel Access by Barbara A. Bushman.

By Barbara A. Bushman

Fitness professionals need to balance sufficient overload for improvement with adequate recovery between workouts to allow for optimal training adaptations. Part of successful training is avoiding excessive overload with inadequate recovery. An intense exercise session or an intense training period may result in acute fatigue and even temporary decreases in performance (22). With appropriate recovery (less intense training or active rest), a positive adaptation can result in improved performance (7, 22) (see figure 16.1).

FIGURE 16.1 Progression from training to overtraining syndrome. Reprinted by permission from B.A. Bushman, “Finding the Balance Between Overload and Recovery,” ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 20, no. 1 (2016): 5-8.
FIGURE 16.1 Progression from training to overtraining syndrome.
Reprinted by permission from B.A. Bushman, “Finding the Balance Between Overload and Recovery,” ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 20, no. 1 (2016): 5-8.

Within the Joint Consensus Statement of the European College of Sports Medicine and ACSM, the term overreaching is defined as “an accumulation of training and/or nontraining stress resulting in short-term decrement in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of maladaptation in which restoration of performance capacity may take from several days to several weeks” (22). Short-term overreaching followed by recovery that leads to improved performance has been referred to as functional overreaching (22); recovery may take days to weeks. However, if the balance between training and recovery is disrupted such that performance suffers for several weeks or months, the term nonfunctional overreaching has been applied. With nonfunctional overreaching, performance will decline, the individual will have decreased vigor and increased fatigue, and hormonal disturbances will occur (22).

The difference between nonfunctional overreaching and overtraining syndrome is not clearly defined. Overtraining syndrome (OTS) has been described as “prolonged maladaptation” regarding the individual’s response to training (biological, neurochemical, and hormonal) (22). Rather than only being a result of excessive training, other factors such as caloric intake, diet composition (protein or carbohydrate intake), sleep quality, and cognitive effort are potentially involved, leading some to suggest paradoxical deconditioning syndrome of the athlete as a more descriptive term to reflect the combination of factors (9). Although research has focused on athletes, others engaging in excessive exercise can experience OTS as well. What constitutes “excessive exercise” is hard to define because many aspects affect an individual’s response to training. Diagnosis of OTS is difficult and typically is a diagnosis of exclusion (10). Other medical conditions that may have similarities to OTS include asthma, anemia, hypothyroidism, immunodeficiency, hypocortisolemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and others (21). Thus, ruling out other causes for decrements in performance is an important step (22). Given that OTS has many potential impacts, combinations of variables have been used in research to monitor for OTS such as hormones, neurotransmitters, metabolites, immunological responses, psychological aspects, and electrocardiographic and electroencephalographic patterns (10). Researchers continue to explore the definitions and methods to study OTS in comparison to functional overreaching and nonfunctional overreaching (32). Although of interest from a research perspective, limited availability of laboratory techniques in training situations along with the lack of a definitive diagnosis present challenges.

As with the individualization needed in program development, each person has a different “tipping point” related to training stress capacity (21). Warning signs include decreased performance even with increased effort and increased perception of effort for the same workout (21). OTS has been compared to an orthopedic injury in its debilitating effects and required time for recovery (22). Thus, focusing on prevention with appropriate periodization within the training program is valuable, as well as attention to other areas, including the following (22):

  • Passive rest: This includes 1 rest day from the training activity each week; this provides opportunity for recovery and may be a helpful mental time-out from a focused training program.
  • Adequate sleep: Due to variation between individuals, sleeping for the amount of time that is required to feel wakeful during the day is recommended rather than prescribing a given number of hours of sleep.
  • Nutrition: Ensure adequate carbohydrate intake, fluid intake, and caloric consumption to meet increased demands of training; also ensure sufficient protein remains in the diet.

Use of training logs and tracking body weight, heart rate (morning or maximal), and sleep, among other aspects, may be of value (21). Morning heart rate may reflect increased catecholamines and increased sympathetic tone and a loss of parasympathetic tone; maximal heart rate also has been used to measure sympathetic and parasympathetic balance (21). Given the variability in responses to training, fitness professionals and coaches need to individualize training programs and maintain accurate records charting performance (19, 22). This will allow for gradual adjustments in training intensity or highlight the need to provide a rest day. The importance of gradual progression, along with the need to individualize training programs given that many factors affect response to a given training load (e.g., age, prior injury, training history, fitness level), cannot be overemphasized (16).

Research in this area has focused on endurance-based training; the potential within strength sports and resistance training has also been examined, although studies have not clearly identified OTS but rather nonfunctional overreaching in which short-term performance loss resolved within days to weeks (5). Caution is still warranted related to extreme conditioning (i.e., high-volume, high-intensity training) and excessive training loads (5), and susceptibility to overtraining is potentially increased with frequent, high-intensity, monotonous resistance training (17). This reinforces the value of periodization within training programs. Fitness professionals should appreciate that overtraining can result from poor programming characterized by frequent high-intensity training sessions without adequate rest and recovery between workouts. From a practical perspective, it is important to consider a person’s training experience and all fitness activities regularly performed. Periodized training, which should include periods of less intense training and active rest, can help individuals avoid overtraining and promote long-term gains in muscular fitness (3, 23). Other resources are available regarding periodization (6, 18, 30).


Key Point

Training programs should be characterized by an appropriate overload and progression combined with planned periods of rest and recovery. Overreaching is often the first stage of the overtraining syndrome, which is characterized by a decrease in performance and other physical and psychological effects. Adequate rest and recovery between workouts, adequate sleep, and proper nutrition can help individuals avoid overtraining syndrome.

More Excerpts From Fitness Professional's Handbook 8th Edition With HKPropel Access