Overtraining Slows us Down!

A tailored training and nutrition programme that lies within your personal limits can go a long way to improving your performance says nutritional therapist and coach Ian Craig


“Overtraining is most frequently defined as a loss of performance despite the maintenance or increase of training load. It has been reported to be more common for athletes engaged in heavy training for individual sports compared to team or less physically demanding sports.”


Coming from the sporting field, I have always been thoroughly aware of the term overtraining. It’s something I thought might be a problem for elite athletes who were routinely training 2-3 times a day and not resting enough; whereas mere mortals like myself, who were only training 1-2 times per day, were pretty much exempt. When I moved to London in 2001 and my boss, also an exercise physiologist, told me that I was overtraining, I thought he was crazy because I was only running 70-80km a week at the time. What he could see (and I couldn’t) were my flagging energy levels at work and my increasing irritability. I had failed to take into account my new London lifestyle, including a full-time job on my feet all day, one hour daily bike commute, 6am start times, no naps and more nights out. My running fitness didn’t seem to be progressing as quickly as previous years and I became injured almost before the season started.


Runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes and any non-full-time endurance athletes tend to get up early in the morning, clock up potentially big miles plus work a long day as well as attending to family and social life. What can then happen is that you become low on sleep hours, depleted in energy at certain times of the day, deprioritise the healthy food choices because you don’t have time to eat well and start to pick up more colds and infections than previously. Don’t blame the kids or your work mates, it is your immune system that let the bugs in! After all, eminent scientists like Professor Tim Noakes and others have shown that competitive athletes are more likely to become ill than Lazy Joes – in simplistic terms, it appears that the immune system of somebody who exercises moderately is the strongest, followed by the sedentary population, followed by top endurance athletes. So, what can you do – give up your job so that you can do sport full-time. Its worth dreaming about, but the point is that precious few cyclists, runners or multisporters have that luxury. You could bin the cycling and just head out on weekend family rides once the sun comes up, but that would be denying your passion. Or, you could aim to create more balance in your busy life and seek physiological support from good nutritional choices.


I am going to share my experiences with you through a relevant case study, which should be of more interest to you than just discussing scientific theory:


Will, the Overtrained Executive


Will was a 35-year old competitive triathlete who came to see me in April 2009. He had a line-up of races through the British summer season, with his highlight race being the London Olympic Distance Triathlon in July. Despite having a well-designed training programme (from the club coach) and being very dedicated to his sport, the previous two years had seen deterioration in performance. He had been putting the same effort into his training but gaining less of a training-effect than previous years and now found that he wasn’t as competitive as in his early 30’s. He picked up frequent colds and stomach bugs, which were obviously highly disruptive. Additionally, he had now reached the part of the pre-season where his overall training intensity would be raised, putting more of a strain on his body.


He had an interesting group of signs and symptoms:

  • He seemed depressed at times, especially around any lost training
  • Stresses in his life were plentiful: He was a senior executive of a large marketing corporation in London, working 10+ hour days, he was married with two young children and he faced a two-hour daily commute to work
  • Recurrent colds and stomach bugs which were more frequent when training hard
  • Digestive upsets especially when immune compromised
  • Fluctuating mood
  • Fluctuating energy
  • Deep sleep and hard to get up in the morning
  • Occasional dizzy spells when getting up too quickly
  • The need to eat frequently


Will ran or cycled for one to two hours before work three days a week (on the road at 5am); participated in a swim session one evening a week and the running club one evening a week; completed a swim-run brick on Saturdays and cycled with his club three hours on a Sunday.


In terms of diet, he ate little and often in a very snacky pattern. With dietary analysis, I determined that Will consumed about 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day (21% protein, 44% carbs, 35% fat), whereas I estimated that he would need over 3,500-4,000 calories per day to meet his training demands. This may seem like a strange observation in the world of ‘we are fat because we eat too much’, but I frequently find that endurance athletes eat less than they need – this observation has been supported in the scientific community.


My Assessments


You have probably guessed most of his imbalances by now, but many athletes just need somebody to tell them! It’s like having a coach – you might have the knowledge in your own head, but you can be too emotionally connected to your own body – an external observer can provide a more rational insight to your health and training. I thought that Will had an unsustainable lifestyle – he trained too much based on his working hours and the fact that he supported a family. He didn’t eat enough food and he didn’t eat the best foods – he was trying to put basic supermarket-brand oil in his Ferrari body. In my mind, he was well onto the overtrained spectrum. Overtraining is most frequently defined as a loss of performance despite the maintenance or increase of training load. It has been reported to be more common for athletes engaged in heavy training for individual sports compared to team or less physically demanding sports.

Overtrained athletes appear to be more susceptible to illness, depression, headaches, muscle tenderness, tightness and injury. As I noted at the start with my own example, overtraining can be affected by the sum of stresses in your life, not just the overall mileage that you’re doing.


I also asked Will to complete an Adrenal Stress Index test, which looks at stress hormone levels (cortisol and DHEA) – not surprisingly, they were severely depleted. What I did find surprising though, was that he was still able to get out of bed in the morning (cortisol spikes in the morning are normally associated with waking up)!


My Interventions


I discussed the results with his coach and we agreed that he should delay his first important race by one month and cut two sessions per week from his schedule. We would also monitor the effect with a training diary – this would record how he feels each training session and to write a score for the following questions:


1) I slept really well last night

2) I am looking forward to today’s workout

3) I am optimistic about my future performance(s)

4) I feel vigorous and energetic

5) My appetite is great

6) I have very little muscle soreness


Each statement is rated on a 1-5 scale as follows:

1 = Strongly Disagree; 2 = Disagree; 3 = Neutral; 4 = Agree; 5 = Strongly Agree.

A score of over 20 indicates that recovery is good; but if below 20, tapering back on the training should be considered.



I increased his daily calorie intake to over 3,000 to try and match his current requirements. This involved increasing protein, fat and carbohydrate intake, along with a substantial boost in vegetable and fruit consumption. His wife was happy to help him to prepare a lunch and snacks to take to the office with him – he was to aim to eat every 2-3 hours with good protein-carb balance to support blood sugar levels. Protein intake and blood sugar control are vitally important for adrenal support.


I also reviewed his sports drinks and ensured that each training session was preceded by a light snack and accompanied by a reputable sports drink or diluted fruit juice. His post-exercise snack was whey protein powder with some fruit juice or blended fruit (a smoothie) to replenish used carb stores and broken down muscle fibres.


For supplements, I recommended a comprehensive multi-nutrient high in chromium for blood sugar control plus extra Vitamin C and magnesium for adrenal health. He also took some amino acid (protein building blocks) powders for adrenal support (l-tyrosine) and immune function (l-glutamine), along with a probiotic for digestive and immune health.


Lifestyle Suggestions

Delegate and let other people help him out

Take the train to work – less stressful than driving in London!

Establish a planned, monotonous routine at least for a while

Do some walking meditation each time he walks to a meeting – focusing on breathing is very replenishing to the body


Will took the advice seriously like he normally did for training and after a couple of months of the lessened work-load, his training actually started to become stronger. He had a mediocre performance in his July race, but by the end of August, he was starting to feel fresher. One year forward, with more rest and a continuously changing attitude towards training and nutrition, his 2010 season was actually his best since his early 30’s. He was a lot more aware of his own body and when he should ease off training, take a lie-in and refocus on healthy nutrition.



About the Author

Ian Craig MSc, CSCS, INLPTA is an exercise physiologist, nutritional therapist, NLP practitioner and an endurance coach. He was a competitive middle-distance runner for 20 years and is now a more leisurely cyclist and triathlete. Ian specialises in sport from an integrative health perspective and in his South Africa and UK clinics, integrates the fields of sports nutrition and nutritional therapy in an applied way so that both health and performance are considered. Ian is the editor of this magazine and Functional Sports Nutrition and also lectures and writes extensively in the UK and South Africa on the concept of ‘Functional Sports Nutrition’. He is the module leader of the Centre for Nutrition Education’s ‘Personalised Sports Nutrition’ postgraduate module and is a lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Sports Performance Institute.

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