Overtraining and Progress
When you started your new training program you made some really quality gains. But now, you have been training for a while and you are noticing more fatigue, more irritability, and generally are feeling less motivated than when you started. What do you do? Do you keep plugging away at it, or is this a sign that something more is going on inside of your body. Perhaps it is time to take a visit to the Performance Bank.
What is the Performance Bank?
The performance bank is an analogy; an analogy describing the relationship between training volume, intensity and fatigue.
If you are reading this article with the intent of receiving a summary of all of the research on overtraining and training-induced fatigue, stop here. If you are reading this article to further your understanding of overtraining, gain practical insight into the pros and cons of overtraining, and talk about stuff that will make you big and strong; well my friend, you have come to the right place.
How does training and stress relate to something so far-fetched like the bank?
Well, let’s start from square one.
Periodization starts by viewing each individual workout as a stress. Workouts that provide overload are a bigger stress than workouts within your comfort zone. Not surprisingly, overload is the main principle behind strength training, and rightfully so. We need overload to progress, and therefore we need to place ourselves through a stressful stimulus to facilitate adaptation. At its core, overload is the goal of every athlete in every sport because overload essentially tells the body that it needs to improve at something. Now, there are two ways of obtaining overload, through quality, and through quantity. When periodizing and designing a training program I view overloading through quality as an increase in training intensity (defined as % of 1RM), and overloading through quantity as an increase in volume (defined as sets x reps x load). From here we can dive into some fancy periodization jargon, and really begin to understand the basis for periodization and the creation of training-induced fatigue.
Programs emphasizing higher intensity and lower volume are referred to as intensification phases. In contrast, programs that emphasize higher volume and lower intensity are referred to as extensification phases.(2) The intensification and extensification programs are the two basic theories that we use in the periodization of training to create an overload response. We can overload an athlete through training intensity, or we can overload an athlete through training volume. Regardless of the path that we take, we are putting our body through stress, which leads us back to how to manage fatigue.
I like to view fatigue as the bank. Every time you go through an intense workout you are changing your balance with the bank. What happens when you have bad credit? The bank will start to take things from you.
Just like in real life, excessive fatigue can begin to take things from you. In particular, excessive fatigue can begin to take your performance from you. The worse your fatigue/debt gets, the more the bank is going to take away from you. Before long you will find yourself with increased levels of anxiety, lack of motivation, and showing signs of other symptoms of depression. These are the symptoms of overtraining, but how do we combat them? More importantly, how do we leverage them to our advantage? (2)
Repaying the Debt
When you repay the bank in real life everyone is happy. You get to keep the roof over your head and the bank has their money – life is great. When you repay the performance bank everyone is happy as well. You feel good and you are prepared to perform well, this is where we want to be on competition day. The only issue is that we can’t continuously stay well-rested during training, if we were, that would either indicate that we were recovering perfectly with no cumulative fatigue from day to day, or that we weren’t doing enough to stimulate adaptation. Simply put, if an athlete were to be well-rested year long, there are only two explanations, they are either invincible, or they are not training hard enough. Nobody is invincible, so really we only have one option, the athlete isn’t training hard enough.
Not training hard enough means a lack of progress, and progress is the name of the game when it comes to training so that means that we have to embrace the fatigue associated with it.
There are two primary models that explain the relationship between training and fatigue, the one-factor model and the two-factor model of training.
The one-factor model, otherwise known as the single-factor model, is an adaptation of Selye’s GAS model. In short, there is a depleting response (training), a regenerating response (rest), and a supercompensation response (gains). From here there are three different outcomes that occur.
- Involution – time between consecutive training stimuli is too long, supercompensation is lost.
- Maladaptation – time between consecutive training stimuli is too short, performance decreases and supercompensation is not achieved.
- Optimal – time between consecutive training stimuli is just right, allowing for supercompensation and progress to occur. (1,3)
Without a doubt the goal of our training is progress, so it would be wise to aim for a systematic approach to training that allowed long term improvements in progress, rather than excessive intensity/volume (maladaptation) or a stimulus that is spaced too far apart (involution). There are questions that have risen over the last two decades about the single factor model, so this alone may not explain how coaches can best leverage fatigue to further enhance gains.
The Two-Factor Model involves a short-term fatigue after-effect, and a long-term fitness after-effect. With fatigue being the training stimulus, and fitness being the gains resulting from the training stimulus. If you want to get super nerdy, there are actually mathematical equations to calculate these improvements as well. (1,3)
In general, it is believed that the fitness effect endures roughly three times longer than the fatigue effect. So if the last negative traces of fatigue fade after 3 days, theoretically we have 9 days to take advantage of the previous training session and make gains.
Both models have their pros and cons but the two-factor model is more widely recognized as a current understanding of our knowledge on progress. So how can we leverage this unique fatigue-supercompensation response to improve?
The Art of the Taper
Enter the taper, a period of training with decreased volume and similar intensity. Going back to our earlier comparison of the performance bank, the job of the taper is to slowly and consistently pay off credit. Rather than ceasing training altogether and going into a full blown recovery mode, slowly tapering off of intense training and gradually transitioning into recovery mode is viewed as best practice amongst strength and conditioning coaches. (2,3)
Just like in anything with training, the length and magnitude of the taper should be highly individualized. Some athletes recuperate quicker than others. I have tapered athletes for 5 days before powerlifting meets, and I have tapered athletes for 5 weeks before powerlifting meets and both ended up breaking all time PR’s on meet day. There is no right way of doing things, the key is listening to the athlete.
In summary, we have to embrace fatigue as a part of training and we have to plan for it. As the one-factor and two-factor models suggest, fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing either. In fact, research suggests that short-term periods of overreaching can actually lead to enhanced gains as well. (Wyatt, Donaldson, & Brown, 2013)This is only one more reason for you to adopt a more periodized and systematic approach towards training. In conclusion, perhaps the only difference between paying the bank with money and paying the performance bank is this…
Your gym dues aren’t paid with money, they are paid with sweat.
Author: The Strength Guys
Group of online strength and nutrition coaches who specialize in exercise and nutrition program design for competitive athletes. If you are interested in having your own periodized training and nutrition program designed for your needs, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Siff, M. (2003). Supertraining. Denver, Colorado, USA: Supertraining Institute.
- Wyatt, F., Donaldson, A., & Brown, E. (2013). The Overtraining Syndrome: A Meta-Analytic Review. JEP Online , 12-23.
- Zatsiorsky, V., & Kraemer, W. (1995). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics.