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The problem of TOO MUCH EXERCISE and overtraining - How to prevent it with Periodization. 

Signs of overtraining

A lack of enthusiasm or lack of motivation is usually the number one problem afflicting people when it comes to getting started and gaining momentum with a training program.

But what if there was the problem of too much motivation and too much enthusiasm?

I know you wouldn’t think it, but it really can be a problem, especially with obsessive types. It can hamper the success of a program if not kept in check and properly managed.

Dr. Hans Seyle, a pioneering endocrinologist, conceptualized a model of how the body responds to stress, known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (or GAS Principle).  

This principle basically breaks down the way a body responds to training stress into 3 parts: 

1) The “alarm stage”, which is caused by the application of an intense training stress, 2) the “resistance stage” where our muscles adapt to handle stresses more efficiently and 3) the “exhaustion stage” where if you continue to apply too much stress, you will exhaust all your reserves and be forced to stop training.

Basically what this means for your average person in the gym, is that a period of high intensity needs to be followed by a period of low or no intensity, or else you will end up in an overtrained state.

So you can see how too much enthusiasm can also be a bad thing. 

It’s a mistake I have made many times - you get all fired-up,  go “balls to the wall,” all the time and just end up burning out.

What does burning out, overreaching or overtraining mean exactly?

In a nutshell, they all mean an accumulation of stress with which your body can no longer effectively deal. 

Exercise is a stress your body is dealing with, and even though we voluntarily apply this stress it’s important to know that many other stressors in life will complement it and create a compounded effect. Our bodies can only handle a finite amount of stress.

If you happen to be going through a massive amount of psychological or emotional stress, not eating and sleeping well, or drinking too much – these are all stresses which will be added to the stress already imposed by exercise. 

Your body can only cope with so much, you will reach an overtrained state much quicker if you do not learn to manage all of the stresses imposed on your body.

How do you know if you are overtrained?

There are several psychological and physiological markers we can identify to help us recognize if we’re in, or approaching an overtrained state. But, it’s important to remember though, that prevention is definitely better than cure, because once you are in an overtrained state, it can takes weeks to get out of it, and back into effective training.

Avoiding overtraining is all about managing stresses, both the physical stresses imposed by exercise and the additional, outside stressors that add to it. 

How to manage all of the outside, environmental, emotional, chemical and social stresses is beyond the scope of this article, and not really my area of expertise, but what I can advise is that you try and minimize them as much as possible because they can negatively affect your training.

The signs of overtraining

There are many signs that give you an indication of whether you are in an overtrained state or not.

Anaerobic athletes (bodybuilders, weightlifters, sprinters, fighters etc) usually experience sympathetic overtraining symptoms such as:

Increased resting heart rate, increased blood pressure, loss of appetite, decreased body mass, sleep disturbances, emotional instability, decrease in performance and strength and elevated Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).

Aerobic athletes experience parasympathetic overtraining symptoms such as:

Early onset of fatigue, increased resting heart rate, decreased heart rate recovery after exercise and increased blood pressure.

Of the two, sympathetic overtraining is more common.

Another very significant change brought on by overtraining is a change in your body’s hormonal ratios. The ratio of testosterone to cortisol regulates the anabolic (muscle building) processes during recovery. 

Overtraining causes testosterone levels to drop and the cortisol levels to rise, impeding the anabolic process and facilitating the catabolic (muscle breakdown) process. Consequently, there will also be higher levels of urea in the urine as a result of muscle protein breakdown.

Advanced and professional athletes usually measure these levels through saliva and urine tests. It is the most accurate way to know for sure if you are in, or approaching an overtrained state.

This level of precision and effort is beyond what most people are interested in, but for those who are interested, here is a good article about how the testosterone and cortisol ratio can affect your training and gains. If you are interested in purchasing the testing kits, you can find them here.

Preventing overtraining through Periodization:

By now I am sure you are familiar with what overtraining is and how to recognize it. By applying a process known as Periodization to your training, you will be able to prevent it and have long-term gains and results.

What is Periodization?

Periodization is basically the breakdown of your training into discreet goals and cycles

If you think about it, professional athletes train and peak for specific events - they have an off-season and then gradually build up through the season in order to peak at the right time. 

They know their body can only handle so much, and that going all-out, at 100% effort year-round is just not possible. Yet, you see so many people in the gym, pushing themselves to the brink, day in and day out, only to end up burnt out and frustrated with their dismal results.

By employing periodization, you break your training into periods, known as macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles, with the goal of peaking or achieving a certain goal at a certain time - be it to gain 10lbs of lean muscle, to run a marathon, or to just be in really good shape for your beach holiday.

What are macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles?

A macrocycle can be thought of as an entire training period, for most people it will usually be a year.

A mesocycle is a periodical breakdown within the macrocycle and each one usually has a specific focus or aim. It usually lasts a few weeks or months, depending on your training and goals.

Lastly, a microcycle is one cycle of intensity. That could either be one intense workout, a few days, or even a week of training, depending on what type of training you are doing. Remember though, that an intense microcycle should always be followed by a less intense one so as to prevent overtraining.

An example of Periodization in practice.

So lets say you are just the average guy/girl whose goal is to look good – to build some muscle and lose fat. You have a beach holiday coming up in 6 months and you want to look really good for it. How would you implement a periodized program to achieve this goal?

The 6 month period, that’s an entire training period – your macrocycle. This 6 month period is then broken down into several distinct training periods, each one with a specific focus and goal – these are your mesocycles. 

Within each mesocycle you have different cycles of intensity (hard and easy days) – your microcycles.

To break it down further:

Over the 6 month macrocycle, you’d break your mesocycles and microcycles down into something like this, (if you’re a beginner):

Week 1-4 (Mesocycle): Bodyweight training to allow your muscles, tendons and joints to adapt to the coming stresses. 

Moderate interval training 2-3 times per week. 

Week 5-10 (Mesocycle): Weight training using full bodyworkouts to build overall musculature. 

3 days per week. 

One day of interval training.

Week 11:  ACTIVE Rest week. Low intensity training of your choice or casual engagement in sports.

Week 12-16 (mesocycle): Weight training split between upper and lower body days to further increase musculature, but to allow for more focus and intensity and also give longer recovery periods for individual muscle groups. 

4 weight training workouts per week – 1 high intensity and 1 lower intensity workout each week for upper and lower body respectively. 

2 interval training sessions.

Weeks 17-18 (mesocycle): Easier mesocycle due to previous one being quite a taxing one. 

2 full-body weight training workouts per week to maintain musculature. 

1 of high intensity, one of lower intensity. 

2 interval training sessions per week.

Weeks 19: ACTIVE Rest week. Low intensity training of your choice or casual engagement in sports.

Week 20 – 24 (mesocycle): 3 full body workouts per week performed at a high intensity on non-consecutive days. 

For example Monday, Wednesday, Friday. 

2 Sprint/Interval training sessions per week.

By beginning gradually and building up over the 6 month period, cycling low and high intensity days and having time off, you give your body time to adapt and recover adequately, avoiding overtraining and peaking at the right time for your goal.

Compare that with the average person who just starts out, going ‘balls to the wall’ with no real plan. Who is likely to look better on that beach in 6 months time?

Final comments on Periodization.

Periodization can be an extremely complex subject, I have just briefly touched on it here. Several books have been written on the subject and correctly periodizing your program takes some knowledge and experience, but if you take anything from this article, remember to have a plan for your training, with a goal that you want to achieve by a certain point in the future and then break your training up into discrete chunks (mesocycles), each with the aim of helping you achieve your main goal at the end. 

Don’t forget to cycle low and high intensity and take a some time off now and then, especially after a particularly difficult mesocycle. Overtraining is one of your biggest enemies…

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