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Don’t let burnout ruin your next training cycle.
Training is a game of stress and adaptation. Workouts stress your body by challenging the limits of its speed and endurance. If you apply the right amounts of stress with the right frequency, your body will change in response to this stress — adapting in ways that make it better able to handle the same stress when repeated.
For example, when you perform a long workout that depletes your muscle glycogen fuel stores, genes that control your muscles’ glycogen storing capacity are stimulated, resulting in the hoarding of greater glycogen stores for the next workout. As a result, your endurance increases.
Subjecting your body to too much exercise stress, however, will cause negative adaptations in your body. For example, every workout breaks down a certain amount of muscle tissue, triggering an inflammation response that subsequently repairs the damage. Given enough time, this process will not only heal the damage but change your muscles in ways that make them more resistant to damage in future workouts.
But if you do another hard workout that causes more muscle damage before the damage caused by the previous workout has been fixed, it will begin to accumulate and the resulting inflammation might get out of control. If you persist in this manner, your muscles will become more sore and weaker, and your performance will nosedive.
This process of negative adaptation to training stress is called overtraining. The primary sign of overtraining is an unexpected decline in workout performance. Other signs and symptoms include persistent fatigue, muscle soreness and loss of motivation for training. The cure for overtraining is relative rest — that is, reducing your training load until you begin to feel and perform better.
Note that the above-mentioned signs and symptoms do not always indicate overtraining. There’s a grey area on the edge of overtraining known as “overreaching” that can be beneficial when properly controlled. Overreaching is a brief period (1-2 weeks) at the height of the training process when your training workload applies more stress than your body can fully adapt to, so that your fatigue level steadily increases and your workout performance stagnates. But before the process gets out of hand, you reduce your training load, enabling your body to fully recover from and adapt to the training stress of the preceding week to two weeks. A big boost in fitness usually follows.
When persistent fatigue and declining performance occur unexpectedly and reach a severe level, that’s another matter. That’s overtraining — something you want to avoid at all costs, because it can take a while to recover from. Here are four tactics that you can use to avoid the downward spiral of overtraining.