Here’s how to burst through training plateaus to jump-start progress.
So you’ve hit a plateau. You’ve been killing yourself in the gym, but the results don’t come as quickly as they used to. Assuming your diet is in check, you may be, in fact, working yourself too hard.
This is what is referred to as overtraining. According to Alex M. McDonald, MD, professional triathlete and physician from the University of Vermont, overtraining “results when stress from both training and nontraining stressors overwhelms the body’s ability to recover adequately.”
Overtraining is a common problem. Consider the body type of someone who has formed an addiction to running. They are often thin, with very little muscle definition, and usually have very visible bone structure. You don’t think this person has overtrained?
Long-Term And Short-Term Overtraining
There are two types of overtraining, short-term overtraining (STO) and long-term overtraining (LTO). STO is commonly referred to as “overreaching,” a fatiguing condition that lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but is more easily reversible than LTO. LTO is similar to STO in the sense of fatigue, however as the name suggests, the body’s ability to overcome this effect can take weeks to months.
According to research, an athlete’s heart rate can determine the level of stress placed on the body. It has been observed, “when an athlete approaches an overtrained state, they may have an elevated resting heart rate. Additionally, in [a] workout, heart-rate variability [variation in the time interval between heartbeats] may be decreased and an athlete may not be able to elevate their heart rate.”
Through my experience with professional boxing, I have seen and used this test on world-class fighters. I used the research of Tudor Bompa—the father of periodization—to vary the training stress of the athlete throughout the year, rather than maintaining a constant training focus. Here’s an example of how to take your own heart-rate test:
• Take your resting heart rate with a heart-rate monitor that you keep by your bed.
• Take your first reading upon awakening.
• Get out of bed and wait one minute.
• Now, take your heart rate standing.
You are recovered if the difference between supine and standing is within a 9–16 beats per minute. If it is higher, you may need to hold off until the afternoon to train or skip the workout altogether.
Hormones and the “Physical Cliff”
To see if you have recovered correctly, you can also monitor your heart rate on a daily basis. If you are on average 10 beats above your normal resting heart rate, you need to pull back before you go over the “physical cliff.”
However, the best way to determine if you are truly overreaching is by taking a testosterone/cortisol ratio test using your saliva. This test is especially helpful in men, and a doctor will be able to properly determine where you stand in regards to your testosterone levels, and if, in fact, they are lower than your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and elevated levels may cause illness.
Besides the physical effects overtraining can have on the body, there also have been psychological effects noted. For example, an athlete who has overtrained can be prone to mental tiredness as well as a sluggish, “stale” feeling, according to McDonald. Eating and sleeping habits can also be affected by overtraining, causing a gain or loss in body weight, and a change in personality.
Now, you may say, “I feel tired, but I’ve got to push through to finish strong.” Yes, just because you are tired one day does not necessarily mean you have reached overtraining. However, if this fatigue lasts more than three to five days, you may need to step back and evaluate if overtraining is, in fact, a possibility. I believe that athletes can often choose not to accept the fact that they have overtrained for fear that they will need to stop their exercise regimen in order to actively recover.
Fighting Fatigue With Nutrition
So how do we treat overtraining? I’ve spoken about the benefits of glutamine before. This essential amino acid is great for immune response. Research has suggested that athletes who are overtrained may have lower plasma glutamine concentrations due to stress. It is not clear, however, whether this was a result of overtraining or if it will prevent overtraining in the first place. Glutamine supplementation is always beneficial to immune function, which could potentially battle your fatigue.
Besides glutamine, magnesium glycinate has been shown to effectively combat the symptoms of chronic fatigue. Jonathan Prousky, author of “The Vitamin Cure for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” says that people with chronic fatigue usually are deprived of oxygen to their muscle tissues. This can be due to a lack of magnesium that is utilized by the body to prevent muscle pain and fatigue.
You can also have a physician check your DHEA sulfate level to look for adrenal fatigue (when adrenal glands function below the necessary level, causing exhaustion).
Protein intake and adequate diet also help you prevent and recover from overtraining. Protein, rich in the amino acid leucine, taken before and immediately after a bout of resistance training, can hasten the recovery process needed for growth and repair.
Finally, no one knows your body like you do. If you suspect you’re working yourself too hard, take a breather. Your determination is what pushed you to the point of overtraining in the first place. If you can learn to focus on understanding your limits and learn to push them in a reasonable amount, then you can avoid LTO. However, please seek medical help if you find your fatigue levels too high to overcome. Stay fit, stay determined, believe in yourself, and know it’s OK to take some well-deserved rest, so long as you keep your focus.