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Overtraining syndrome, known as OTS, is far too common in the world today. Young and inexperienced trainers, with an impassioned zeal to help people, can fall prey to pushing the vulnerable client too far.

Additionally, persons can believe erroneously that the old adage is true – “no pain, no gain.” However, it is critically important to understand that we can be pushed too far as well as push ourselves too hard. This can facilitate OTS.

What is OTS?

OTS is very similar to other overstressed conditions such as adrenal fatigue or exhaustion, chronic fatigue, depressed immune system, and hormone dysfunction. OTS can also result in nutritional and dietary deficiencies with poor digestion and lifestyle habits.

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While there is no agreed-upon standard definition of overtraining, it can be characterized as diminished performance resulting from too much training volume and/or intensity.

The most common symptoms of overtraining syndrome include injury, fatigue, moodiness, recurrent sickness and infections, and negative performance issues. Negative performance can be seen not just the gym, but also in the workplace.

Are you overtraining?

When conducting a personal assessment as to whether you have fallen victim to OTS, it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I am improving in the gym?
  2. Am I chronically injured or in pain?
  3. Is my body composition changing in a negative way (am I putting on fat and losing muscle)?
  4. Am I more stressed lately?

It is important to note that overtraining can actually begin with a slight improvement in performance. For example, you have a great wave of success in the gym where your strength seems to increase and/or your times got better.

This can give you a false sense of confidence that if you push harder, perhaps more is attainable. There is a very fine line between pushing it a bit harder and pushing too hard. Know this line.

OTS causes undue stress on your nervous system.

One of the first noticeable symptoms of OTS is the undue stress placed on the sympathetic nervous system. This is reflected typically with restlessness, increased resting heart rate, and clear regression in exercise performance. These symptoms can progress into adrenal dysfunction.

As it occurs, an imbalance is created between cortisol and DHEA – there is too much cortisol and too little DHEA. DHEA, is a precursor in the hormonal pathway of testosterone. This is where it is important to understand the proper cortisol and DHEA ratio. Generally speaking hypercortisolism can have a catabolic effect on the system, which can lead to muscle degradation and exhaustion.

When this imbalance occurs, lower testosterone levels can result.

These now lowered testosterone levels can create significant problems for athletes with muscle recovery. Consuming supplemental DHEA is not the simple answer. This is because DHEA may provide temporary relief of some of the symptoms, but will not solve the problem. As a matter fact if the temporary symptoms are relieved, more OTS may occur resulting in more difficulty of correction.

It is at this point, if correction is not made, that the parasympathetic nervous system takes a beating. Now, you can have a reduced desire to exercise as well as a decreased resting heart rate. This now lowered resting heart rate can also be a trap in that you may actually believe that aerobic fitness is improving.

Depression is also common at this time. Neurotransmitter dysfunction can sometimes follow with imbalances in dopamine, catecholamines, GABA, serotonin, etc. Dysfunction here can lead to increased anxiety, fatigue, cravings, low libido, mood instability, and lack of focus.

For women, menstrual dysfunction is commonly associated with OTS. Menstrual abnormalities such as amenorrhea (absence of a menstrual cycle) or oligomenorrhea (a cycle delayed up to 90 days).

So how do we prevent and even correct OTS?

Initially, it is wise to conduct frequent and honest assessments in regard to the aforementioned symptoms and conditions. If OTS is likely, here are some guiding principles for correction:

  1. Cut down the amount of high-intensity exercise. This can be easily accomplished by observing the generally accepted anaerobic heart rate threshold: 180 minus age equals the number of heartbeats per minute that represents the cut off. If the heart rate is above this, it would be characterized as high intensity and anaerobic, and if the heart rate is below this it would be characterized as endurance and aerobic.
  2. The reduction in high intensity exercises should be more than 50% weekly. It is wise to keep this reduction in place for at least 1 to 2 months.
  3. Conduct more walking. This may sound simple and ineffective, however, walking is one of the greatest forms of exercise known to mankind. Not only does it stimulate circulatory health, but it can also provide a wonderful distressing mechanism.

Anyone that has spent any time around the gym can be susceptible to overtraining syndrome. It is very serious in that chronic OTS can lead to debilitating and long lasting negative health conditions.

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A Special Word to Trainers

If you are a trainer and reading this article, use these principles to properly assess your clients. Additionally, be extra cautious and vigilant when leading group sessions. Do not let the adrenaline of the group lead the group. You lead the group and be wise as to the ability and condition of each person.