Stress Adaptation & Overtraining [1]

What Is Overtraining?

By: Andrew Read
Published at

“You don’t improve while training, only once you have recovered from the session and your body has rebuilt itself slightly better.”

“With the high stress, constantly on-call lifestyle many lead these days it’s quite common for people to turn to exercise for an escape. I am absolutely in love with my distance sessions at the moment because they give me hours to myself where I can’t be bothered by the phone or email. But is the exercise really helping me remove stress from my body or is it adding to it?”

Read Part 1 of the article here.

Read Part 2 of the article here.

11 thoughts on “Stress Adaptation & Overtraining [1]

  1. MGrodski Post author

    How many people (athletes and non-athlete alike) will read the description of stage 2 stress adaptation (aka overtraining), and would reply… yup that’s my life.

    The bucket of coffee, the all-out workout at 5am used to ‘prime’ the body for the day, the liquid sugar ‘energy’ drink breakfast, the sheer panic of waking and realizing another day has begun and you’re already behind on your to-do list, all are considered now “normal” staples of modern life. If the self-prescribed and administered medication needed to sustain this lifestyle isn’t achieved via diet or hi-intensity exercise, then the stimulant is technology… the soothing release of dopamine that arrives with the achievement of a new level on a favored app, or a text or email ping which is quickly followed by the cortisol/adrenalin martini of terror when the contents of those messages is imagined and added to the bottom of the already lengthy to-do list.

    Suggest that the red-line, maxed out, ‘living it large’ lifestyle is the root cause behind the sinus infection or cold that refuses to depart, the nagging neck or low back pain, the inability to have a decent B.M. or lacklustre playtime between the sheets, and you will be called a nut case. Don’t even consider suggesting that this lifestyle has anything to do with the inability to deliver consistent effort during workouts or achieving personal goals.

    Nut case or not, the problem is that we have been living in stage 2 stress adaptation so long that any connection between what is healthy and what isn’t, is either lost, or on the verge of being so. Furthermore, this disconnect has been perverted to such a degree that the mere suggestion ‘to slow down’ is seen as the antithesis of what it means to be alive: slowing down is only for the weak. The solution surely must be in some consumer product laced with the most recently found ‘new’ South American bean or fruit which will give you that second wind, nay, the thousandth wind which is desperately needed in order to keep the chaos we call our lives thriving. We are literally at the point where we medicate ourselves awake and asleep, ‘tape’ ourselves to hold our bodies together while we participate in sport, and if our pee is red by the end of a workout then we have earned the right to refer to ourselves not only in the third party but also using the term ‘beast’.

    Few athletes – at least in my opinion – seem to truly train. Who practices with the intent of perfecting the blend and balance of science and art which is sport? Who imagines the execution of a move with such perfection that the hairs on the back of the neck rise in anticipation and expectation? Nope, today training means pounding your body until it pukes up another level of performance; like a CFO squeezing a supplier for their last % of profitability so as to improve their own, irrespective that their demand places the supplier’s solvency at risk. Short term solutions rule (irrespective of consequences intended or not), long term refers to quarterly results at most, and annual or 5 year plans are now antiquities.

    Fascination with the magnificence of human movement has all but disappeared. It is true, you cannot learn how to perform any technique when your life is flying by at light speed. How can you possibly appreciate the nuances of movement, the delicacy, the simplicity, and the sweetness of finding the sweet spot and flowing in it when life has become one big blur?

  2. MGrodski Post author

    Why don’t we slow down? Part 1

    To road to recovery from Stage 2 Stress Adaptation, doesn’t and cannot bypass Stage 1. First, you need to go through Stage 1 Stress Adaptation/Overtraining in order to start to rest, in order to start the recovery process. Clearly, this is no microwaveable solution, ready in 60secs or less. Second, the moment you start to slow down and exit Stage 2 that feeling of being able to go-go-go disappears, the over-excitedness of living a chemical high wears of, and withdrawal symptoms appear.

    Andrew identifies a few of the symptoms of Stage 1:
    – Increased vulnerability to injuries
    – Abnormal hormonal output
    – Reduced sexual desire
    – Mental stress, depression and/or anxiety

    If Stage 2 is like a Red Bull commercial: “where you have wings and can fly”, then Stage 1 is the hangover from a multi-week bender. If you can remain in Stage 2 and convince yourself that you can avoid Stage 1, why wouldn’t you? Why end the party? Who wants withdrawal symptoms? Who wants to feel tired, moody, weak, vulnerable to injury, when you can live in the make believe world that you are invincible? So what do we do? We give ourselves a swift quick in the adrenals and off we go on another chemically induced upswing even higher into Stage 2 Stress Adaptation.

    Problem is, hitting ourselves yet again for a higher high requires us to inflict even greater damage onto our bodies (and risking ending up like Murray). After awhile you can see where the denial arises from… you want that Stage 2 high so you are willing to refuse to acknowledge the physiological chaos and injuries which you are inflicting upon your own body. No matter – we believe – there must undoubtedly be an over-the-counter or medically prescribed solution for both the addiction and the withdrawal process that will restore us back to normal… painlessly, effortlessly, and immediately.

    This pattern – like many things – works until it doesn’t. While it works, we honour those whose bodies seem to be able to take unlimited amounts of abuse (irrespective of the long term damage caused…as we don’t see when these heroes of ours end up in the hospital, the long term care facility or worse, dead). We force ourselves to believe that pushing that little bit harder will bring us that much closer to being even more indestructible, perhaps even… immortal (red cape not included, shipping & handling extra). Anyone who cannot keep up and displays any level of breakdown is labelled as mentally weak, unstable, unmotivated. We have even started to talk to our own children in this manner (and we have the audacity to call others nuts)!

    I ain’t no saint either, just read the intro of The Athlete’s Cloud book.

    We have become so short term focused that we have become oblivious to any long term consequence. The fact that there is the potential for a long life to be lived – that goals are sometimes accomplished over time spans longer than a commercial break – and that we are cutting the quality of later years falls on ears that only want to hear ‘keep pushing’ and ‘achieve it now’.

  3. MGrodski Post author

    Why don’t we slow down? Part 2

    Stage 2 Stress Adaptation is now a lifestyle. Once upon a time, this level of overtraining was exclusive to athletes, but even for athletes it was temporary as it was not a desired outcome as it decimated performance. Now the ‘go for broke’ lifestyle is available to everyone and anyone. It used to be that the only way to push your physiology to its limit day in and day out was through intense training (or intense manual labour). Now a diet of processed no fat or reduced fat sugary ‘products’, dopamine draining technology, media bent on sensationalizing every story – including the slightest change in weather forecast – into a cataclysmic event, and a mindset that health & fitness goals arrive in daily installments of 20min hi-intensity workouts makes stress and overtraining available to one and to all.

    Whether consumer products were developed and marketed to us first, or whether we first increased the pace of our lives and then consumer products simply identified the trend and accelerated it is a circular argument akin to whether it was the chicken or the egg which came first. Doesn’t matter. We have them both, and its not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it that counts.

    So why don’t we slow down? Because it is the social equivalent of doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Because it would require a lifestyle change that would require eliminating certain aspects of our life entirely, and integrating new dimensions. Because it has become a physiological addiction to a chemical/physiological state in our bodies that to live without requires imagining the unknown, the invisible, perhaps even the impossible. Although what needs to be done is in fact quite simple, the reality is the execution of changing a lifestyle is not easy. It requires a plan, it requires ongoing evaluation to ensure that the plan is being followed, and adjustments made to allow for unaccounted variables.

    The question shouldn’t be though whether it is hard, or even necessary, the question should be…. is it worth it? Is it worth having a new set of gears which will offer you a flexibility to navigate around and bend with the challenges of life with greater ease? Is it worth being robust, to be able to endure setbacks, hardships, and failures; or does the sense of security and stability offered by rigid fragility offer the optimal solution? Is longevity, quality, and abundance thinking more valuable, than immediacy, quantity, and a mind bent on seeing nothing but scarcity?

    Perhaps this TED video by 90+ year old Charles Eugster may offer insight of the quality and joy a well balanced and well lived healthy lifestyle (i.e. without excessive excess) can bring.

  4. MGrodski Post author

    Other articles on the subject of overtraining, physiology of overtraining and the recovery process:

  5. MGrodski Post author

    Want a quick way to check if you are overtraining or at risk….complete The Athletes Cloud Matrix (pg 132 / Appendix C of TAC book). If you don’t score 2 out of 2 on each dimension of level 1 then you are at risk of overtraining in your next workout or you are already overtrained.

  6. MGrodski Post author

    How do we get into Stage 2 Stress Adaptation/Overtraining to start?

    Through trained addiction to the physiological effect of arousal which occurs with intense exercise (or an equally intense stress-filled lifestyle fed by diet, technology, career,…) where Stage 2 Stress Adaptation/Overtraining becomes a desired chronic state of the athlete.

    In addition to the side effects/consequences already discussed, “arousal addiction” symptoms also mimic:
    – ADHD
    – Social anxiety
    – Depression
    – Performance anxiety
    – OCD

    TEDxGlasgow, Speaker Gary Wilson May 17, 2012

    What has porn got to do with Stage 2 Stress Adaptation/Overtraining? Because arousal addiction is arousal addiction: the underlying physiological and chemical changes are the same irrespective if the trigger is porn, technology, diet, working out, or whatever else it may be. In the case of porn, our moral compass states that this addiction is bad, but the addiction to exercise is unequivocally good. We judge one behaviour but fail to stop and evaluate how or why we exercise, even though we joke about our addiction to exercise. A mindset that exercise is unequivocally good allows an addiction to the arousal from intense exercise to occur because we prejudge that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a ‘runners high’. This despite the fact that endorphins (aka ‘a runner high’) are released only when the body is masking underlying tissue damage. Isn’t it amazing how social context impacts behaviour to the point where injuring ourselves can be deemed good, healthy, even heroic. How is it that we are not ‘feeling’, that we are numb to sensations of injury and tissue damage while exercising?

    Google rhabdomyolysis and both marathon running and crossfit are listed as possible causes. Isn’t the goal of both of these sports to become stronger, develop endurance, improve posture, and most importantly to improve our health and longevity? If so, then what are we doing that has exercise now as a risk factor for both hospitalization and death?

    Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk focuses on the arousal addiction when porn is the trigger. Replace porn – in Gary’s TEDx talk – with hi-intensity exercise, or the ‘runners high’ as the addiction/dopamine trigger and the underlying basis for getting into, and then stuck in Stage 2 Stress Adaptation/Overtraining becomes clearer. Athletes need to honestly evaluate how and why they are training: is it to truly develop technique, proficiency in specific drills to maximize efficiency in their sport, or is the goal in heading out to the pool, the gym, or out on the road solely with getting ‘high’ on arousal.

    Two ways to obtain a dopamine ‘hit’ in sport, one which is balanced and healthy, the other unbalanced which leads to overtraining (hence addictive patterns):
    1. If you practice technique, drills, mastering a new aspect of a sport, then you still can achieve the feeling of success (i.e. that hit of dopamine), and you make use of the ‘novelty’ desire in the brain to learn to enjoy learning and the training process. Training which balances appropriate rest and recovery with a focus on execution and delivery of the sport is not only sustainable in the long term, it maintains the fascination with the sport in a balanced manner (especially when activities outside the sport are also encouraged). Athletic focus in this direction leads to an incredible repertoire of skills, a mind which is creative and imaginative as it has been trained to visualize and then execute, and athletes who are at reduced risk of injury, burn out, or max out. Case in point, Serena Williams incorporated yoga, pilates, football & baseball drills, skipping, taekwondo, ballet and jazz dance to improve her tennis serve, foot work, and smoothness during play.
    2. If you practice with singular focus on one sport, and push everyday to a new level (i.e. the novelty only comes through a faster pace time, a heavier load or power output) then the risks associated with this training strategy should be self-evident. The lack of rest, diversity, and the need for more-more-more leads to a go-go-go training pattern (hence Stage 2 Stress Adaptation/Overtraining).

    How can we possibly be blind to self-inflicting damage to ourselves through exercise?

    In Gary’s talk (@ 8:21mins) he reviews the structural changes of the brain which occur with addiction:
    1. Numbed pleasure response
    2. Hyper-reactivity
    3. Willpower erosion

    As an athlete and as a coach I have experienced and witnessed all of these reactions:
    1. A numbed pleasure response in athletes in the inability to enjoy their sport at low intensity/low effort level (e.g. bike rides have to be at max power output and sustained until collapse…anything less is boring, deemed useless and the excuse is that it has no training effect). In fact, this numbness permeates into other aspects of the athlete’s life with almost anything ‘slow’ being boring.
    2. Triathletes are ideal examples of hyper-reactivity: mention a new piece of equipment, a new training tool, a new device to capture data and they are all over it as they cannot possibly be the only one in the transition zone without. What other sport has amateur athletes investing so disproportionately into ‘aero’ equipment when improved training would yield far greater results?
    3. Loss of willpower is revealed when athletes fall to the belief that they require performance enhancing substances. From an addiction perspective it is not hard to conceive that athletes following a faster/higher/heavier training pattern eventually hit the point when they no longer can obtain success (and the associated ‘high’) solely on their own effort. A couple athlete autobiographies spring to mind which detail the lead up to when the athlete succumbed to either injecting themselves or receiving injections of ‘recovery aides’ or whatever the substance was referred to, in order to progress further in their sport. The story seems to go something like this… despite intense training, the athlete fails to perform in competition and then in the depressed low afterwards gives in to what they either see or feel everyone else doing and convinces themselves this is the only solution to either keeping up or winning.

    Is there a solution to overtraining and the addiction to arousal?

    Absolutely. Why? Because the brain is ‘plastic’, and changes are reversible. A thorough review of the how and why of training, the desires driving performance goals, metrics based on technique (in addition to performance outcomes) supplemented with physiological testing to identify untrained/weak(er) aspects of the athlete offers an alternative path to peak performance. Balancing training goals with rest and active recovery goals will provide the athlete another source of success beyond those of faster times, heavier weights, and larger power output.

    I believe Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps’ coach) specifically trained Michael using the addictive properties of our human physiology and chemistry in a balanced manner. The outcome is well known, Michael Phelps is renowned for matching pace times to the hundredth of a second, and establishing both WRs and winning gold medals under conditions which required a level of stability in focus which develops only with immense time spent in visualizing, imagery, and strategy development. Bob Bowman had Michael practice visualizing himself swimming fast and in practice had Michael ‘play his mental videotape’ instead of simply giving it his all in a workout. Bob had Michael practice specific relaxation exercises so that he learned how to come down from peak effort levels, how to ground himself, and regain perspective.

    We seem to only hear of the negative aspects of addiction; however, if and when harnessed in a balanced manner, isn’t it these same properties of our physiology which yield the fascination with the process which leads to consistency, perseverance, the determination to pursue peak performance? I believe so.

  7. MGrodski Post author

    99u, Speaker Simon Sinek “Why Leaders Eat Last”

    A biological/physiological overview of why we make the decisions we make. Simon reviews 5 key neurotransmitters of the human body and how they impact our thoughts, our outlooks, and in the end what and how we come to our decisions:
    1. Endorphins
    2. Dopamine
    3. Serotonin
    4. Oxytocin
    5. Cortisol

  8. MGrodski Post author

    Stress Adaption & Overtraining

    Stage 1 : Overreaching / Overdoing it
    This stage is not ‘bad’, as pushing it, overdoing it in specific quantities is exactly how you train the body to achieve more. To lift a weight you have never lifted you need to push beyond your limits and lift a weight you have never lifted. This stage is a normal part of any hardening/training programs; however, it must be balanced with recovery time and rest, plus proper diet, flexibility training, and relaxation techniques. The pattern that should be used is a purposeful push into Stage 1 Overtraining (provided the athlete has appropriate training to accept this level of training), followed by a sufficient period to recover so that at follow up training or in competition the athlete is at a new level of performance.

    Problems arise when there is insufficient rest, recovery time is purely passive (as opposed to active), when diet and other aspects of life increase stress as opposed to providing rejuvenation and healing. This is when the athlete is at high risk of moving into Stage 2 Stress Adaptation & Overtraining.

    What many athletes don’t appreciate is that when it comes to stress, their body doesn’t discriminate: stress is stress. Tight deadlines for a project at work = stress, gorging on a diet of processed food and alcohol = stress, relationships which contradict your values and goals = stress, running on 2hrs sleep a night = stress. Time alone is an insufficient measure of recovery between workouts because if the stress of a load session is simply replaced by other stressors, then it doesn’t matter how much time passes. The body does not recover because the stress type has changed, the body recovers when the athlete is able to reframe stress so that it is no longer perceived as stress and threatening. This is what peak performance is all about: physical, mental and emotional training which results in the ability to reframe adversity (stress). Unfortunately, athletes today seem to believe that the purpose of training is to learn to pretend that stress doesn’t exist.

    Stage 2 : Triggering Flight-Fight-Freeze
    When the body is not allowed to come down, to relax, to rest and recover, on a physiological/chemical level the body is put in a position where it can only believe one thing: it is threatened, in danger. The stress is not going away, therefore the body needs to kick in the afterburners, move into a higher gear, get on high alert and stay there until the danger, the threats – real or perceived – have been fought off, have moved on, or have been escaped from.

    Typically and without external inputs the body can remain in an elevated panic state for only so long (the panic reaction simply burns itself out); however due to the availability of countless sources of different stimulation (i.e. no fat/sugar diet, 24-7 technology, work and life stress) plus an endless list of supplements and medications which if anything encourage us to remain in this elevated state of anxiety or outright panic, we have managed to live in this stage such that if you aren’t then you are a social outlier.

    The challenge with Stage 2 is the paradox: the body is at its limit, but in this state because it is running on all dimensions of the body (i.e. max aerobic & anaerobic physical output, max mental capacity as revealed by a hypervigilant ‘always on/can’t stop thinking’ brain, max emotion…living full out with an itchy trigger finger which fires at the slightest push lending to emotional outbursts) giving the athlete a sense of virtual invincibility. Provided that they can only keep it going. Over time, the threat which places the person at this level passes, but it is replaced with the perceived threat of what happens when I come down from this high? That which holds the overtrained athlete in Stage 2 is a fear that everything is going to fall apart if they slow down, that things are not going to be the same anymore.

    Hence the paradox of Stage 2: to exit means to slow down, but slowing down is perceived as the threat itself now, and therefore the exit door is blocked. Exiting Stage 2 is easy (slow down), but no simple feat because the athlete must engage their fear directly and walk into it. Running away from slowing down points only in one direction…Stage 3.

    Stage 3 : From Subclinical to Clinical Problems
    At some point something in the body simply gives out… whether it is the musculoskeletal system which can no longer take it because it hasn’t had time to heal and injury sidelines the athlete, or the cardiovascular system cannot continue to pump blood at elevated pressures, or the neuroendocrine system begins to breakdown resulting in a virtual endless list of possible sensitivities (e.g. gluten, citrus fruit), or outright allergies, syndromes, and diagnoses (including symptoms like Murray).

    Sometimes the body breaks down to such a degree that clinical symptoms of a disease are the outcome, and medical intervention including drug therapy or even surgery are required. Often, the history of stress and the body’s attempt to adapt and continue to tolerate peak stress levels is so prolonged that neither the athlete nor their health care team can connect the dots between cause and effect. Many times athletes are frustrated that a condition appears – seemingly out of nowhere – and the medical community is unable to inform them why they are now so ill. As with Murray, the journey from Stage 3 is long, requires a plan, but is undoubtedly doable.

    I believe that it is athletes in Stage 3 who are at highest risk for turning to performance enhancing substances (or in the non-athletic world, the need and use of illicit drugs). At this stage, to keep the plates spinning for the athlete means higher performance regardless whether their body and mind will be able to cash the cheques ambition, fear, or both are writing.

    Stage 4 : Suicide?
    Not sure if stage 4 has ever been defined, but I think it needs to be at least suggested: suicide. What happens when you have been locked into a lifestyle and going back/slowing down can only be seen as a worse outcome then ending it all? I believe that its important to at least suggest a possible end point for the trajectory of stress and overtraining because it could hopefully serve as a landmark on the horizon which some may use as a signal to turn around. If it can serve as a marker that this path is not truly desired, it may cause or at least encourage an athlete to search for an alternative.

  9. MGrodski Post author

    Study shows extreme exercise poses health risk
    17 June 2015

    A recent study undertaken by Monash University in Australia has raised doubts about how healthy ultramarathons are. The researchers focused on ultramarathons which took over 24 hours continuously, as well as multi-stage races that took place over consecutive days. The study, focusing on a 24 intensive ultras which took place in Scotland, was published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine and the research garnered from the study of a five-day Spanish stage race was published in the Exercise Immunology Review.

    Researchers defined extreme exercise as anything longer than four hours and/or lasting multiple days in a row. Analysis showed this sort of extreme exercise over an extended period of time causes changes in the gut wall, leading to leakage of endotoxins into the bloodstream. This results in inflammatory responses from the immune system similar responses triggered by infection.

    At the conclusion of the ultras, almost all participants had blood markers almost identical to patients admitted to the hospital with sepsis.

    Those who trained far in advance had the best adaptation to deal with this inflammatory response. Those who underwent extensive training developed increased levels of interleukin 10, an anti-inflammatory agent. Researchers recommend that participation in these events is only undertaken by those with extensive background in running and that even those people train for a year in advance, allowing time for their body to adapt.

    For scientists, the fear is that the rising popularity of ultramarathons and adventure racing will prompt those with only a recreational running background to sign up, posing the potential risk of blood poisoning.

    This article can be found at Canadian Running

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