Overreaching vs Overtraining Syndrome: How Damaging Are They?

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It really is possible to have too much of a good thing. Water is essential for maintaining optimum health, but too much can cause a fatal condition known as water intoxication; medications can save your life in the right doses, but in excess they can kill you. In the words of Swiss physician Paracelsus, “The dose makes the poison”.

It’s a similar story with exercise and strength training. If you don’t do enough, you’ll greatly increase your risk of developing many adverse health issues, including cancer. If you do too much, you could develop something known as Overtraining Syndrome.

Overtraining Syndrome is defined as excessive training that doesn’t allow the body to recover completely. It’s something that all athletes are warned against, and something that you’ll see being discussed on every fitness forum and Facebook group and in every gym. But what does the science say about Overtraining, is it real and is it as much of a threat as people believe?

The Studies

Many studies have been conducted on Overtraining and they have arrived at some mixed conclusions. One of the issues here is that the definition of Overtraining changes depending on who you ask.

Some define it as a short-term issue that results from pushing too hard and for too long in the gym. However, others define the aforementioned as Overreaching and studies conducted on this suggest it’s not as immediately damaging as previously thought. 

Simply put, if an athlete pushes themselves too hard over the course of a single session or multiple sessions, they can still recover quickly with proper nutrition and rest, assuming they don’t develop an injury in that time.

Actual Overtraining is something else entirely. Generally speaking, it is a condition that can result from prolonged Overreaching and/or poor nutrition and rest. There have been case studies on athletes who have reached this level and they report significant negative effects on the body, including a damaged immune system, mood changes, and a drastic drop-off in performance.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Overtraining is actually very hard to attain.

What This Means

We’ve seen forum posts that begin with someone suggesting they want to increase their training for 2 or 3 weeks and end with several warnings about Overtraining. This is hugely inaccurate.

According to the research, Overtraining Syndrome takes months to occur, not days or weeks. The body is incredibly adept at recovering, especially when supplied with adequate rest and nutrition. Only when it is pushed to the extreme for prolonged periods does it begin to struggle, at which point Overtraining sets in.

Take a look at the image below, which was taken from one of the quoted studies. This shows the varying levels of Overreaching/Overtraining.

Unless you’re pushing yourself too hard and doing this for a prolonged period of time, you don’t need to worry about Overtraining. You also don’t need to worry about accidental Overtraining. This is not something that just creeps up on you; you won’t go from being healthy one minute to ending your career the next.

Overtraining, like any serious illness, develops gradually and you’ll begin to feel the effects as it does so. You may notice a drop-in mood, an increase in minor colds and viruses, and a host of other issues. If these things begin to occur, it’s time to take a break.


Guest Contributor Bio—Nicky Sarandrea is a health, fitness and rehabilitation expert who specialises in high-intensity training programs, physical therapy, and early sobriety programs—a mixed bag, to say the least. His work has been published across hundreds of sites and in dozens of sectors.


References

  1. D J Farrell and L Bower. Fatal Water Intoxication. 2003.
  2. Harvard Health. Does regular exercise reduce cancer risk?
  3. Halson SL, Jeukendrup AE. Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research. 2004.
  4. J B Kreher, J B Schwartz. Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide. 2012.
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