Goodbye, Overtraining Syndrome & CNS Fatigue

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by STEVE KPA, CPT & CODY RICE, CPT

In the first part of this series, we explored the underlying mechanics of overtraining syndrome and CNS (central nervous system) fatigue. With a deeper understanding of these two consequences of hard training, we now know how much they can limit you from improving. So what can you do to avoid or mitigate these effects? In order to answer this, we must first examine your programming.

Train hard and smart, not just hard

Individual differences due to training history determine your susceptibility to overtraining and the ensuing problems associated with it. While a conditioned weightlifter is more than able to handle both higher volume and higher intensity training, a novice weightlifter can easily be overwhelmed by just three poorly-planned sessions in a week, as neither their body nor their nervous system is accustomed to the higher loading yet.

Within the context of CrossFit, the likelihood of overtraining is greater given the focus on compound (weighted) movements. Cody Rice of CrossFit Southbay puts this into perspective:

…CrossFit is very, very good at challenging and improving your nervous system… the more muscles recruited during a movement, the more our nervous system becomes involved. Simply stated, this means that the more that you need to coordinate multiple parts of your body to perform the movement, the harder your nervous system has to work, as it is your nervous system that is coordinating the sequence of the firing of all the muscles stabilizing and driving your movement. Thus, a back squat that requires you to use almost every muscle from your head to your toes is going to require more from your nervous system than a machine-isolated bicep curl that uses only the muscles of your shoulders and arms. Same with running vs. a calf raise.

Thus, it is important to realize and address where you are in terms of conditioning. Proper adaptation requires balance between training hard and training smart. Acknowledging your current level of work capacity is a huge part of this. Just because you aspire to be like a star athlete does not mean that you can mirror that athlete’s current training regimen.

How do I avoid or mitigate the effects of overtraining?

“Easy — just rest!”

Of course, this is never the answer we like to hear and for the most part, this is too general of an answer for the competitive mindset ingrained in most of us. A better answer would be that we need to rest an appropriate amount in relation to the intensity of training. But how much rest is appropriate? To properly answer this question, we need to understand the most important factors of rest and recovery to put you more in tune with how you should be programming your training. Improving performance takes time; don’t be shortsighted with your goals.

Sleep

The importance of sleep has really garnered a lot of mainstream attention in the last few years. By now, mostly everyone realizes its pivotal role in overall health. With strength training specifically, sleep serves important restorative functions by way of the endocrine system (i.e., the release of human growth hormones, testosterone, etc.). While we sleep, our bodies seek to reverse the stressors placed upon it during the waking hours (a process known as catabolism) through a process known as anabolism. Here is an illustrative excerpt from ShapeFit.com:

When anabolism exceeds catabolism, net growth occurs. When catabolism exceeds anabolism, net loss occurs. Therefore by reducing the rate of catabolism, anabolism is increased, and results in faster recovery, an increased growth rate, and an overall higher level of performance.

Many studies have shown that deprivation of sleep negatively impacts your body by altering the amount of several hormones:

  • Cortisol - releases too much. Cortisol is a catabolic stress hormone that increases abdominal fat storage and stimulates the breakdown of muscle tissue for use as energy. Too little sleep causes your body to release extra cortisol, thus storing extra body fat and breaking down extra muscle tissue.
  • Testosterone - lowers your body’s level. The higher your levels of testosterone, the more muscle you can build, but a lack of sleep lowers your body’s testosterone level.
  • Human Growth Hormone (HGH) - limits your body’s production. During sleep, your body experiences a natural surge in HGH which helps build and maintain muscle. Thus, by missing out on this critical time of recovery, you limit your body’s production of HGH.
  • Insulin - reduces your body’s uptake of important nutrients into your cells. Less sleep translates to higher insulin resistance levels, meaning your body needs to release higher-than-normal amounts of insulin to compensate, which can lead to excess fat storage, diabetes, or heart disease. In addition, increased insulin-resistance reduces your body’s uptake of important nutrients into your cells.

Addressing the quality and quantity of your sleep is a great place to start: make sure you are consistently getting enough sleep in proportion to your training. However, it is important to note that the quality and quantity of sleep transcends the issue of overtraining and CNS fatigue.

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