By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Overtraining syndrome is not a condition limited only to competitive athletes, and I actually find more cases in recreational athletes who have a frequent intense workout schedule. It is absolutely critical to build in rest days, fuel your body for your workouts, and cross-train to avoid overworking the same muscle groups. Proper training requires a balance between overload and recovery, and when there is too much overload and not enough recovery, it can results in physical and psychological symptoms. Because the signs and symptoms often include anxiety, sleep disturbance and mood swings, this condition is almost always misdiagnosed.
What is overtraining syndrome?
Overtraining syndrome happens when you are training beyond your body’s ability to recover. It is a neuroendocrine disorder meaning it impacts your nervous system and also your hormones.
Signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome:
Some of these signs are very obvious, but others you may not be linking to your training – for example anxiety, sleeplessness and panic attacks, neurological signs like numbness and tingling, and an emotional reaction when you take days off.
Here is a list of common signs:
- increased heart-rate, and in some cases very low heart-rate
- more colds, sore throats, infections
- more injuries
- body aches and pains
- moodiness and irritability
- anxiety and panic attacks
- neurological symptoms such as numbness, tingling
- change in you period – missed, coming early or coming late
What puts you at higher risk of overtraining syndrome?
Quite simply, you are at higher risk if your baseline stress level is also high. An intense workout temporarily increases stress on your body. Remember that your body has a threshold with stress, and high-intensity or high-duration workouts contribute to this threshold.
You’re also at higher risk of overtraining at time of hormone transition: perimenopause, menopause, post-partum. During these times, because of the underlying stress of hormone changes, you may also be at higher risk of overtraining syndrome.
And finally, if your life is out of balance with poor sleep, not enough hours of sleep, irregular eating and especially under-eating you will not have the resilience to bounce back from harder workouts.
How overtraining affects your hormones:
(1) Cortisol & adrenal hormones
The Hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulates our body’s hormonal system. It helps the body adapt to stress through the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. Cortisol is a hormone that is fairly easy to measure, and with overtraining it may be either high or low depending on the duration and other layers of stress. Both high and low cortisol can create feelings of anxiety and fatigue.
(2) Thyroid hormones
A marker I find very accurate for assessing overtraining syndrome is free T3 (free Triiodothyronine). It is important to note that low free T3 levels can occur when the thyroid itself is perfectly healthy. The level becomes low when the body deliberately tries to slow down your metabolism in response to metabolic stress (among other things). In my patients I have found the low T3 to be responsible for many of the strange sensations they experience – extreme fatigue with body anxiety, numbness and other sensations in the body, and may also cause dry skin, hair thinning, constipation and feeling chilled.
(3) Ovulation and progesterone levels
Since all of your hormonal systems are connected, when the body is over-taxed, you will likely see changes in your menstrual cycle ranging from complete absence of menstruation to a change in cycle length (either closer together or farther apart), or more extreme PMS due to a drop in progesterone. If you’re also in perimenopause or menopause at this time, your symptoms of the hormone shift will be exaggerated.
Where to start to reverse overtraining syndrome
- If you suspect that overtraining may be causing your hormonal and neurological symptoms, the first place to start is with an honest check-in about your workouts and training. Are you building in rest-days, or rest weeks for recovery? Are all of your workouts intense?
- For immediate relief, it will likely be necessary to take a break from the intensity to allow your hormonal system to reset.
- Prioritize balanced nutrition & optimize your sleep. Ensure that you are eating three full meals per day, getting enough protein and carbohydrates in your diet, and sleeping at least 7 hours per night.
- Lab testing is highly recommended, especially your hormonal markers: am serum cortisol, full thyroid panel including free T3, luteal phase progesterone and estrogen, ferritin (iron stores), and vitamin B12 levels.
- Although taking a break from training is the most important step, there are many nutritional supplements that can help with your recovery, and to get you back into your sports and activities more quickly. This may include supplements that balance cortisol, supplements to support estrogen and progesterone levels, and others to improve T4 to T3 conversion.
An ounce of prevention:
If you love to train hard, and are just starting to see some of the signs, there are some steps you can take immediately to prevent overtraining syndrome.
- Build in breaks: Train smarter, not harder. Just like managing overall stress, it’s not how hard you work but more importantly how well you rest and recover afterwards. Your body needs off-days during the week, and regularly scheduled recovery weeks to keep you in peak performance.
- Cross train: Variety in your workouts will allow you to continue with regular exercise without burning out. For example, if you’re a runner, add in some cycling and yoga.
- Fuel for fitness: Ensure that you are eating optimally for your training, and keeping up with the extra calories required for performance. If you have questions about this, please ask!
- Sufficient sleep: Good quality sleep is just as important as rest days. Remember that your body needs recovery time from your daily stresses, and also your training schedule.
- See a naturopathic doctor for the right lab tests. You’re likely in a situation where your basic lab markers are all looking normal, but you may not be feeling your best. Tracking your hormone markers can give you early alert to overtraining.
I hope this article has given you insight into overtraining syndrome. This is a very commonly misdiagnosed condition, and yet balancing out the hormonal systems can make a profound difference in how you feel, and also your athletic performance.
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