Personal trainers may occasionally work with clients who consistently push themselves too hard and too frequently. The ramifications of this habitual body-battering are far-reaching. An athlete or fitness client who does not allow for enough recovery time between workouts may suffer the effects of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS), and as their coach and fitness expert, spotting the signs and educating the client may help them to recover properly and return to homeostasis.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
OTS occurs when an athlete pushes his or her body beyond its naturally ability to recovery, resulting in fatigue and/or failing performance or regression. It can manifest itself in the psychological, physiological, immunological, and biochemical systems.
The effects of overtraining appear to be a product of instability occurring in the nervous system during periods of overtraining, specifically in the sympatho-adrenergic nervous system, responsible for handling stress. Exposing the body to more stress than it can naturally handle, such as that which occurs from overtraining and/or under-recovering, decreases the body’s ability to maintain control over certain somatic processes.
If clients voice concerns about any or many of the following issues, or if you take note of many of these yourself, training protocols may need evaluation or perhaps a deloading week is in order:
- Irritability/mood changes
- Low motivation
- Lack of focus
- Reduced appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased resting heart rate
- Lowered libido
- Lack of progress, or even regression
OTS Recovery Steps
The process of combating and recovering from a serious bout of overtraining/under-recovering is simple enough, but not necessarily easy for athletes who tax their bodies on a regular basis to initiate.
Not surprisingly this tops the list as the most critical action clients can take. Depending upon the severity of the overtraining syndrome, anywhere from 4 or 5 days up to 2 weeks typically provides an adequate start to recovery. Once training has resumed, suggest an every-other-day approach to clients–again simple but not easy for so many. While giving resistance training/running/cycling a much-needed break, complement with activities that are kinder and gentler to the body. Recovery does not mean lay on the couch for two weeks!
Yoga, Pilates, even lower-intensity steady-state cardio like walking can turn a rest period into active recovery while easing stress on the body. During this time, remind your client that overall volume and intensity must be mitigated to allow for adequate muscular and nervous system rebound. Remaining vigilant and mindful of OTS symptoms creeping back helps prevent overexertion, even within the realm of the gentle exercises.
Since OTS compromises both the nervous system and hormonal system (hence the libido issue), the next step toward recovery involves allowing these systems to return to homeostasis. Since the stress hormone cortisol becomes elevated during peak OTS, consuming any stimulants exacerbates the situation and thwarts recovery. Tapering the use of coffee, soda, and tea may help tremendously. Remind clients that caffeine also figures prominently in many bodybuilding and performance-driven supplements, and to check labels. Once training resumes, easing back into these caffeine sources can help prevent a relapse.
The Skinny on Healthy Fats and OTS
An interesting and perhaps little-known fact of biology: our brains are 60% fat. As such, this critical organ and its accompanying nerve cells require an appropriate intake of healthy fats to maintain the membranes around these cells. When overtraining is accompanied by a reduction in healthy fat consumption, the entire nervous system takes a big hit. Keeping in mind the elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, we begin to understand why lack of essential fatty acids during periods of intense overtraining and under-recovery render the body incapable of keeping up.
Choosing a healthy diet during recovery from OTS includes all 3 macronutrients – adequate protein, fats and carbohydrates – but increasing intake of healthy fat sources helps the stress and hormone issue the most.
Hydration, too, becomes a key factor. Muscle tissues without adequate hydration struggle even harder to recover, rendering them much more injury-prone. A friendly reminder to clients about carrying water bottles with them to the gym can go a long way in facilitating this process.
After helping a client on the road to recovery from OTS and revamping his/her workout, a savvy trainer will inquire about the previously-mentioned symptoms. Have they dissipated? Are they still being experienced but perhaps to a lesser degree? Some clients may even surprise you by revealing that they feel much more “back to normal” in the bedroom. With you to thank for picking up on and helping him through OTS, it’s a win-win for both of you.