As the main endurance sports season draws to a close in the UK – I’m writing this at the start of October – how are you feeling? Did you achieve your goals? Did you manage to avoid injury or illness? Are you feeling ready for a break but looking forward to training and racing next year? Or are you feeling more fatigued than usual – you might describe it as “burnt out”? Perhaps you fell short of achieving your goals, feel in need of a long period of rest and are wondering what you need to do differently next year to avoid this happening again?
If the latter descriptions sound more like you at the moment, it’s likely that you have over-trained. A common definition of overtraining is a loss of performance despite maintaining or increasing training. Signs of over-training include:
- Not making improvements in training
- Persistent fatigue, even with rest
- Anxiety or depression
- Lowered immunity
- Muscle aches
- Increased susceptibility to injury
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Increase or decrease in normal appetite
Here’s a link to a home test you can do to assess whether you might be over-trained: http://www.active.com/articles/try-this-test-to-pinpoint-signs-of-overtraining
It’s important to realise that over-training is not the result of excessive training alone. Clearly, appropriate and progressive increases in training load are needed to make the adaptations that result in improved performance. This is known as ‘over-reaching’. But when heavy training is combined with other stressors, such as challenges at work or family commitments, the cumulative effect of stress on the body may result in signs of over-training, particularly if your diet is also sub-optimal and your body is not receiving the nutrients it needs to support the increased demands you are placing on it.
There are several ways in which a poor diet exacerbates your response to increased stress, whether that’s physical stress like training or emotional stress. Firstly, your body responds to stressors by releasing the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. The more cortisol that is needed, the more demand your body has for nutrients, particularly magnesium, vitamin C and B vitamins. If your need for cortisol remains high over an extended period of time, the adrenal glands begin to make and release lower amounts. Eventually, this may result in the functional condition known as ‘adrenal fatigue’ (not a medical diagnosis) where your body can no longer respond adequately to stressors and you experience symptoms such as those listed above. As such, adrenal fatigue can be considered a consequence of overtraining. It is possible to take a saliva test that measures the amount of cortisol released at certain points in the day and this is one way to assess the extent of overtraining. Consult a registered nutritional therapist like myself (http://bant.org.uk/) or a functional medicine practitioner (https://www.functionalmedicine.org/) if you would like to take this Adrenal Stress Profile.
A poor quality diet – particularly a lack of vegetables and fruit – can also result in low anti-oxidant status, impacting on your ability to repair free radical damage to the mitochondria (the energy production facility within your cells) that results from exercise. This results in lower production of ATP (units of energy) and therefore increased fatigue. The heavier your training, the more need for anti-oxidant nutrients, such as vitamins C and E and polyphenols; nutrients to support methylation and detoxification processes, such as B vitamins and amino acids; and anti-inflammatory nutrients such as the omega 3 essential fatty acids found in oily fish and certain seeds. A poor diet, heavy training and other stressors all combine to raise levels of oxidative stress, a marker of damage to the cells which, if left unchecked, may increase risk of various health issues as well as contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction and therefore fatigue. It is also possible to test oxidative stress levels – see the earlier links.
So paying close attention to your diet is necessary if you wish to avoid becoming over-trained. Try following these tips:
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods rather than packaged foods most of the time. These will give you the most nutrients and minimise your exposure to unhealthy ingredients.
- Eat regularly throughout the day, taking care to fuel your training and support your recovery from your sessions.
- Make sure you are getting sufficient calories to meet your training needs. It is probably more than you think. See this link for a helpful guide: http://triathlete-europe.competitor.com/2011/05/18/how-to-calculate-your-energy-expenditure
- Eat 5-7 different vegetables and 2-3 different fruits each day. These should include a green leafy vegetable such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower or cabbage, and a serving of red/purple fruits such as berries or cherries.
- Include a source of quality protein in all your meals and snacks, eg meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts or seeds.
- Include a source of omega 3 fats daily (eg salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines, trout, walnuts, flax seed, chia seed, pumpkin seeds)
- Choose wholegrains rather than refined “white” carbohydrates to increase your intake of B vitamins and magnesium.
If you are showing signs of overtraining and looking to recover, these diet and lifestyle tips may be helpful, as well as strictly following the points made above:
- Consider an anti-oxidant supplement made from foods, eg a ‘superfoods powder’, in addition to plenty of vegetables and fruit. This could be mixed with a quality whey protein powder to make a morning smoothie.
- Cut out caffeinated drinks. Switch to herbal teas. Licorice tea may be helpful in the morning
- Avoid added sugars and refined carbohydrate foods such as biscuits, cakes, pastries.
- Add a small amount of sea salt to your daily diet unless you have high blood pressure.
- Add relaxation exercises to your daily routine. Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing.
- Take time away from hard training.
- Sleep as much as you need.
I hope you find this article helpful.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk