The principle of no pain, no gain has become a saying for many athletes, bodybuilders, and gym enthusiasts. Ignoring the possibility of being over-trained, many of them go on to train two times a day, seven days a week. Many people may not acknowledge it but yes, overtraining does exist. Overtraining syndrome (OTS) happens when the body is exposed to excessive training and gets inadequate periods of rest. It impacts all the systems of the body, including all organs and functions.
Signs That You’re Overtraining
Going beyond your training threshold can have negative effects on your body. Symptoms of OTS can be psychological, physiological, immunological, and biochemical.
OTS – Psychological Symptoms:
- Irritability/mood changes
- Low motivation
- Decreased libido
- Lack of focus
- Reduced appetite
OTS – Physiological Symptoms:
- Reduced strength and dexterity
- Drop in physical performance
- Prolonged periods of pain after workout session
- Persistent muscle soreness
- Sleep disorders such as insomnia
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Impaired concentration
OTS – Immunological Symptoms:
- Slow healing of wounds
- Increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections, such as common colds
OTS – Biochemical Symptoms:
- Raised cortisol levels (stress hormone)
- Significant decline in testosterone levels
- Reduced testosterone to cortisol ratio
Many signs of overtraining may not always manifest clearly, so you could be far beyond your threshold and not even know about it. That’s why it’s important to always incorporate healthy periods of rest into your workout routine.
Signs of Low Testosterone
One of the effects of OTS that men should be particularly concerned about is low testosterone levels.
Testosterone is responsible for everything that makes you a man, and if you have low levels of it, you’re in for trouble.
Signs of testosterone deficiency in men include:
- Low sex drive
- Low semen volume
- Erection difficulties
- Reduced muscle mass and strength
- Decreased bone mass (which could lead to osteoporosis in the long term)
- Increased body fat
- Hair loss
- Mood changes
- Enlarged breasts
- Brain fog
While low testosterone is generally considered a male issue, it can also cause problems in women. Low testosterone levels in females can cause:
- Hot flashes
- Loss of libido (sex drive)
- Sleep disturbances
- Reduced bone density
- Reduced muscle mass
- Hair loss
Testosterone deficiency can have profound effects on mood in both genders. If you’re having difficulty concentrating or are always irritable and fatigued, low T levels may be the cause.
How Overtraining Reduces Testosterone Levels
Over the past decades, a number of scientific studies were conducted to confirm the link between low T levels and overtraining. A small study carried out over 20 years ago investigated the cortisol and testosterone levels of five healthy, endurance-trained males with normal spermatogenic and hormonal background. Immediately after overtraining, the subjects showed a drop in basal testosterone levels by 39% and a drop in sperm count by 43%.
Another study conducted in 2004 looked at the correlation between hormone levels, overtraining, and feelings or tiredness. The results showed that a quarter of the athletes who trained excessively had a reduced testosterone level by roughly 30% below the normal range, and one of the players saw an immense 50% drop.
A study in Spain also found that over-trained elite cyclists experienced a 50% reduction in their sperm count, and their pineal and testis glands were exhausted. It took at least three days to restore levels to normal after training stopped.
Similarly, a more recent research study that examined the testosterone levels of professional rowers revealed that this parameter was significantly lower during intense training periods compared to resting periods.
Finally, another study showed that while T levels significantly drop after overtraining, levels of stress hormone cortisol increase. Exhaustion also hits much faster than before overtraining. These problems can last for several weeks.
In addition to its effects on your T levels and sperm count, overtraining has also been shown to impair the immune system.
Another highly reliable study found that overtraining can literally kill the healthy cells in the body, increase cytotoxin levels in the blood, reduce catecholamine secretion, increase cortisol levels and oxidative stress, and further disrupt mood and sleep.
Dozens of similar papers reveal the same results: that overtraining can heavily and directly impair testosterone levels. But how exactly? Experts believe that the main factor that leads to the development of OTS is the acquired instability that occurs in the nervous system, especially in the sympatho-adrenergic nervous system, which is mainly responsible of handling stress.
Exposing the body to more stress than it can handle reduces this framework’s ability for controlling certain processes in the body, resulting in hormonal imbalances and many other issues. This could all be avoided by simply getting enough rest to allow the body to regenerate. Not only will doing so allow you to maintain peak T levels, it will also improve your performance, boost motivation, enhance muscle growth, speed up recovery, and increase your overall well-being.
How to Avoid OTS and Improve T Levels
Most people make the mistake of monitoring their muscle soreness to decide whether they should train or not. The problem with this is that overtraining does not start in the muscles; it impacts the nervous and endocrine system first and that can be harder to identify. Though you may feel the urge to maintain the momentum of your training, you should consider the following if you suspect that you’ve gone beyond your capacity:
- Take a break. Allow your body enough time to recover. Some people take a week of two off from training to revive their mind and body. When they go back to exercising, they find that they have increased focus and are more energized.
- Reduce the intensity or volume of your training. If you’re used to doing 5 or more sets per exercise, consider cutting it down to just 2 or 3. You can also reduce the weight and focus on form. By doing so, you can improve your mind-body connection, as well.
- Get a massage. Applying good self-massage, sports massage, or deep-tissue massage on the affected areas will release muscle tension and restore balance to the musculoskeletal system. Getting a therapeutic massage regularly will also help you prevent injuries.
- Make sure you consume an adequate calorie intake. Your calorie intake should match (or possibly exceed) your caloric expenditure. Overtraining depletes the body of various nutrients so make sure you get enough carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean proteins to aid in recovery.
- Address vitamin deficiencies. Take nutritional supplements to address lack of vitamins and minerals. While it’s important to get vitamins from your food, supplementation is often necessary when overtraining becomes a concern.
The Importance of Identifying Your Threshold
Overtraining exists and the threshold varies from person to person. If you believe you’ve over-trained and suspect you have low testosterone levels, you should now know what you need to do. By listening to your body and allowing it time to recover and rebuild, you can come back stronger than before and ultimately achieve that longed-for athletic success.