Overtraining and Nutrition

By Dark Horse Performance Director of Performance Nutrition: Lindsey Guard

It is easy as an athlete to fall into the deceptive pattern of long, strenuous and consistent training with little regard for recovery. We commonly attribute success in sport to hard workouts and lots of them. Now, this isn’t exclusively wrong, but for proper adaptation to more, longer, strenuous and difficult workouts, it is important to consider how you are spending your time recovering outside of those hours training. In other words, It is not possible to achieve success in your training without proper recovery. Let’s further consider some of the most significant factors that make up the aspect of recovery.

What is Recovery?:
Recovery can consist of a multitude of facets; sleep, hydration, social, spiritual, and nutritional fulfilment are some of the most important aspects of recovery that combat stress. To achieve the greatest success in training, I have found that of these facets, rest and nutrition are two of the most significant aspects that can help someone recover quicker in order to be ready to train sooner (because that is essentially what we all are looking for, right?).

What you support your body with nutritionally will unquestionably influence your performance in the gym. Most of us understand this on an energetic level (energy in and energy out ratios) but some of us seldom consider the quality, quantity and timing of our nutrition enough to influence our recovery.

If you are an athlete that experiences deep fatigue, a lack of rest upon waking, an inability to complete what use to be “easier” workouts, you may be only playing lip service or flirting with the idea of recovery for the amount of training your putting your body through. If fatigue haunts you throughout the day for more than just a few days, you may want to continue reading to learn about “overtraining” and how to mitigate this situation.

What is effective training with recovery?
Effective training is a carefully balanced portion of stress and rest. When you can achieve this sense of “well-being”, your fitness can improve at a steady rate. An imbalance of rest and stress (training) can either lead to a loss in fitness (greater rest vs stress) or ineffective training (greater stress vs rest). You may have experienced a loss of fitness if you have ever been injured or sick and unable to work out. When stress barely exceeds rest for a few days, the body adapts and becomes more fit. This is the purpose of training. We train in an excess (intensity, volume, etc) and allow the body to rest (through different recovery modalities) in order to achieve a greater level of fitness. You may be thinking “that sounds like a lot of work to have a calculated amount of stress to a calculated amount of rest.” You are right. It is, and it should be. It is certainly something to consider as your continue to pursue your athleticism.

In this equilibrium of stress and rest, muscles grow stronger, enzymes become more abundant, the heart increases its ability to pump blood, and other generative physiological and psychological adaptations occur. This is our ultimate goal as athletes, to create a more efficient body.

What is overtraining?
When we are “overtrained” for more than a few days, the athlete’s ability to achieve these physiological and psychological adaptations is greatly compromised. Therefore, the athlete will experience unrelenting fatigue, exhaustion and frustration.

Overtraining isn’t always as simple as a “training vs. rest” equation. There are multiple other factors of your non-athletic life (relationships, work, school etc.) that can contribute to overtraining as well. The body will experience much of the same consequences of overtraining if you are “over-living” as well, which is why it is important to consider your priorities and goals and to ensure your lifestyle and environment match up with your goals.

Regardless, as an athlete, you must experience fatigue, you must push yourself to limits and you must experience a rather provocative relationship with overtraining in order to adapt to be better. There is most definitely a difference between overtraining and overreaching. The later being the process flirting with the line of overtraining just enough to cause your body to simply be better. The greatest difference between overreaching and overtraining is that recovery from overreaching can be achieved in a few days rest (or regularly implemented rest) within your week. Overtraining is much more critical and requires much more time in order to recover.

Symptoms of Overtraining:

Physiological
Decreased performance
Decreased strength
Decreased max work capacity
Changes in heart rate (high or low)
Insomnia
Loss of appetite
Increased aches and pains
Chronic fatigue

Psychological
Depression
Apathy
Decreased self-esteem
Emotional Instability
Difficulty concentrating
Irritability

Diet and Overtraining
When reaching spirals to overtraining, it often is at the result of poor diet. Often, athletes who train at such high intensities will experience a significant decrease in appetite. In result, the athlete will not only under-fuel, but also miss out on some optimal timing windows for adequate post-workout nutrition. Other times, athletes (especially women) restrict calories in an attempt to achieve physical standards of athleticism. As you may have already experienced, patterns quickly become deeply ingrained habits as an athlete, and this leads to lackluster training and inadequate recovery. Another issue regarding nutrition and training is the lack of regard for the types of foods we are fueling with. This often leads to a piss-poor macronutrient profile. Though some athletes may be hitting macros, they are doing so by supplementing with Chik-Fil-A and processed and prepackaged foods with little micronutrient value.

Carbohydrates and recovery:

There is a quote “fat burns in a carbohydrate flame.” When we do not have proper glycogen stores (supplemented from carbohydrate consumption) the body can no longer efficiently use fat or glycogen for fuel, and turns to the utilization of protein which is ineffeficient and metabolically-expensive for the body. Cue the heavy fatigue, rapidly decreasing pace, and the beginnings of over training. Failure to maintain glycogen stores can very easily lead to poor performance.

In a glycolytic sport with longer training sessions, it is important to include some high glycemic food options to supplement before, during, and after your workouts. This could look like some kind of juice during your workout, a fast digesting carb before your workout and a recovery shake (possible with whole food ingredients) after your workout.

Fat and recovery:

The fats you include post workout should be primarily mono and polyunsaturated fats. As many of you might already know, omega-3 fatty acid food options are optimal to help balance healthy inflammation (fish, avocado, nuts, eggs, leafy greens, and some olive oil).

As we have said before, the biggest emphasis for fat (for digestive purposes) is to try to have it long before your workout since it slows down gastric emptying and the rate at which our body can aptly use the fuel that we ingested. Timing fat after your workouts is of less importance.

Protein:

If little action is taken after your workouts (arguably about 2 hours) there is a good chance that you are not optimizing glycogen replenishment, protein synthesis and adequate recovery before your next workout. Having protein during (BCAAs) and after (whole food or shake form) can greatly mitigate any chances of overtraining and will improve your recovery.
The effect of replenishing carbohydrates and protein simultaneously with one another post-workout creates a growth factor-rich environment to not only replenish glycogen stores and promote protein synthesis, but also decrease protein breakdown from the stress of your workout.

Protein is also necessary to maintain the immune system, manufacture hormones and enzymes and replace the red blood cells that carry oxygen to the muscles. Take home message is that adequate protein intake around your workout is important.

Here are some symptoms one may experience from chronic inadequate protein intake with training:
Frequent colds and sore throats
Slow recovery
Irritability
Poor response to training (not reaching physical fitness as fast)
Chronic fatigue
Poor mental focus
Sugar cravings
Cessation of menstrual periods.

The highest quality proteins that contains the greatest amount of the essential amino acids usually is within animal protein. There are four amino acids that are specifically important to include in your training diet; leucine, valine, glutamine, and isoleucine. Leucine, isoleucine and valine are the three that are considered the greatest influences and are considered the BCAA’s (branch-chain amino acids).

BCAA’s (whether through supplementation during your workout or whole foods before and after) are significant to your diet because during your workouts, these levels significantly decline, contributing to a weakness or weariness known as “central fatigue.” Central fatigue is characterized by changes in synaptic concentrations of neurotransmitters within the central nervous system. This causes delayed muscle function and exercise fatigue which will inhibit your training program.

Micronutrients:

This is the greatest weakness in highly competitive athletes, as their micronutrient profile is often poor do to diet standards that don’t hold a commitment to including a variety of whole foods.

Normal mineral and vitamin losses/deficiencies are then compounded by intense training, creating a larger deficit in an athlete’s micronutrient profile. Specifically, athletes that are deficient in A, B6, C or E are at higher risk of having a weakened immune system. Vitamin E is one of the greatest deficiencies we see in vitamins in the US. Deficiencies in minerals such as zinc, magnesium and iron may also result in impaired immunity.

The most nutrient dense foods are usually whole foods (not processed or refined) and are within fruits, vegetables and well-sourced meats. Some may be wondering if simply including a high quality vitamin in their supplements may be the solution to a poor micronutrient profile. I would not negate that a multivitamin is not healthy, but I would argue that using a multivitamin as the solution to a poor micronutrient profile is feeble. Often times, whole foods need to be eaten with other foods in order to properly be absorbed into our bodies, and this is not offered in a multivitamin. Not only that, but we also risk taking in vitamins and minerals in excessive amounts which can be toxic to our bodies after chronic ingestion.

When it comes to a good micronutrient profile, eat like an adult and choose whole foods from the good product of Mother Nature. It is best to avoid the lab-designed food products that appeal to so many athletes today.

Treatment and overtraining:

Usually, you will not be able to recognize that you are overtraining immediately, as it is a gradual onset of constantly reaching to great strengths. If you have experienced a backslide of reaching where you are almost overtrained, it is best to take a few days off. I mean off, completely off. Not a 2-mile weighted vest run, or a 1,000 meter sled drag. I am talking about a steady hike or a day of yoga and mobility. When you come back to the gym, it is best to get in with the mindset of low intensity without high expectations on volume. Throughout your rest days, replenish with lots of vegetables and fruits as well as whole food proteins and carbohydrates.

It is far better to avoid overtraining at all than to reach an overextension.

In this article, I make overtraining sound like an easing thing to reach. However, most well-seasoned athletes have a pretty good indicator (especially if they have experienced such extremes of stress) of when they feel their reaching has been consistent for too long.

Schedule weekly rests and recovery days, communicate with your coach, and most of all, eat good quality whole foods to supplement your diet.

It is essential to get help if you are in a position of chronic fatigue or injury recurrence. Contact one of our coaches here at Peak Functional Nutrition (peakfunctionalnutrition.com) if you feel you need to reign in your diet and improve your performance.

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Justin Biays

Justin is the founder and head coach of Dark Horse Performance. He is a former United States Army 11B (infantry). He served 1 tour of duty in Afghanistan, realizing quickly that standard gym routines did not cut it for the duties he was expected to perform. He found his love for "Functional Fitness" returning from Afghanistan, then he decided it was time to try CrossFit. After leaving the Army in 2012 he attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition.

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