"Overtraining and The Three H's" by Dr. Mike Molloy(Vagabond Nutrition Expert and Strength and Conditioning Coach)
The Three H’s by Dr. Mike Molloy(Vagabond CrossFit Specific Training Coach)
An important question James “OPT” Fitzgerald asks his clients is “on a day to day basis how happy, hungry and horny are you?” Ask yourself that question. If you answered “not really” to any of them then you potentially have some cortisol issues, specifically chronically elevated cortisol.
So what can cause elevated cortisol? Stress is a major factor and can come in a number of different forms:
1) Work (pay the bills, feed the kids, don’t get fired, make more money, get an A in class, etc).
2) Nutrition (gut damage from grains can induce low-level systemic inflammation which overtime can elevate cortisol).
3) Lack of sleep (shift-work was recently identified as having a correlation with increased risk of cancer).
Many crossfit athletes do a pretty decent job of managing these stresses fairly well. Where I see many people start to fail is in the volume/intensity of their exercise program.
The first phase of overtraining generally consists of abnormal muscle soreness due to inadequate recovery time between workouts. Most commonly, it happens after several days of hard training in a row. If you are conscious of it, it is fairly easy to reverse with an extra rest day and has minimal lasting side-effects.
The next phase of overtraining is also known as “staleness.” It generally occurs when you ignore those first signs mentioned above and continue to train through them. Generally the mentality in crossfit goes something like this:
“Shit, I missed a PR on the workout by 7 seconds today… I must not be working out enough. I’m going to take less rest days and start to do extra work on the side. Maybe two workouts a day is a good idea” Unfortunately, this behavior only breaks down our bodies more.
Take a look through this list of symptoms associated with staleness/overtraining. How many of them sound familiar?
Taken from (http://physiotherapy.curtin.edu.au/resources/educational-resources/exphys/00/overtraining.cfm)
Unusual muscle soreness after a workout, which persists throughout following sessions.
Inability to train or compete at a previously manageable levels.
“Heavy” leg muscles, even at light exercise intensities (walking upstairs, light jogging).
Delay in recovery from training.
Performance plateaus or even declines.
Prolonged general fatigue.
Increase in tension, depression, anger, or confusion.
Insomnia, inability to relax, or poor quality of sleep.
No energy, decreased motivation, moodiness.
A compulsive need to exercise.
Decreased sex drive.
Increased incidence of injuries
Increased occurrence of sickness.
Increased blood pressure and resting heart rate
Irregular menstrual cycle or loss of menstrual periods.
Constipation or diarrhea.
Lack of hunger
It is extremely difficult to recover from overtraining. In fact, it can actually require weeks or even months of time off in extreme cases. I know it sounds nuts but taking a break is really important from a long-term health point of view.
As I said before, the initial over-training phase generally results in elevated cortisol levels. However, If you continue to ignore signs of over-training for long enough, your cortisol levels will then plummet to consistently very low levels. This is where things start to get really serious as we do require intermediate levels of cortisol in certain situations, specifically when waking.
So if these symptoms remind you of your personal experience, you seriously need to think about ZERO workouts for at least 30 days. A oral-swab test which can detail out your cortisol production can diagnos this condition. If you have this done, make sure they do a swab at four different time points throughout the day to get a complete profile.
Alright, so how do we prevent over training induced cortisol production? In reality it depends on who you are.
1) If you want to be a games athlete then you better be sleeping and eating as well as you possibly can be and minimizing ALL the other stresses in your life. Incorporate de-load weeks when necessary and utilize coaching and programming that incorporates cycles of endurance, strength, etc. Even then, you’ll need to be on top of your game and be on the look-out for the symptoms described above.
2) If your goal is health and longevity then you need to approach this a little differently. In my opinion, you should be working out 4 days a week maximum. Two of those workouts should be strength oriented. This could be sprinting, gymnastics, olympic lifting, power lifting, or even more body-building movements if that’s what you’re into. The other days could be a mixture of crossfit style workouts and long slow distance efforts such as a hike with a backpack, leisurely bike ride, stroll on the beach, etc.
Importantly, if you get to the gym and are just totally exhausted before you even begin then you need to alter your training. Instead of going for the heaviest squat or dead lift you can, work with intermediate weights and focus on having perfect form. If the gym instead programs something like a maximum effort 2000 meter row, alter the workout to row at 80% perceived effort instead. In general, the idea is to get some work in while not be completely knackered at the end of the workout.
In conclusion, make sure you are listening to your body. I understand that it can be hard to take that extra day of rest in CrossFit because there’s always so much to be working on. However, if you serious about making long-term improvements to either your health and/or performance you need to actively prevent over-training induced cortisol production.