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Overtraining - Definition

Overtraining has been defined by various authors as

  • "An imbalance between workouts, competitions and recovery times", ie excess workouts and races, associated with insufficient recovery times

  • "A condition in which the sum of negative biological effects caused by too-intense training and / or close-ups translates into incomplete functional regeneration of all cellular systems"

  • A general term indicating that the individual has been subjected to stress arising from training and other extraneous events (eg lifestyle), so as not to be able to express an optimal level of performance after an appropriate regeneration period ; For a diagnosis of overwork you need a drop in performance

Kuipers defines overtraining as an imbalance between workout and recovery resulting in a dysfunction of the neuroendocrine system at the hypothalamic level.
Fry, he talks about an abnormal increase in volume or workout intensity with a decrease in performance. They were especially Fry et coll. To emphasize the fact that it is indispensable to find a rebate in addition to the other elements in order to be able to claim that an athlete is in an overdrawn situation.

Defining the problem

With regard to the elements of the training structure that favor the onset of overtraining, it has been argued that the work volume (especially the one with relatively high intensity) is greater than the intensity itself. In fact, the increase in training volume leads to a reduction in days spent on recovery

The risk of overtraining, however, is mainly related to the imbalance between the loading and unloading reports in the training program
In fact, heavy workloads can be tolerated for long periods of time without getting overtraining by applying the correct principles of load alternation. The term "overtraining" is still discussed and some consider it improper, as it would indicate that the cause of the downtime should only be sought in the excessive amount of training loads. In fact, it has been observed that the causes of poor performance are multiple and are not related solely to errors in planning workouts

There is no clear demarcation between the normal fatigue resulting from training and overtraining; There is, however, an intermediate phase, represented by overheating (overreaching or short term overwork). One of the features that distinguish short-term overestimation from the long-term is the finding that from the first, after proper recovery, it is possible to obtain loan improvements, while once in the second, the only way out is a Recovery phase that lasts for several weeks, which will not lead to performance improvements, but rather the need to start from a low physical condition.

State fatigue stress from workout

After some heavy workouts for intensity and duration, it is physiological that appears a state of stress and stress; If recovery times are met, fatigue disappears, and supercompensation favors restoration and, indeed, improvement of the ability to pay. In this sense, one or two days of recovery or, at most, a period of seven days (exhaust or regeneration microcycle) are sufficient, in which dormant drainage exercises are performed because the symptoms disappear. We are within a normal course of the adaptive processes of the body undergoing a training program.

Over Training or Overtraining

When the athlete is exposed to exhaustive workouts, repeated competitions, and not least other types of stress (working and family environment) so that they are no longer able to express themselves at optimal performance levels, not even after an appropriate Drain and recovery period, then it's fair to talk about overtraining or overtraining. It should be emphasized that, in order to be able to safely diagnose a state of overwork, it is imperative to document a decline in the ability to perform. In the case of overtraining, two different forms must be distinguished: short-term overtraining or overreaching and long-term overtraining or overtraining syndrome .

Overreaching (short-term overtraining)


Transitional Reduction of Prestigious Abilities, which lasts a relatively short period of time (from a few days to two weeks) The athlete experiences a fatigue level higher than that which should result from a normal exercise load and should not be confused with the Normal fluctuation fluctuations that occur in the athlete day-to-day, however, fatigue can be disposed of with proper recovery and this does not compromise the supercompensation processes. It results in a reduction or failure to increase the performance capacity around the 4mML lactate


Sometimes this situation is expressly sought out by coaches who consider it a normal part of the training, especially if directed to seeking maximum adaptation to a competition. At the root of overreaching there seems to be a " peripheral " fatigue and, therefore, more typically muscular. If a negative performance, due to a state of overreaching, was not immediately recognized, the trainer could be induced to further increase the workload, with the aim of compensating for the gap in service: in that case the result would be to worsen the Situation, slipping the athlete towards the "overtraining syndrome". That of overreaching is therefore a very delicate stage, which must be recognized in order to avoid the risk of worsening the picture.

Overtraining syndrome (long-term overtraining)


Syndrome characterized by a state of chronic (long-term) psychophysical exhaustion, associated with a decrease in "performance" associated with type symptoms

  • Organic (sense of fatigue both at rest and in operation, stasis of adaptation capacity, reduced performance capacity around 4mML lactate)
  • Muscular (dementia, excessive fatigue),
  • Psychic (mood swings, appetite, sleep disturbances, decreased motivation)

The prognosis is more severe: this syndrome may last for weeks or months


Once established, unlike overreaching, compromises supercompensation processes. The athlete appears emptied, demotivated, and the absolute inability to react positively to the stimuli induced by training. It implies a " central " fatigue state characterized by changes in concentration and motivation abilities.

In the field of overtraining, two forms have to be differentiated:

" Sympathetic " type overtraining

Characterized by increased activity, in rest, of the sympathetic nervous system, which implies acceleration of heartbeat, excitement and restlessness. It is most common in most explosive, then anaerobic, sports, and affects younger athletes more frequently.

In determining it, socio-occupational and environmental factors combine with stress-induced training. The monotony associated with the workouts also plays a significant role in the determination of the sympathetic form.

Symptom of the "sympathetic" overtraining dominance

At a grant level

  • Performance drop
  • Decreased strength
  • Decrease in maximum power
  • General fatigue
  • Recovery difficulties

Cardiovascular level

  • Increase in heart rate at rest
  • Increased blood pressure at rest
  • Slowing down the recovery speed of fc at the end of a load

At anthropometric level

  • Decreased body mass, associated with loss of body fat or negative nitrogen balance (muscle tissue decline)

At the immunological level

  • Increased susceptibility to infections and diseases, with modifications of immunological blood profiles
  • Reactivation of viral herpes

Emotionally and behaviorally

  • Demotivation towards training and competition
  • sleep disorders
  • Emotional instability
  • Decreased appetite
  • Apathy and depression
  • Difficulty concentrating

This is a very large series of symptoms that, however, when appearing individually, if not accompanied by a drop in performance, can not be attributed to an overtraining situation

" Parasympathetic " overtraining

Characterized by the suppression of the activity of the sympathetic and not by a real dominance of the parasympathetic. This results in a typical apathetic and depressed attitude (reduced blood pressure, reduced fc at rest, ease in sleep and rest). It is predominantly found in aerobic sports and older people, and is more difficult to detect because the symptoms are less brilliant and alarming.

The subject, in fact, is in good health, with no sleeplessness (rather with the tendency to sleep more) without weight loss and with normal appetite.
It is the most deceptive form: it is characterized by a series of elements that could easily be confused with the positive changes induced by training (for example, lower heart rate at rest and faster recovery of the heart rate itself after effort )

Characteristic symptoms of "parasympathetic" dominance overpowering

  • Lowering the fc at rest
  • Faster recovery of the fc at the end of the effort
  • Decrease of lactate concentration at subassimal loads
  • Decrease in lactate production during exercise
  • Reduction of adrenaline and noradrenaline plasma levels at the end of incremental strain up to maximum levels
  • Ease of fatigue
  • Hypoglycaemia during exercise
  • Phlegmatic or depressed behavior

Diagnosing Overtraining - Markers for Early and Preventive Diagnosis

There is no "test" or "marker" that reveals the state of overtraining; For a sure recognition of the problem, different information needs to be crossed, primarily concerning the subject's level of provision (no overdrafts can be said if performance is not deteriorated), therefore hematochemical and psychological parameters. Alteration of some important parameters, along with signs and symptoms of the syndrome, may make it easier to diagnose overtraining.

The central element of the syndrome is of course the reduction of "performance", which should be quantified by using more or less complex and precise functional tests (determination of maximum oxygen consumption, maximum lactate production, etc.), but Which often appears clear from the simple analysis of the results obtained in racing or athlete's behavior.

Biochemical and humoral indicators have been proposed and used to facilitate diagnosis, but the general feeling is that none of these indicators alone can allow for a diagnosis of certainty, and for this reason it must come from an overall analysis The athlete's psychophysical state and a correct interpretation of all available functional and hematochemical parameters. When OT signs become obvious it's too late, so you must prevent them.

Studies to identify early-monitored markers of syndrome are numerous and often conflicting but some aspects of particular interest emerge that are discussed below


It is well known that the immune system plays an important role in the onset of overtraining. The over-rated athlete may suffer a significant reduction in immune defenses, which are responsible for a greater vulnerability to infections, especially the first respiratory tract. Among the hypotheses of depression of the immune system there is a "consumption" decrease in blood glutamine levels, an amino acid essential for protein synthesis occurring within the immune system.
Interestingly, the decline in glutamine occurs only for exhaustive and prolonged efforts (eg marathon), and not for intense, but of lesser duration. Mackinnon and Parry-Billings have thoroughly studied the glutamine kinetics, noting that during the exercise the amino acids, including glutamine, increase in the range from 30 to 300%.
Keep in mind the buffer function of amino acids (especially alanine) as well as the energetic role of glutamate that can be transformed into succinate and enter the Krebs cycle.
During exercise, plasma glutamine levels increase and then decrease during rest and return to pre-exercise level after a few hours.
Under stressful conditions, glutamine decreases mainly in skeletal muscle.
In the OT, glutamine appears to be significantly decreased and this deficiency is attributed to increased frequency of respiratory tract infections.

Neuromuscular excitability
Lehmann indicates reduced neuromuscular excitability (NME) as an OT marker.
The minimum rectangular pulsed current capable of generating a single muscular contraction (with different pulse duration values) is indicated as a Neuromuscular Excitability Index (NME) NME is better in well-trained subjects while significantly deteriorating in the early stages of the TT; Finally, after two weeks of rest (regeneration of the OT), while NME returns to normal levels, symptoms of OT remain. Therefore, the NME may be an OT start marker, but not the restoration of the physiological condition.

Iron and ferritin
Ferritin is an index of the consistency of iron deposits in the body. When iron is consumed to a great extent due to increased requirements in relation to exercise loads or increased losses by sweating, the reserves of the deposits need to be reconstituted quickly. Iron deficiency in the blood and in the deposits can be determined not only by increased consumption but also by inadequate dietary intake or poor assimilation through the digestive tract. It is well established that satisfactory levels of iron in blood (sideremia) and deposits (ferritinemia) allow better athletic performance, also because they maintain high hemoglobin concentrations. The opposite is not proven, but it is true that athletes who experience a decline in performance sometimes have a deficit iron metabolism. Even an increase in ferritin values, not just a drop, could be a marker of a fatigue state, as a significant increase in the value of this parameter occurs in inflammatory diseases or infectious diseases.

Hemoglobin and hematocrit
The hemodilution, caused by the expansion of plasma volume, inevitably leads to a decrease in the concentration values ​​of hematocrit and hemoglobin. In fact, there is no real decrease in the corpusculous part of the blood (red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets), but only one dilution thereof. Expanding plasma volume, which results in hemodilution, represents a positive adaptation typical of aerobic sports activities such as cycling, and the decline in hemocyte and hemoglobin concentration values ​​does not lead to a decrease in "performance" , At least until iron deficiencies, red blood cell destruction (hemolysis), and red blood cell disorders have been associated with the bone marrow. In this case, anemia is created which can be passed from the prelative state to the latent and, finally, to anemia.

Body weight
At the peak of the competitive season, in addition to the highest level of performance, weight stability is achieved. All the work we did before allowed us to lower the fat percentage up to the minimum individual levels, while keeping the lean mass values ​​(the percentage of muscle) unaltered. So, at this time of year, a decrease in body weight may be a sign of a reduction in muscle mass, probably due to excessive workload. Here is the need to periodically check our weight at least every two to three days, under the same conditions (early morning) to see if there are any significant variations.

Heart rate
Another important alarm bell of over-training syndrome is the progression of heart rate, whether at rest or under stress.
If we find that in the days following an intense effort the resting heart rate is higher than the normal one of this period, we must suspect a start of overtraining. Jeukendrup during a study on professional cyclists highlights a significant increase in heart rate in sleep overreaching. This observation needs further validation, given the limited number (7 athletes) of the subject subject of the research.
Also under stress, your heart rate may give you important signs to avoid fatigue. It may happen that by following a training table set with individual rhythms defined by the heart rate, we can not run, even if we are running or pushing challenging relationships and going at a high speed, raising heartbeats up to the values ​​required by the table. It's as if our heart lost its brilliance, probably because of a poor recovery in the previous days, or because the training output is too demanding for our abilities. In such a situation, it is important to stop the scheduled program and opt for a constant, not too demanding output.

Other symptoms
First of all muscle pain and general fatigue, feelings that even remain at rest. These symptoms are accompanied by a reduction in appetite and amount (number of hours) and sleep quality . Muscular indolence and weakness are caused by a strong deficiency of some essential substances for sports performance such as iron, mineral salts (especially potassium), sugars (muscle glycogen) and proteins. This condition is exacerbated by the fact that, due to the lack of appetite, we reduce the possibility of reintegrating those substances that we would need. The widespread malaise caused by general fatigue leads to a short and agitated sleep, which is at the expense of the recovery of the organism.

Overtraining and hormone system

Urinary catecholamines

Mackinnon during a study on 24 swim samples found that during intense, but short-term training programs, the onset of OT may be reported by a decrease in the urine level of catecholamines (2 to 4 weeks before the onset of Symptoms of OT).
Earlier Lehmann had come to the same conclusion that he had noticed a decreased night-time excretion of catecholamines related to the exhaustion of the sympathetic system. Hooper, while confirming the decreased urinary excretion of catecholamines during OT, denies the significance of exhaustion of the adrenergic system as the blood levels of catecholamines remain normal or increased.

Testosterone and cortisol

Another device that comes to be interested in overtraining is definitely the endocrine. The most well known and studied aspect is the one regarding the balance between cortisol and testosterone levels. Cortisol, considered as a typical expression of stress response, is a hormone with predominantly catabolic functions, while testosterone has essentially anabolic functions. The testosterone ratio (total or free) / cortisol is considered an indirect index of the "protein" balance of the body and, in particular, of the skeletal muscles. According to the majority of authors, a catabolic shift, indicated by an increase in cortisol and / or a reduction in testosterone, should be considered a reliable index of over-training or at least an incomplete recovery from fatigue. Adlercreutz et al. They hypothesized that a decrease in testosterone / cortisol ratio greater than 30% in relation to the subject's standard could have been evidence of an over-exercise. According to the most recent observations, however, this relationship would seem more indicative of the contingent state of workload tolerance, than potential marker of an over-training syndrome proper

Overtraining and Immune System

Dysfunction of the immune system may not allow good protection against pathogenic (immunodeficiency) status, but it is also a cause of illness; This is how to recognize autoimmune diseases when the organism reacts against "self" with systemic manifestations (eg collagenopathies, ie connective tissue disorders) or organ pathologies (eg nephropathy, neuropathies, etc.), diseases Hyperandrosis (allergic diseases), as well as tumors of the same immune system (immunoproliferative diseases).

In recent years, a number of Authors have also investigated the immune function of athletes, focusing mainly on changes that occur shortly after intense physical effort. Although sporting competition has traditionally been regarded as a condition for health benefits, studies conducted show that at least the data collected so far in the immune system does not always orient in this regard.

In fact, in almost all the tests performed, the appearance after the sporting performance of a picture that remembers that of immunodeficiency; This condition is surely transient because the immune system is generally normal in resting athletes.

There is an aspect that coaches well know: that of the reduced athletic efficiency of subjects "superallenati" that accuse an increased susceptibility to infections.

This reasoning focuses on the problem of influencing sports activity on the immune system; A good immune defense makes an athlete less susceptible to infectious processes, as well as a valid physical constitution makes the musculoskeletal accidents less likely.

It is evident that the infectious processes are harmful not only in the imminence of competitions but also during the preparation phase because they alter a carefully prepared work program for months or even years, as is the case with the Olympic Games.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the response of the immune system to physical strain, without however having the criteria for homogeneity and reproducibility. Many variables, in fact, interfere with investigations of this nature: first, the type of effort practiced for the characteristics of intensity, duration and metabolic pathways used; In addition, the value of a physical performance is different if performed by an untrained subject, a practitioner or an international athlete. One last consideration is also the immunological techniques used in the study, which were often different and also linked to the tumultuous evolutions that they have had in recent years.

Clinical manifestations can be represented by infections of various types, mostly viral, from trivial forms such as herpes, to respiratory, tonsillitis, gastroenteritis, to more severe forms, sometimes labeled as "glandular fever" but which can be attributed To diseases such as toxoplasmosis.

In all studies, immediately after physical effort, leukocytosis appeared, involving all cell subpopulations, including lymphocytic

Most researchers agree to detect a more pronounced increase in CD8 ("suppressor") lymphocytes than CD4 ("helper"); This results in a reduction in CD4 + / CD8 + ratio which represents a first sign of immune imbalance.

Even natural killer (NK) cells seem to be modified by physical exercise with increased CD16 phenotype cells and impaired functional activity; It seems that NK activity reaches a maximum immediately after exercise, it shrinks after two hours and has not yet normalized after twenty hours.

Some authors even argue that long-lasting sporting activity depletes unspecified immunity, thus making those who have long practiced sports, like those who have been agonist activities for years, more susceptible to infections.

Moreover, in many close-mouthed athletes, the level of circulating Immunoglobulins G appears to be lower at the end of the agonistic season than at the beginning.

Some Polish researchers argue that most of the immunological parameters would renormalize within two hours, but studies on recovery time are currently few. In other work there have been no alterations to lymphocyte subpopulations at 24 and 72 hours from physical performance

The phase in which the immune system is most vulnerable is the one immediately following physical performance

During physical exertion a large amount of hormones and mediators are released, so it is not easy to trace the mechanisms with which they interact; The same type of metabolism involved, aerobic or anaerobic lactate, could affect the degree of involvement on the immune system.

The three most commonly believed factors responsible for leukocytosis, emoconcentration for extracellular fluid loss, catecholamine secretion, and serum cortisol levels increase appear to be quite restrictive.

Also important are neuropeptides, as intense psychic stress can result in similar immunological modifications and evolve into larvid forms of immunodeficiency.

In high-level athletes, the two mechanisms of physical and psychic stress can coexist; This hypothesis would seem to be supported by the observations of some researchers who found a greater deterioration in the immunological parameters of subjects with higher agonistic performance.

All this however makes it clear that the pathogenesis of immunological modifications induced by exercise is not monofactorial, but linked to the imbalance of those stimulating and inhibitory factors that regulate immune response as a whole.

Very little is known about the mechanisms by which this is achieved. However, it seems advisable to add to the controls that are carried out in the course of sports practice, especially in athletes at a higher competitive level, also an assessment of the immune functions so as to modify the preparation also in terms of preventing those infectious manifestations which while being in Most of the trivial cases often prevent the subject from providing the best competitive performance when this is set.

(Edited by Costantino Bertucelli - )

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