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The Truth about overtraining & your hormones

Most people think of Overtraining Syndrome (OS) as having a little physical fatigue, sore wobbly legs when walking down the stairs after ‘leg day’, or just a mild feeling of having worked out a little too hard.

The truth is, Overtraining Syndrome is a very real and potentially serious condition.

It can happen to almost anyone exposed to moderate to large volumes of physical exercise, not just athletes. OS is an neuroendocrine disorder manifesting as accumulated fatigue that is the result of too much physical and mental stress and not enough recovery. [1,2]

It can begin as impaired performance during work-outs, mental and physical chronic fatigue with a feeling as though you’re tired but you can’t sleep, a persistent sense of being run-down and fluey, and eventually unfavourable changes to hormone and adrenal function, specifically the Hypothalmus-Pituitary-Adrena (HPA)l. Disruption to HPA function has a potential to then effect reproductive and thyroid function. [2, 3]

Wait, what is the HPA axis?

The over-all stress response is multi-factorial however the principal effectors of the stress response are localised in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus (in the brain),

the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland (which sits in a bony hollow behind your nose), and the adrenal glands (a gland that sits on top of your kidneys). This collection of structures is commonly referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. [1,3]

Physical exercise alone is seldom the primary cause of OS.

Everyone should know by now exercise is essential for wellness but what if exercise was capable of having the opposite effect when compounded by other stressors? Sure, it’s great to challenge yourself. It’s the best feeling in the world when you see the progress in your training. There are instances however, when life is a bit of a sh*t storm and other stress is loaded on top of an already intense schedule. Things like eating a diet high in refined flour and sugar, to working shift work, or working in a job where you feel trapped and powerless can influence changes in adrenal function. [2] In these instances, constant and intense physical training is not always better. During those times, learn to recognise your capacity and work within that.

Recognise we are all different and we require a personalised plan.

In my clinical experience, a sound nutrition and supplement regime can work well to increase your stress-tolerance and mitigate the risk of burn-out. Just because your friend can smash out a cruisy 20k run at the click of her fingers, does not mean that’s the right thing for you to attempt. You can get there, but you might need to take a different path.

As a nutritionist, personal trainer, health & lifestyle coach working one on one with people, I help my patients recognise that everyone exists in a slightly different environment (home and work-life in particular) which influences your ability to prioritise recovery and relaxation.

Additional to this, your genetics and biochemical make-up also greatly influence your ability to tolerate combined mental and physical stressors. And let’s be honest, that’s exactly what intense exercise is, it’s a form of stress. For example, exercise produces oxidative stress, and when oxidative stress becomes pathologic, reactive oxygen species (ie, superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radical) can cause inflammation, muscle fatigue, and soreness with resultant inhibition of performance [4] and it is our genetic and biochemical make-up that can influence how well we as individuals deal with that oxidative stress.

What are you training for anyway?

Get really clear on this for yourself. Is it for fat-loss? Is is a stress-release? Do you have a personal goal you want to achieve? Whatever it is, you need a strategic plan that combines both training, recovery and nutrition and lifestyle considerations to get there. A beginning and an end. Training without a plan, is just exercise. And exercise, does not then need to be so intense to produce health benefits.

Tips for prevention.

Progression comes from balance and rest, so lose the unhelpful and destructive ‘more is always better’ mindset, instead schedule stretch and and recovery sessions as a priority every week.

Not sure where to start?

Consider yoga, acupuncture, walking, epsom salt baths, infrared saunas, stretching and foam roller sessions, a massage, use a float tank, consider compression therapy or cryotherapy. When it comes to your training, increase training load no more than 5-10% every few weeks and ensure at least 48 hours rest between harder workouts. And please prioritise sleep!

Become personally aware of when too much is too much for your own individual capacity and never be afraid to hit ‘pause’ for a few days to take the time you feel you need.

Investigate your genetics so you can uncover your nutritional genetic strengths and weaknesses. (Ask me how). Learn how to use supplementation strategically where necessary. Eat enough quality food to fuel recovery (even if your goal is weight-loss).

Again, and most importantly shift your thinking from ‘more exercise is the only way to achieve my goal’ to ‘I have a sound and comprehensive strategy I will work through, in order to achieve my goal’.

Sometimes, the most challenging thing about training is having the discipline to hold back and just stick to the plan.

If you think you need a hand with building stress-tolerance or formulating a realistic training and supplementation program that fit’s in with your lifestyle, or you’d like some help pulling yourself back from the brink of burn-out, book an appointment and I can help!

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  1. Smith S, Vale W. The role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in neuroendocrine responses to stress. Dialogues Clin Neurosci 2006; 8 (4): 383-395
  2. Brookes KA, Carter JG. Overtraining, exercise and adrenal insufficiency. J Nov Physiother 2013; 3:125
  3. James L, Wilson DC. Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. Advances in Integrative Medicine 2014. Vol 1: 93-96
  4. Kreher JB, Schwartz JB. Overtraining Syndrome; A Practical Guide. Sports Health 2012; v4(2); 128 -138