May 14, 2012
Recently, I raced the Wildflower triathlon in California (that's me running in the picture above).
Wildflower is know for being a tough, hilly event – designed to chew up triathletes and spit them out.
So I knew that if I wanted to do decently in this race, I needed to train hard.
Typically, leading up to a Half-Ironman or Ironman event, I “build” for 8-12 weeks – meaning that I workout at both greater volume and greater intensity (click here for a free, hour-long video that outlines exactly what I recommend for the last 12 weeks leading up to an Ironman triathlon).
For example, here's what a typical training week looked like for me for the last 8 weeks:
Monday: 45 minute bike workout, 45 minute lift, 90 minute tennis match
Tuesday: 3-4K recovery swim (mostly drills)
Wednesday: 2 hour swim-bike-run workout with tempo intervals
Thursday: 3-4K swim intervals, 90 minute tennis match
Friday: 2 hour swim-bike-run workout with speed intervals
Saturday: 90 minute bike, 3-4K swim intervals
Sunday: 60-90 minute run
For the last 3 weeks of this build, I didn't have a single recovery day, and it finally caught up to me. I was approaching what I refer to as an “overreached” state (incidentally, most people call this state “overtraining”, but in reality, overtraining is typically when you're trained so hard that you've reached the point of no return – the only reason I used term “overtraining” in the title of this article is because the term “overreaching” is not as recognizable).
How did I know this?
I've mentioned before on a podcast that I use a device called the “HeartMath emWave2” to track my heart rate variability (the differences in length of time between each of your heart beats). This allows me to know if I've “overcooked” myself, because it will tell me when my nervous system has been overtaxed, which is usually the first sign that you may be getting overtrained.
Here's the basics of how heart rate variability tracking works and how you can use it to track your training status:
The origin of your heartbeat is located in what is called a “node” of your heart, in this case, the sino-atrial (SA) node.
In your SA node, cells in your heart continuously generates an electrical impulse that spreads throughout your entire heart muscle and causes a contraction. Generally, your SA node will generate a certain number of these electrical impulses per minute, which is how many times your heart will beat per minute.
Below is a graphic of how your SA node initiates the electrical impulse that causes a contraction to propagate from through the Right Atrium (RA) and Right Ventricle (RV) to the Left Atrium (LA) and Left Ventricle (LV) of your heart.
So where does heart rate variability fit into this equation?
Here's how: Your SA node activity, heart rate and rhythm are largely under the control of your autonomic nervous system, which is split into two branches, your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system and your “fight and flight” sympathetic nervous system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system influences heart rate via the release of acetylcholine by the vagus nerve, which can inhibit activation of SA node activity and decrease heart rate variability.
In contrast, your sympathetic nervous system influences heart rate by release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, and generally increases activation of the SA node and increases heart rate variability.
If you're well rested and haven't been overtraining aerobically, your parasympathetic nervous system interacts cooperatively with your sympathetic nervous system to produce responses in your heart rate variability to respiration, temperature, blood pressure, stress, etc.
But if you're not well rested (overtrained or inadequately recovered), the normally healthy beat-to-beat variation in your heart rhythm begins to diminish. This variability indicates sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system balance, and proper regulation of your heartbeat by your nervous system.
In other words, the delicate see-saw balance of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system no longer works.
In a strength or speed athlete, you typically see more sympathetic nervous system overtraining, and symptoms such as:
-High cortisol & insulin
-Low testosterone & DHEA
-Fluid retention and swelling
-Highly variable HRV (heart rate variability number bounces around from day to day)
Comparatively, in endurance athletes, you typically see more parasympathetic nervous system overtraining, and symptoms such as:
-Adrenal exhaustion (low cortisol, low insulin, low testosterone, low DHEA)
-“Rest & Digest” overstimulation
-Low HRV (the heart rate variability number stays consistently low)
In my case, as I neared the finish of my build to the Wildflower triathlon, I began to notice consistently low HRV scores – indicating I was nearing an overreached status and my parasympathetic nervous system was getting overcooked.
Technically, if you can recover correctly from this type of breakdown and overreaching, your rebound and subsequent fitness gain is actually greater than what it would have been if you hadn't pushed yourself “to the edge”. This is basically a stair-step recovery effect and looks like this:
The problem is that many people overreach…
…and then don't recover properly…
…so the graph looks like the one below – with weeks and weeks of improper recovery eventually leading to overtraining and lower fitness levels, which is how most people are when they get to the starting line of a triathlon or similar endurance event, scratching their head and wondering why they feel like crap even though they did so much hard training:
Aside from the very apparent opposite direction of the stairstepping effect, did you notice the primary difference between the two slides?
The first slide indicates recovery while the second slides indicates only partial recovery.
And that's the trick, really – to push yourself to the edge (overreach), and then achieve supercompensation and a gain in fitness by giving yourself full recovery.
But recovery of a taxed parasympathetic nervous system cannot be gained simply by training less, lower volume, or decreasing intensity. While reduced training certainly helps restore proper nervous system function, typically there are other strategies necessary to get fast and effective recovery from overreaching.
So here are four of my favorite methods, and what I immediately pulled out of the closet when I realized my HRV numbers were rapidly dropping, consistently low and I had an overtrained parasympathetic nervous system that needed some serious adjustment if I was to be ready to race:
1. Frequent Cold Exposure – Cold immersion can lower inflammation, and markers of inflammatory damage such as CRP or interleukin – which allows the body to bounce back faster from an overreached state. In my case, I have access to a very cold river that currently runs at about 40-45 degrees Farenheit, so when I saw those HRV scores begin to drop, I began full body immersion for 20-30 minutes a day, 1-2x/day (you can also achieve this in an ice bath if you live in a warmer climate without access to a cold body of water). I combined with wearing 110% compression tights and shirt filled with ice sleeves while I was sitting at home working.
2. Adaptogenic Herbs – I use a Chinese Adaptogenic Herb complex called Tian Chi, and I began to double dose on an empty stomach 1-2x/day, in mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon. The ingredients of Tian Chi include compounds that help to relieve adrenal gland stress and support proper adrenal function, including ashwaganda, eleuthero, epemedium and gotu kola. These type of compounds are incredibly effective at restoring function to your adrenal glands when you've been asking yourself to churn out adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine, etc. with day after day of hard training.
3. Deep Sleep – During deep sleep, your body releases large amounts of growth hormone for repair and recovery, and initiates cellular turnover that can speed up removal of “junk” from a taxed musculoskeletal system. Once I saw my HRV score drop, my goal was to get myself into a deep sleep phase as quickly as possible, and I did this by using an Earthpulse Sleep Machine device to activate my “deep sleep” Delta brain waves, along with sleeping in a very dark room, using 500mg magnesium before bed, and making sure to use my blue-light blocking glasses at any point after 4pm in the afternoon.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Diet – Because they result in a net acidic load when you metabolize them, pro-inflammatory foods will increase inflammation and increase your pain from the inflammation. These include processed meats, foods high in omega 6 fatty acids like roasted seeds and nuts, pastries and cereals, starches, and even nightshade plants like regular potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. When you're injured or overtrained and looking for every available advantage, you should instead prioritize foods with natural anti-inflammatory properties, like dark-skinned fruits and vegetables (pomegranates, cherries, blueberries, plums, artichokes, spinach and broccoli are excellent), high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (cold-water fish, cod liver oil, fish oil, etc.) and natural herbal anti-inflammatories like turmeric, curcumin, garlic and ginger.
Within 5 days of using the strategies out lined above, my body was restored and ready to race, and rather than arriving at the starting line feeling beat up and overworked, I ended up recovering, having my heart rate variability score sore back up, and setting a personal race record at the triathlon (pictured right as I come off the bike).
I hope that helps you to better understand how to track markers of overreaching or overtraining, and what type of action to take when you realize that you've been pushing your body too hard.
If you'd like to check out some of my recommended supplement “stacks” for getting out of adrenal fatigue or overtraining, then you should go to the Ben Recommends page and scroll down to “Adrenal Exhaustion”. Usually, the type of supplement protocol you will read about there is only really necessary if you've truly overtrained yourself, whereas the 4 strategies outlined above will work if you are simply needed a quick fix to a slightly overreached system.
Questions, comments or feedback about what to do when you're overtrained? Simply leave them below.
41 thoughts on “How To Dig Yourself Out Of The Hole – What To Do When You’re Overtrained”
What do you recommend for recovering from an overactive sympathetic system? My HRV varies a lot and I am suffering from super sore/weak/dead legs every day.
One and a half years Ago i started pushing myself too far, i was a competetive Athleten, a Tennis Player and for the whole Summer i think i gave my body not enough recovery while training 35 h a week and playing tournaments, so that resultet in me getting really tired and unmotivated, even tho i slept fine i was tired all day. I went to a doctor and was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. So i stopped training at high intensitys and just did light stuff, half a year later I felt the Same, even worse because i couldnt train like i did before. Thats when i stopped training completely. That was half a year ago and now i still dont feel much better, what can i do to geht my Body to Receiver?
Thanks a lot, Paul
Später i am 19 yo now
I see other people have posted their situation and obtained a feedback from other people in the same context so I’ll try my chances :
I overtrained during lockdown. I was already at 15hrs per week and I went to 20-22 per week during 3 months, it was my way to cope. No rest day. Only “light” days. Light days still include a minimum of 60min cardio and 60min strength or bodyweight training. After reading this article and after having issues with my back, legs and arms, I decided to give myself a break of 5 days. In 12 yrs, I’ve only done this once before.
Is it normal that I have insomnia? I was sleeping just fine before (even if I’ve had issues with insomnia and overtraining before). My body just feel completely lost. I’m tired, even tho I walk about 10km per day. I feel like crap really.
I reduced by 30% my caloric intake, because I didn’t want to gain too much weight. I was about 1800-2000 calories before and now I’m in 1200.
PS= I’m female. 31 years old. I run (60km per week in average), do 2-3 HIIT cardio training & strength HIIT, about 5-6 heavyweight training or bodyweight per week and about 5 fitness cardio workouts (like combat). Extremely busy work life at a marketing agency yet I try to stay active as well during work (following Ben’s guidelines in my personal bible “BEYOND TRAINING”).
A really interesting read & very useful tips. I frequently put myself in the same situation, push it that bit too far in the run up to an event & end up slightly over the edge. I’m going to put into test your ideas if it happens again. Out of interest what did you do training wise during the 5 day ‘recovery/treatment’ period? Rest, light training, normal training?
Active recovery. Sauna, yoga, swimming, easy sunshine walks, etc.
Sounds like I need to book a consult. I HOPE and pray it is over reaching and not over training. Definitely struggling to get my heart rate up even on full exertion runs. Im religious with ashwaghanda and a few other adaptogens. I know HOW to eat, need to actually do it. But, I’m interested In how much ice baths really play a roll in recovery.
Thanks for this very helpful article! I as a cyclist got a high blood pressure of around 145/80 since a few months ago but late last year it showed up as around 120/75. That was just before I had lost my job. I think all the job interviews stressed me up each time. I relaxed a bit in the meantime, knowing that I still have a part-time job and even more time to cycle, cycling about 20 km per ride, about 5 days per week and quite in a rushed manner with sprints to sync with traffic, which stresses me many times as there are bad drivers here. I seemed to have lost a lot of sweat at times especially in the afternoons but topped with water only. I also experience some panic attacks and what seems to be a palpitation when upset or tensed. I cycled for years to work (30 km/day), and leisure on Saturdays and noticed nothing strange except that after some time I lacked feelings of excitement.
Could the current routine have caused a higher resting blood pressure with the panic attacks?
Now for some great feedback! Today my blood pressure measured 117/80. Every time I stand up, it is as if my body needs some time to recover its blood pressure. I took ashwaganda herb when feeling depressed or when a workout felt too intense, to cut cortisol levels which also seemed to have improved sleep. Hibiscus tea and hawthorn could further reduce the resting blood pressure, together with a more relaxed style of cycling. This style includes discipline to take more rest days and no exercise after a bad night’s sleep.
Great information you are sharing here!
I am in the awful situation where I think i have overtrained and making such slow progress that it seems like it I will never return to being myself ever again. This is even worse as I am a mother of 2 small children (3 and 5) and my moods, overthinking about my problem and lack of sleep seem to be affecting my family as well.
I know you have already shared so much information in the book, on the website and in your interviews but I feel like I have to ask if this overtraining is reversible or not. Am I trying in vain to recover 100%? Is this even possible?
After a great year with many races of trail running, sky running, mountain biking, half ironman courses, I was planning to take a break and prepare for an ironman but the break was not actually a break but it consisted of few more races, long rides and runnings while not being so careful about what and how much I was eating. My kids got sick for 3 weeks and I had less and less sleep and the quality of it was not so good but I NEVER EVER foresaw what was going to happen all of a sudden: insomnia, severe anxiety, elevated blood pressure, muscle soreness, nervous breakdown (i thought i had all possible diseases, i am still unable to cope with bad news, I feel as if I am already 80 years old). I lost about 4kg in 2 weeks and was feeling very weak.
Slowly I managed to fall asleep without sleeping pills (bu t I am still unable to stay asleep the whole night; I wake up 3 to 4 times per night and sometimes I fall asleep easily, sometimes not) I gained back my 4kilos, I have good days but I still have serious headaches, or chest pain (like a node in my throat), I feel sad that I once was very strong and powerful and now I cannot even have conversations about my previous sports life and i easily break into tears.
It’s been almost 4 months since this breakdown and I am afraid that most of the time I feel like there will be no end to this. I read stories about people struggling with insomnia and anxiety for years (?!?!). I never in my life have I thought I would be having these kind of problems. Sports was for me the best way to have fun and stay healthy, while making friends and enjoying life. And now.. I have to reduce everything to a minimum. Any walk for more than 30 minutes tires me so bad that all the symptoms of overtraining return immediately.
Please let me know your thoughts on this and maybe some examples of success stories.
Thanks Ben and keep up the good work.
I know its a fair bit on from when you posted this article. I am pretty certain I’ve over trained and have a big race in 3 weeks time. I was interested to read that you were back and fresh within 5 days and am wondering what sort of activity/exercise you were doing in those 5 days if any?
I did what I described in this article, but I would also suggest you check this out: http://home.trainingpeaks.com/products/trainingpl…
I was severely overtraining 5 years ago, weight training 3hrs a day, active job, trail running every other day, mountain biking, kayaking…Everything active. I started experiencing digestion issues so I did an elimination as recommended by my nutritionist. I started having major symptoms but my nutritionist said it was detoxing. I gained 30lbs in a month, started experimenting jawline acne, hair loss, depression. They found that I now had hypothyroidism, low testosterone, low DHEA, high cortisol. I lost my menses for 1.5yrs.
Fast forward to today I cannot lose any body fat regardless of diet/exercise. I eat whole foods only, no dairy no soy no gluten. I’m very strict. Carbs are only fibrous veggies, root vegetables and tubers. I eat mainly chicken but do have occasional red meat and fish. I train weights 3-4 times a week and do 1-2bush sprints. My sleep is sometimes ok sometimes not. I vary by the week in body composition and tend to retain water easily. I think I may always be somewhat puffy. After reading this article I wonder if I haven’t healed yet. How to I fix these issues and start to repair. I miss the high activity but I mainly miss a lean fit body that seems so far away
It's best for you to book a consult. Go to <a href="https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben” target=”_blank”>www.greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben and choose 20 or 60 minutes and we'll get you scheduled to go into detail and find you some answers!
By Ben, love your show and content.
During the five days it took you to bounce back, besides the items mentioned above, did you incorporate any active recovery techniques (e.g. Light cycling not allowing your heart rate to get too high, stretching, yoga, etc.) or did you do nothing?
I did something really stupid about a year ago. Frustrated at my lack of fitness progress, I began training at a crazy intensity… Ignoring all the signs my body was giving me about fatigue and injuries.
I was also working a very physical job at the time, and I feel like I’ve now done some serious permanent damage to my health.
It’s been over a year since I woke up from my stupidity, but nothing I do seems to bring back the “old me”…
I’m worried I’ll NEVER recover from the damage I’ve done. And despite spending hours everyday on the net reading and trying to understand how to repair the damage, I feel like I’m getting nowhere.
I eat very healthy, gets lots of rest and I’m very cautious with my workouts now. But I just don’t feel like I’m getting better… :(
I would really appreciate any advice you could give that might help me overcome this. Thanks.
Joey, have you tried the recommendations here? That's where I would start. You can also get an Adrenal Stress Index test done, you can get one from DirectLabs yourself: http://goo.gl/JJoOT I also have an adrenal fatigue recovery training plan that will take you through everything here: http://home.trainingpeaks.com/products/trainingpl…
Beyond that, book a consult with me at greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben and choose 20 or 60 mins and we'll get it sorted for you!
Have you managed to succeed in recovering 100%? I might be in the same situation..
I hit a bout of overtraining about a year ago. I have taken time off from running, bought an Earthpulse, and cleaned up my diet to the best of my knowledge. I am still struggling with insomnia, though. I also take Natural Calm and take ice baths when I can. I guess I’m asking for any other type of advice you might have to offer?
Highly recommend you look into this for insomnia: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/cbd – and it works REALLY well when combined with https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/sleepremedy
Would Overeaching also result in frequent muscle strains as well? I am a mixed martial artist who does quite a bit of endurance work. Lately I have been getting frequent sprains of my front deltoids, biceps, and other muscles. Would the recommendations outlined suffice in helping me recover? Or would I have to do something more? Thanks for the help!
Yes overreaching would indeed results in increased risk for soft tissue damage. The recommendations above will help. You may want to do something more but I would need to see your diet and exercise plan to be able to give you more specific pointers. You can book a consult at bengreenfieldfitness.com/coaching and choose 20 or 60 mins and we'll get you sorted.
Could you "share with [us] some of the personal meditation and recovery techniques [you] use to enhance my HRV score" ?
HeartMath.org's Cohesion techniques primarily, Brian – that's where I originally learned most of these techniques. Check out http://goo.gl/C4soc
I meet people all the time who underestimate how important deep, quality sleep is when it comes to weight loss, fitness, and training. Can't wait to try out some of your tips for getting a better night's sleep.
Ben, I've been using a great new tumeric curcumin supplement called Empower, and I have to say that I'm in love with the anti-inflammatory support it's giving me. I never would have believed it just reading it, but it's totally true. I also have to admit, I now get why I seem to crave cherries when I ramp up the workouts. Great article!!
Hi Ben – I listened to podcast 194 again about sudden heart attacks and referenced this article on how you use the Em Wave to track recovery. Is there a certain metric within the Em Wave that you are tracking? How do you know when you get to the "over reaching" state? Thanks Ben!
You're not tracking a metric per se as much as an inability to reach a state of cohesion as quickly or as long as you have previously…
Hi Ben – I'm guessing you meant to say "coherence".
I'm curious about this aspect, since I've been using an emwave for a few months now. You're not just 'testing' with the emwave to see if you're in coherence, you're actually attempting to attain coherence?
Also, what challenge level are you using on the device? I find that I can get to 90% coherence on the easy and medium levels pretty consistently, but the top two challenge levels are near impossible for me.
Great post. Thanks,
Ben, I noticed you had 3 hrs of tennis for that week. I love tennis, actually I was an advanced tennis player myself turned into a triathlete after tearing my rotator cuff in a ski accident two years ago. My comment is that tennis involves explosive movements that put a lot of stress in the joints, particularly when playing at advanced levels on hard courts. Actually, I heard Rafa Nadal's knees are in such a bad condition after each hard court season that he would do all his endurance workouts in an elyptic machine to avoid running. Do you think your love for the sport of tennis is worth the risk? Maybe just rallying on soft surfaces like clay instead of playing competitively matches would be a reasonable compromise.
Totally worth the risk. ;)
Seriously though, the issue is that in an acidic, inflamed body, joint breakdown happens prematurely. I take care of my body, eat anti inflammatory foods, train my hip mobility, utilize my core, etc. and have had no issues. I've been playing competitive tennis for a long time…
Ben on that earth pulse sleep aid, do you sleep with it everynight? or do you cycle it throughout the year. Is it hard to get back to sleep in periods without it? More info on that would be great.
I've been using it every night, and also for naps during the day. It just goes under my mattress. Their website is freaking awesome for information and research studies:
Yeah, all fine and good, but WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SQUATTY POTTY???
Still use my squatty potty every day. ;)
what about when you have lost lean muscle mass and have trouble building it back up?
That's usually testosterone or growth hormone Ken. Check this page: http://goo.gl/Zu02D
Really interesting article Ben. I am an Exercise Physiologist in Australia and I haven't heard anyone put over training/reaching in such effectively simple terms coupled with what the first steps should be. I work with rowers who are consistenly trying to balance training with recovery and this has added some very helpful and attainable points that can be done.
Glad it helps, Amy!