Walking the Tightrope of Overtraining

Often athletes striving to become faster and better at their sport find themselves walking the tightrope of overtraining. During peak training times, most athletes feel fatigue, as their training plans are intended to create a similar fatigue that will be experienced on race day. Coaches do their best to create a perfect, personalized plan without overtraining or injury. Sometimes, even a perfectly planned training schedule can lead to overtraining, or athletes will push harder and go farther than the plan laid out for them in attempts to gain even more improvements.

There are several hypotheses behind why overtraining syndrome (OTS) occurs. This week, I decided to feature the research article “Overtraining Syndrome”. In the article, several possible causes for OTS were identified. I have summarized the main hypotheses as well as provided application below.

  1. Deficit glycogen levels in muscles – muscles use glycogen to perform; when there is a low level of glycogen in the muscles oxidation increases and branch chain amino acid (BCAAs) levels reduce resulting in fatigue and may cause OTS.

Practical Application: Ensure carbohydrates are a part of your daily intake. While there are general recommendations for carbs (40-60% of total intake) your bodies needs will be depended on the type of training you are participating in, event distance/time as well as personal metabolic rate. Sources include: fruit, grains, starchy vegetables, milk, yogurt, beans.

  1. Elevated serotonin levels – unbound tryptophan and BCAAs use the same door to be absorbed into the brain. As we are active, BCAAs are oxidized, which in turn allows tryptophan to enter into the brain and be converted to serotonin. Excessive exercise has been linked to higher levels of serotonin and its precursors which can result in higher levels of fatigue and depression. In a well-trained athlete, most of the time they are less sensitive to higher levels of serotonin, but in the case of OTS athletes seem to be more susceptible.

Practical Application: First off, follow your training plan from your coach and be open with them on how you are feeling. Talk to them about how recovery is going and if you think training level or intensity needs to be decreased for the week, listen to your body and address it with your coach. Second, it is important asses your ability to manage emotions. If it seems you are on an emotional roller-coaster, it may be due to OTS and you need to rest.  Third, sleep is incredibly important! Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep.

  1. Insufficient levels of glutamine – exercise bouts greater than 2 hours or reoccurring high-intensity training can lower the levels of glutamine. Low levels of glutamine may contribute higher susceptibility of upper respiratory tract infections.

Practical Application: Ensure your diet includes daily intake of glutamine. Sources can be found in plant and animal products: raw spinach and parsley, cabbage, beef, poultry, pork, dairy (milk, ricotta cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese).

  1. Oxidative Stress – A certain level of oxidative stress is expected and even desired for cellular repair. However, when oxidative stress is elevated above optimal levels, inflammation, muscle soreness and fatigue occur.

Practical Application: Elevated oxidative stress can have negative effects on performance. Unfortunately, the research in this area is limited and more research is needed.

  1. Autonomic Nervous System – The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the system responsible for functions that are unconsciously controlled such as breathing, digestion and heartbeat. This system is also the one that controls our fight-or-flight response. An imbalance of the ANS can result in fatigue, bradycardia, and depression or performance inhibition.

Practical Application: A week of rest may restore the imbalance in the ANS but research is not completely clear for this hypothesis.

  1. Hypothalamic Alteration – The hypothalamus helps regulate weight, body temperature, emotions, appetite, salt/water balance, sex drive, memory, sleep-wake cycle as well as our body clock. The pituitary gland is also controlled by the hypothalamus. The pituitary gland regulates the ovaries, testes, adrenal glands and the thyroid. Overtrained athletes may see/feel alterations in hormone levels such as cortisol, testosterone and adrenocorticotropic hormones. Adrenocorticotropic hormone is responsible for the production and release of cortisol. The level of negative impact OTS has on the hypothalamic function is individualized and may depend on exercise volume and other stressors in the athlete’s life.

Practical Application: Results from stress on the hypothalamus varies athlete by athlete. If overtrained, not only is performance impacted but sex drive/hormone production as well as ability to get pregnant may also be reduced. If you are noticing any changes in the functions listed above, get blood work done to see if hormones are out of normal range. Results may help you determine if you are suffering from OTS and take action and allow the hypothalamus to recover and function appropriately.

  1. Cytokine Hypothesis – Cytokines are proteins that assist with communications between cells in our body. There are both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. When an athlete is training, it is normal to have local acute microtrauma to the tissue as a result of muscle contraction and repetitive joint action. Adaptations occur from the microtrauma; tissues will naturally recover and strengthen with the help of cytokines over time and with adequate rest. If intense training occurs without the necessary recovery time, inflammatory responses from the microtrauma increase and the inflammation becomes local and chronic. Elevated levels of cytokines may impact the brain in overtrained athletes and as a result there may be mood changes and depression experienced.

Practical Application: Athletes will naturally have inflammation in their bodies due to training and volume. The body is capable of managing inflammation with cytokines as long as there is adequate rest and recovery time. If mood swings are occurring and you are finding it hard to manage your emotions, it may be due altered levels of cytokines and OTS.

Bottom Line: No single hypothesis discussed can be determined as the ONLY cause of OTS. More than likely, if an athlete is overtrained, it is due to a combination of causes. If you are having signs and symptoms of OTS, talk to your coach and maybe even see your physician for blood work, don’t just “suffer” through the pain and fatigue. It is always better to scale training back so that you can go into the season/event at your best rather than push through the fatigue and risk long term effects of OTS.



Too Much to Do & Not Enough Time

Under Training, Under Eating & Under Sleeping….a recipe for disaster. My body was as good as burnt toast last weekend!toast photo 

Today, I am going to share a true story from my training last week. First, I want to start off with saying….I am a Registered Dietitian and know better, but I am still human and succumb to putting my health on the back burner sometimes.

Last week, I kicked off a fundraising campaign to be named Woman of the Year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I am competing against other women running for the title, “Woman of the Year” but we are all raising money for the same amazing cause; a cure for cancer. The goal my team is aiming to raise is $100,000 in the next 9 weeks. If you are interested in keeping up with the campaign, click HERE.

With that said, I have been investing a lot of time and effort into the campaign as well as working and training for a half ironman triathlon. Last week, I saw over 40 clients at work of whom I truly care about and make an effort to invest into every one of their lives. I also manage dietetic interns and student doctors who rotate through our company. On top of that, on May 20th, I will be competing at Tri Fort Worth 70.3 triathlon and have been making an effort to keep up with the intense training necessary to perform at my best.

Needless to say, last week, my training fell apart as I shifted my focus onto the campaign and kickoff events during the week. As a result, my sleep began to suffer; averaging 3-6 hours of sleep per night and I began to drop weight as I was skipping snacks and meals as I tried to just make it through the week. Now, I LOVE to eat and I know EATING is imperative to my intense training schedule. I do not remember the last time I skipped lunch, but unfortunately I did last week along with other snacks I usually look forward to. My hydration began to suffer too as I went from averaging 50-70 ounces of water during a work day to 20 ounces.

I was in bad shape, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday’s training that I truly experienced how poorly I had been treating my body. There had been no training in my life from Monday to Friday, so I felt that since the week was complete and all the events had been successful, it was time to get back to training. Friday, after work, I put my running clothes on and headed out for an evening run. For the most part it went ok and I could hold a decent pace. After the 11.5 mile run is when it hit me….my legs hurt so badly I could hardly stand. The pain was terrible and I wasn’t sure why. My quads were on fire and it felt like I had torn something. The inflammation in my body was so high, it felt like I had just completed a full Ironman. I hobbled into my car and to HEB to get some recovery chocolate Mootopia because I had not thought about bringing anything to drink for a recovery shake. Once I got home, I rolled out and iced my incredibly tender quads hoping they would feel amazing the next morning.

Unfortunately, Saturday morning I was still in quite a bit of pain. I needed to get a 3:30 hour bike ride in and a 30 minute run afterwards. With all the proper nutrition and hydration, I set out for the bike ride. As I started the ride, my quads were unhappy but they seemed to eventually warm up. The ride began to get more difficult and the fatigue set in…every hill felt like a mountain and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it up. Hills that I have ridden hundreds of times felt like mountains and the fatigue felt like when I first started riding back in 2014. Sixty miles later, I made it home somehow. I threw my running shoes on and headed out. The run was so slow and difficult, all I wanted to do was soak in a hot bathtub and not move. Everything hurt and was inflamed. With pure determination, the brick was finally complete but my body was screaming.

Lessons Learned

That day, I learned firsthand the importance of food, sleep, hydration and stress management. My body was a mess by the end of the week and due to poor food intake, inadequate sleep, lack of hydration and no stress management in sight, I was internally inflamed. It’s amazing I did not get sick after last week.

I write this, because often times we have no idea how amazing we can feel because we have never been there. We get used to feeling crummy, tired, sore, in a brain fog, and in pain. Normally, I feel amazing, look forward to working out and don’t let anyone get in the way of my snacks, meals and sleep. Not only do I love food, I also love sleep!

I am happy to say that my food, hydration, sleep and stress are getting back to normal. My weight has returned to its normal level and I am looking forward to training this week!

The take away from today’s blog is this: Make your health a priority. Take time to relax, eat, sleep, train and you only have one body. Treat it like it is a rare jewel because it is….it’s all you got!

Go Further with Food

Ever since 1980, March has been recognized as National Nutrition Month. The theme this year is “Go Further with Food”. In response to the theme, I decided to pose a question to my readers….

What would it look like, if you could go further than ever before?

 What image popped into your mind? Was the image focused on family, spirituality, personal character, health, fitness, travel or career based? What does greatness look like in your life? What is holding you back from going further than every before and pursuing your dreams?

As a Dietitian, I have the privilege of helping people learn how to pursue their dreams along with optimal health every day! So, now I am going to challenge you…take one step towards your dream and comment below what your step will be.


As a side note, today is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day! So to all my fellow RDN’s, Happy RDN Day!