Avoid overtraining by riding the nutritional and recuperative razor's edge

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To my way of thinking, overtraining is a dark cloud with a silver lining. Relatively speaking, as a coach, I would rather train a trainee that over-trains and needs to be dialed back as opposed to working with the typical under-training trainee that continually needs to be goaded to step it up. Give me the aggressive trainer that rips into the weights and is perhaps a tad foolhardy, compared to Mr. Timid Normal Man that never can quite generate the level of intensity needed to spark hypertrophy. While the former periodically experiences true overtraining, the latter mistakes being tired for overtraining and uses it as an excuse to do less.

Most hardcore weight trainers are very wary of the term and phrase “over-training.” The hardcore truly do become over-trained and overtraining can become a serious progress impediment. The hardcore know and respect over-training and have experienced true overtraining. Naturally they are dubious when every yahoo at the local Gold's Gym announces their total lack of progress (for the last two years) is attributable to over-training: which is puzzling because no one has ever seen them struggle with a barbell or pair of dumbbells, sweat on the elliptical trainer or treadmill, or miss a meal.

Real overtraining, as experienced by the hardcore, generally manifests in two forms: deep fatigue or intense muscle soreness. When gripped by deep fatigue, the athlete feels as if they are “walking through mud,” limbs are heavy and there is an intense feeling of sluggishness and lethargy. Deep fatigue is usually a result of super heavy, low-rep power training; there is little muscle soreness, yet there is an ongoing and overwhelming sense of deep tiredness.

The second form of overtraining manifests as intense muscle soreness. Muscles are so decimated by lifting weights that after the workout they are sore to the touch. Often this type of overtraining can result in DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness: the soreness might not peak until 24-48 hours after the training session. This second form of overtraining is no joke: muscles are traumatized to the point that to touch them is painful.

To spur true growth muscles need be worked hard and taken right to the edge (or slightly past) of overtraining. How does the athlete “normalize” the after effects of a truly effective workout? The sooner the athlete is recovered, the sooner the that athlete can engage in yet another high-intensity training session. Overtraining inflames muscles and can be thwarted, diminished or reversed by using one of three strategies…

  • Nutrition: there is an Old School cliché, “there is no such thing as over-training – only under-eating.' There is wisdom hidden here: often overtraining can be overcome or diminished by increasing caloric intake. Calories, in and of themselves, are anabolic and promote healing. Perfect nutrition, not starvation nutrition, accelerates recovery. Smart trainees that are over-trained will consume extra amounts of lean protein and natural carbohydrates (that do not spike insulin to any significant degree) to offset over-training.
  • Rest, sleep, regeneration: deep sleep is a magnificent recovery aid. Conversely, those that are sleep-deprived, those that are unable to obtain deep restorative rest, will find recovery is difficult. It is one thing to sleep and it is another thing to fall into deep REM sleep. Deep rest is optimal for combating the brutal effects of hardcore training. Those that skimp on sleep, those that are unable to sleep, find recovery difficult. Be aware that sleep is not about quantity, real recuperative sleep is about quality. One hour of deep sleep is worth more than eight hours of restless sleep.
  • Reduce training and/or layoffs: one surefire way to get on the other side of ‘over-tonus' is to cut back on the volume of training. If a man is logging 6-8 hours a week training, cutting the volume back 30-50% will often allow the body to regroup and regenerate. Complete layoffs are also advised. Most elite athletes allow for periods of complete rest after peaking for a competition. Those that insist on training hard and heavy when fatigued are setting themselves up for injury. Hard training while over-trained is a recipe for disaster.

In addition, there are a myriad of other recuperative strategies that many elite athletes swear by: sauna, steam room, hydro-therapy, ice baths, massage and light drills designed to flush toxins and waste products out of worn-out muscles. The smart athlete that finds himself over-trained will start with the ‘big three,' nutrition, adjusted training and sleep. The elite utilize a skillful balance of nutrition (adding quality calories,) restorative sleep (including power naps) and reducing training (cut back on volume and/or intensity) to restore hemostasis, normalcy. Once you have incorporated the big three, feel free to add in some of the other resto-strategies.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.