Programming for strength 4: Overtraining and Overreaching.

Welcome back to part four in our programming for strength series. In this article we are going to take a look at overtraining and overreaching; defining what they are, their similarities and their differences, things to look out for and how overreaching can be used to our advantage.

As we have discovered the goal of any strength-based training program is to increase performance. In the previous articles in this series we have talked in some depth about the mechanisms that influence our ability to improve performance and how we can manipulate training variables in order to optimise our results.

Within many sports there are different phases of periodised training; this may be the classic block periodisation focusing on blocks of training which can range in periods of weeks to months focusing on the muscle gain, strength and endurance requirements of a given sport or activity. More recently ‘undulating’ or ‘concomitant’ training protocols that allow a variety of training intensities, frequency and volumes within the same week or even training session have shown some interesting results for strength athletes and we will evaluate these training principles in due course. Regardless of periodisation method, the training program should still be focused on intensities specific to the sport, include supplementary training and allow for recovery. These periodised training phases if not managed properly can be problematic and cause a reduction in performance, overtraining and injury.

It is probably unsurprising that diagnosis of overtraining syndrome is performed using a person’s subjective feelings of fatigue and consistent reductions in performance. It is important to note that fatigue in the period immediately following training is a normal consequence of pushing the body to its limit, however when fatigue is persistent and runs into days, weeks and even months, then we are talking about the development of overtraining syndrome and it can have some very severe health and performance consequences. Decreases in performance can be accompanied with changes in mood and even cause psychological and hormonal issues which can have knock on effects on motivation, appetite, disruption of sleep and unplanned weight loss.

The definitions of overreaching and overtraining have a tendency to vary and diagnosis of this condition is reliant on a number of factors outlined above. The general link between overreaching and overtraining is that both lead to a reduction in performance. The difference is the impact this has on the time it takes for recovery from these states with overreaching being a period of a few days to weeks, whereas true overtraining can take months for fatigue to lift, restore normal metabolic function and restore normal health.

We have touched upon the theory of super-compensation previously and how this relates to overreaching and adaptation, leading to increased strength and performance. The use of this for peaking into a contest comes with a few words of caution; if you push this volume in this phase too hard without sufficient time and nutrition to facilitate recovery, you are going to limit your performance on the big day. A period of at least two weeks after a targeted overreaching phase is generally recommended to allow time for super-compensation to take place and recover for a contest.

This concept of overreaching into a contest has been defined as ‘functional overreaching’ and it differs from other definitions of overreaching in that it is planned. It is debatable in this context that if recovery only takes a number of days between training sessions, as we would expect from most phases of a well-structured training program, if this could really be considered overreaching. However, if we trained consistently at high volumes without appropriate recovery to support adaptation, we would be at risk of entering a state of what is known as ‘non-functional overreaching’, which is essentially caused by an error in programming not allowing sufficient recovery and has comparable physical effects to overtraining syndrome and can take months or years to recover. In essence, non-functional overreaching and overtraining syndrome are for all practical purposes the same thing, and differences between them from the academic literature are hard to pinpoint and are most likely two different ways of describing the same thing.

Both overreaching and overtraining syndrome can be influenced not just by training stress, but also the general stress of day-to-day living causing disruption to normal hormonal and nervous system function which can impact hugely on a person’s ability to recover and perform. Dietary stress is also something to consider especially in people reducing weight for a specific class. It is better to allow sufficient time to drop weight in order to assess and limit the impacts on performance, as opposed to crash dieting which can have catastrophic effects. Drops in strength with weight loss are not uncommon, so a decision needs to be made on how much a weight cut may impact on your capacity to perform and this should be based on whether you are competing to win a specific class, or just aiming to be your strongest and try to set some new PR’s.

In summary, overtraining is a very real syndrome, although most recreational athletes would not be at risk due to the training volumes involved to reach this point. That being said, if training is not supported with adequate rest and nutrition, combined with a stressful lifestyle, then some people may be at risk of being tipped into a state of overtraining with training being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Overreaching can be beneficial in certain contexts, but should be used sparing on contest specific programs and accompanied with proper recovery strategies. For recreational gym goers, overtraining should be completely avoidable with proper training and diet structure, especially if under the supervision of a qualified and experienced coach. In our future articles we will discuss the components of recovery including nutrition, sleep and other supplementary methods including foam rolling, massage and the different types of stretching, but for now we must part company. Stay tuned for more (hopefully) informative content to help you reach your goals and as always if you have any questions, drop us a message!

Team TTC.