July 5, 2011

Overtraining vs Under Recovery

Missed Lift: OT or UR?
I was asked a question on the Pendlay forum over the weekend regarding my thoughts on Overtraining vs Under Recovery.  I have spent the past 10+ years researching the theory of overtraining, Grad School (MS and PhD), the Olympic Training Center, and through trial and error on myself and my athletes, and I can honestly say we; coaches, athletes, and researchers collectively, are just now scratching the surface on the topic.  I have reposted my comments here as I'd like to get other opinions on this topic.
“What are your thoughts on under-recovery vs overtraining? Any key indicators to be aware of to distinguish between the two?”
Great question for discussion and I am very interested in hearing other opinions on this as well.  For the most part, overtraining and under recovery can be lumped together.  They both can lead to the development of the other.  I tend to define them separately, just for consistency and explanation purposes.  Overtraining is fatigue and a decrement in performance due to too much training...or training stress.  Under recovery is the accumulation of fatigue and a decrement in performance due to inadequacy of recovery outside of the gym, which includes restoration, nutrition, sleep, etc. I tend to think of under recovery as life stress.  So, overtraining is strictly from training, and under recovery is everything else.

Overtraining is real, but it is very misunderstood and grossly overstated by most people. 99% of people will never experience overtraining, and maybe only 5-10% of athletes. Now, fatigue is common and a normal response to training. For full blown overtraining to occur that fatigue would have to accumulate over a period of months. Most people will take a few days off, or an overuse injury limits their training, before overtraining develops. If tendonitis flairs up in your knee and reduces your ability to squat, that is not overtraining.  Two separate issue, overtraining and overuse (possibly a future post).  Overtraining is a whole system issue which has effects on the endocrine, neuromuscular, and cardiorespiratory systems.

Competitive athletes are more susceptible because of the demands of competition, desire to win, etc., but mostly the inability to take time off due to their sport.  Think about a post-collegiate athlete who gave up his day job to move to the OTC to train for the next Olympics, which also means lifting well at Nationals in May, Team Trials in August, Worlds in November, and other competitions throughout the year to keep their resident spot and monthly stipend.

Under recovery is a separate and possibly much bigger issue.  Under recovery can effect all trainees regardless of training stress or training status and is caused by things outside of training; lack of sleep, inadequate nutrition, emotional stress, etc. Your life outside the gym has to support what you want to accomplish inside the gym.  Things get tricky because of how we ultimately define or diagnose both conditions...a decrease in performance.  We all know people that training like crap, eat like crap, and still make improvements.  Whereas other people have everything "perfect" and continue to stall in progress.  So, if performance does not drop off is an athlete really overtrained or under recovered? Performance can increase or decrease inspite of many things which makes it all the more complicated. 


  1. "Your life outside the gym has to support what you want to accomplish inside the gym."

    That is a great gem. It is very poignant and sum's up what I try to stress to people.

    Also very interesting point on what overtraining really is and how it could be overstated. I never thought about it before but in conjunction with under recovery it makes sense. With enough recovery I feel you could train almost as hard as you want(within reason). We might be getting into the realm of splitting hairs, however I think it is necessary. Misdiagnosing someone as over training instead of under recovered does not really look at the real issue.

    Great Post, Doc.

  2. I don't know where exactly to draw the line between overtraining and under recovery, but I was overtrained before. I spent a year preparing for a SpecOps training program, and then during the 15 week program, I became overtrained.

    The mind is much stronger than the body, so it's amazing how much further you can push your body after it's already breaking down. By the end of the 15 weeks, I was unable to continue with any further training. I had fractures in both tibias, a compression fracture in my lumbar, and broken bones all through my feet, not to mention I had torn muscles, sprains, and tendonitis in pretty much every joint in my body.

    I felt so awful that I went to a doc to get checked out thinking I had some disease or something. My cortisol level was off the charts high, my testosterone level had crashed and dropped below normal ranges, my liver enzymes were elevated from all the muscle damage, and my immune system response was so low it was unmeasurable.

    The way it was explained to me is that, any stress causes an alert within the body, then the adaptation phase takes place, and at this point, 1 of 2 things can happen. 1 if the stress is reduced or removed, the body is able to complete its adaptation to that stressor so the body becomes stronger OR 2 the stressor continues until the body enters a fatigue phase. Staying in that fatigue phase for too long is what leads to overtraining.

    So, in my case, despite all the massages, hot and cold baths, sleep, stretching, SMR, mass quantities of food, supplements, etc, because that stress was never reduced, eventually my body just started breaking down.

  3. @Chad - did you have to pull back completely from training in order to recover? Was competing a huge source of your stress? What is the rest of your story.

    I'm not an elite athlete, but an Oly lifter and a single parent. 2 years ago I endured some crazy back to back life circumstances that were very stressful and my hormones whacked out and still are not normal despite medical intervention. My mind could handle the stress and workouts/load but my body just took a beating. So I stopped training and things didn't change. But I also did not change the amount of stress in my life. Now I am training trying to reduce the stress I feel as well as receiving acupuncture.

    I think your story is a good one for all to hear. Where do things stand now?

  4. Agreed on the statement that very few will actually experience over-training. Most, if they experience anything, will likely see under recovery.

    From a classical standpoint, and particularly with dealing with strength and power athletes, over-training only really exists when performance decreases and does not return when sufficient recovery is allowed. So, if you allow several days, perhaps even a week, of rest with adequate nutrition, sleep, etc. and performance does not bounce back, it MAY be over-training. I know it isn't sexy, but that demarcation is probably as good as any for determination if someone is over-trained or simply under-recovered.

    Endurance athletes are a whole different ball game and the line between over-training and under-recovery is much less clear in my experience and from the data I have seen.

  5. Hi, I have over-trained for about 8-9 years consistently (no joke). I am now 30, and since I was about 21 I would train hard almost every day. For a couple years I was training hard 6x/week and one light day. Then I added in one rest day. I would take off 2 or 3 days here and there and a rest week maybe once per year. I did cardio almost every training day for about 45 minutes, which I now realize was way to much; and a lot of it was moderate to high intensity cardio. In the past 2 months my body has completely broken down. I have many nagging muscle injuries and pain. My knees are in great pain as well, one of my major concerns. I recently obtained medical insurance for he first time in about 10 years so I am only now able to get bloodwork/mri's, ect. My blood work came back very good with the only issue being my T was low (this is weird because my energy level, physique, aggression is that of something with High T). It came in at 279. I feel this may be from overtraining. I am going this week to my GP to see the recent test results and if T is still low he is going to prescribe me a Test-supplement such as androgel.

    Besides good genetics, my diet is nearly perfect; I take every important vitamin, natural anti-inflammatories, and use supplements to help recovery and protein synthesis. I am 5'8" about 160-165 lbs, very lean, and have a well built physique.

    Recently I injured my right Sartorius leg muscle. I took off a week, then resumed exercise but it wouldn't heal. I started PT a few weeks ago and it has helped only a little. I am very disconcerted in general but especially with this injury because I will warm it up, stretch it, and then later the muscle will be very sore and tender. It's like if you don't stretch it, it re-pulls, and if you do-stretch it, it re-pulls.

    Last week I threw down my cards and decided to take 2 full weeks off to try and reset my CNS and heal my injuries. Today starts week 2. To be honest my injuries are still prevalent and I feel like doing the most harmless action triggers a pain response from some of muscle injuries. Simply stretching my shoulders the other day triggered a small re-strain on my right pec. Then this morning, doing nothing out of the ordinary my right tricep strained slightly(and this was one of the injuries I thought had healed up by now).

    I would really appreciate your advice as to how to go about recovering my body from years of punishment and lack of time to recover. I assume that my body adjusted to not recovering for so long that this is actually a shock to it and it takes a little time for the body to equal itself out again. I've been going to acupuncture, I go to PT, use a foam roller, roller stick; Anything that can help me.

    When I come back I am changing my whole regiment: weight training 5x/week, and cardio 3-4x/week. Less volume of weights as well. I have/had very long workout sessions.

    I feel that my scenario is very specific and not so common especially how long and hard I have over-trained. Its amazing I haven't broken down already. I think that at 30 my body cant recover as fast and allow me to keep training without injury. I'm not old by any means but we all surely recover faster at 21 than we do at 30.

    I may have not supplied enough pertinent info for you to properly advise me so please let me know if you need more info.