Overtraining and Overreaching Differences

Working Beyond Capacity

Bench press
Don't overtrain; don't overreach. (c) Paul Rogers / Cooloola Fitness

The frequency, intensity, type, time and timing of training prepares your body in the best way possible. The acronym F.I.T.T is often used to describe this approach to training for best results and to guard against overtraining and over-reaching.

  • Frequency - how often you train
  • Intensity - how hard you train
  • Type - the exercises you include in a workout
  • Time - the time elapsed of your workout (volume)

    Overtraining

    Overtraining can best be described as a condition of anatomical, muscular, physiological or psychological injury or fatigue that results from training in excess of the ability of your body to repair and recover. Overtraining tends to be a chronic condition that does not dissipate with a few days rest and recovery, and it may take weeks or more for you to return to optimum performance.

    Blood hormones and other markers may be used to help clarify overtraining.

    Overreaching

    Overreaching is usually regarded as a more acute phase of training or physical activity that causes fatigue and possibly soreness from which you can recover over a few days with appropriate rest or milder training. 

    Comparing Conditions

    The distinction is purported to be that overreaching is a short-term (days rather than weeks) condition that improves with rest; and overtraining is a chronic condition that continues for longer and that may have measurable elements of poor health and fitness.

    However, getting tired from training and improving with rest is a normal condition that most serious weight trainers and athletes recognize. In fact, overreaching could be used as a training strategy to build competitive strength and performance. One could argue that overreaching is a normal amount of high-quality training in particular phase that requires a few extra days rest and perhaps a modification of volume or intensity for the next phase.

    For example, phase cycling in periodized weight training is well known.

    On the other hand, if you can't recover after appropriate short-term rest, you may well have a systemic condition that can be measured finitely -- blood tests for abnormal iron status and high resting heart rates for example. Overtraining may also have adverse effects on the immune system that may be measurable.

    How to Know If You Have Overtrained

    • Heart rate. If your resting heart rate is elevated by 10 beats or more at your regular, consistent time of measuring resting heart rate, often taken first thing on waking, you may need to slow down. If it's normally 50 BPM and you consistently get it at 60 BPM (without exercise), then it could be that your body is telling you that something is not quite right. It may be a looming infection, or it could be overtraining -- or something else. If you take a few days rest from training and it returns to normal, then you can usually confidently resume your normal training program. If not, see your doctor. (Iron-deficiency anemia can also cause an elevated heart rate.)
    • Muscle, tendon, or ligament soreness. Chronic, overuse injuries to tendons like the Achilles tendon are typical examples. Tennis, golf or pitcher's elbow are in this category. Medical attention and substantial rest of that part may be required for healing to occur.
    • Chronic fatigue may have a clear nutritional cause. Low iron, inadequate carbohydrate consumption, and possibly low protein dietary status and, or hormonal disruption may cause a sense of fatigue and weakness. Consult a sports dietitian or physician for best advice.
    • Abnormal weight loss beyond your normal training and competing lean weight could be a sign you are doing too much work for the food energy you are able take in. A sports nutritionist can measure your energy balance and advise accordingly. Abnormal fatigue might accompany this weight loss. The female triad is a constellation of over-training and under-nutrition symptoms that includes weight loss, loss of menstruation and bone weakening over time.
    • Psychological exhaustion or disinterest may also account for some cases of fatigue, lassitude and malaise in highly competitive sports and endeavors. See your doctor or an established and experienced sports psychologist.

    Sources

    Sports Med. 2004;34(14):967-81. Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research. Halson SL(1), Jeukendrup AE.

    Sports Med. 2005;35(4):339-61. Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Kraemer WJ(1), Ratamess NA.

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