It is possible for athletes to push themselves too much and over-train. The result can be lower levels of testosterone. Lower testosterone levels decrease your body’s ability to repair and recover, so your fitness improvements may slow down or even stop. This post by Guest Poster Dave Henly describes 3 warning signs of over-training that you should look out for. It also includes 4 tips to prevent over-training and boost testosterone levels.
You did two-a-day workouts in high school. Nobody was talking about over-training then. As long as you weren’t injured, you played. In my college days, I would typically get up and ride my road bike for two hours before class. I’d then do a hard ride with the cycling team 2 or 3 nights a week. At what point was I over-trained? At what point should I have started to worry?
Does Over-Training Exist?
Many athletes think over-training is the lazy athlete’s excuse not to work out. (Have you ever noticed how often “over-training” is discussed when leg day comes around?) In forums, “broscientists” advocate that with enough water and protein powder, you can push through anything. They want the phrase “overtraining” abolished from our vocabulary. Of course, you have the other side of the coin with athletes who purposefully shorten their workouts and plan excessive rest days from an irrational fear of overtraining.
As you can imagine, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
What Causes Over-Training?
Over-training is an imbalance between fitness and recovery (Sports Medicine, 1988, 6.2). It’s common to over-reach. Athletes re-entering a sport may expect their fitness capacity to be greater than it is.
As a dad, I struggle to maintain a workout schedule and am often tempted to sacrifice sleep to complete my workout. That half-marathon training plan calls for 8 miles, and, by George, I’m going to complete my 8 miles. Devoted athletes may hold themselves to a high volume workout load without regard to external factors. A new baby in the house, a new job assignment, a divorce, a loss of a family member, a head cold, a move … all of these things stress the body and must be interpreted as a reduced capacity to train.
Because the brain is such an amazing thing, it is possible for athletes to “push through” and continue to complete impressive workouts well after they’ve begun down the slope of overtraining. After all, “no pain, no gain” is our greatest slogan. In short, overtraining occurs when the stress of life and your workout schedule requires more recovery time than your diet and sleep schedule currently allow.
The Impact of Over-Training on Your Hormones
Endurance sports can be especially hard on your testosterone. In a British Journal of Sports Medicine study, men who ran 90 kilometers a week (seriously, though, who does that?) had lowered testosterone compared to those who “only” ran 65 kilometers a week. Their testosterone was within the normal ranges, but lower than the men who ran the lower mileage.
We know that increased testosterone gives us the ability to recover faster, add more muscle, burn fat better and even boost our thinking ability. Keep in mind that these athletes were experiencing lower testosterone but were not considered to be “overtraining.” Long, intense cardiovascular sessions increase your body’s cortisol output. Professional endurance athletes experience enlarged adrenal glands from their body’s constant need for more cortisol.
Cortisol Depresses Testosterone
It is not just endurance athletes who can suffer from overtraining. Strength training can put you there as well. The body’s response to too much stress is the same, no matter the trigger. When stress increases, the body produces more cortisol. It doesn’t matter if that cortisol comes from your boss yelling at you or from starting a new workout plan that is too ambitious.
Cortisol is cortisol, and it will kill your testosterone levels every chance it gets.
3 Easy Ways To Know if You Are Over-Training
#1 Resting Heart Rate can be Increased by Over-Training
One of the first things I do every morning is check and chart my heart rate. I have a fitness watch that can check the heart rate with a couple of taps on the screen, and I want to get three readings before checking my phone or moving too much. This gives me an average baseline. If I notice one morning that my resting heart rate starts is above the baseline, I’ll first push for more hydration.
Hydration is one of the biggest causes for heart rate increase. If my hydration and rest are on point, then an increase of 6 bpm over my baseline averages is a likely sign that my body needs more recovery support, and a reduced workload.
#2 Are You Irritable, Depressed and Fatigued? Your Body Might be Telling You it’s Feeling Over-Trained
It’s possible for irritability, depression and fatigue to be caused by your over-trained body, not by your brain. If you are fighting irrational depression, fatigue, and irritability, it is important to find time to sleep.
My personal formula is to take a day off the gym and a hard-core combination of no screens for two hours before bed, along with a melatonin supplement to induce tiredness an extra hour early. Sometimes a day away from the gym and nine hours of sleep is all it takes. If you are still struggling to get on top, there is nothing wrong with scaling back your workouts to 25% for a week.
At 25% intensity and duration, I don’t even feel like I’m working out. But it puts me in a good range of “active recovery” where the muscles are still moving but aren’t under stress.
#3 Performance Losses can be Caused by Over-Training
“I just don’t know why …”
I’ve achieved some of my best performance improvements by focusing on recovery. Yoga, massage, sleep, and nutrition are my favorite tools. Performance improvements do not come from incrementally increased workout loads but from your body’s ability to adapt to the new levels.
If your body is not adapting, then you need to troubleshoot. Here are some of the key questions I ask:
- What stress is in my life?
- How is my sleep?
- How is my nutrition?
- Am I getting adequate calories?
Bonus Sign of Over-Training: A Flu Or Cold
These illnesses may be a sign of over-training. Or it may be something you contracted at the gym. Either way, you need to slow down when sick. I still advocate working out, but recognize that your body is already under stress, and you must dramatically reduce your work out.
Induce too much stress by trying to be superhuman, and all you’ll have to show is elevated cortisol and lowered testosterone.
You Are at Low Risk of Over-Training
Over-reaching – or short-term over-training – is very common. And if you over-reach long enough, you can enter the realms of over-training. If you reach the scientific definition of over-trained, you will need several months of recovery. It takes the body time to find balance.
But even when I was riding my bike 20 hours per week, going to college and working at the bike shop, I doubt that I ever reached a point where I was fully over-trained. I would watch out for the major symptoms and take an extra rest day now and again if my performance insisted on staying compromised.
However, the risk of over-training emphasizes the importance of proper recovery. You aren’t going to reach your peak if your diet is full of chemicals and nutrient-deficient food. Anytime you add more volume or intensity to your workout, make sure that you aren’t paying taxes or going through a divorce at the same time. Most importantly, give yourself plenty of sleep and adequate amounts of quality food.
Listen To Your Body
Our bodies complain a lot about everything. And if we quit every time our bodies whined, we’d never improve. I know I wouldn’t! If you are like me, you get good at tuning out your body and powering forward.
But as athletes, we need to take time and listen to our bodies. The symptoms I described above can guide you in determining if your body is being cranky, or is indeed showing signs of over-training.
How to Protect Your Testosterone Levels
#1. Lose Weight
It is well known that a high percentage of body fat decreases testosterone. Many of us are working to get in shape and are starting with an overweight BMI. Until we can get those pounds off, we are likely battling lowered testosterone. Low testosterone is going to slow our recovery ability and make us more susceptible to increases in cortisol.
At this stage, consistency is key. Spending 20 minutes a day on an indoor machine is going to be more beneficial for you at this stage than punishing your body with a two-hour ride every weekend. (See The Top 5 Best Indoor Stationary Cycling Fitness Bikes.)
The volume stays the same in each scenario, but the cortisol increase will likely be greater in the latter.
#2. Do More Strength Training
We endurance athletes don’t like to spend much time in the gym. But strength training can offer a few benefits that endurance sports cannot. And one of those is an increase in testosterone. Focus your workouts on those big leg muscles if you are serious about a testosterone boost.
#3. Supplement with Zinc and D3
The science on Zinc supplementation is a little spotty. However, I like to take a half dose of ZMA (Zinc, Magnesium Aspartate and Vitamin B6) before bed since my sleep tracker indicates that I get about 2 to 3% better sleep when I take ZMA versus when I don’t. Some of the research says that Zinc boosts testosterone. Some of it says that they can’t measure an improvement.
Vitamin D3 is another supplement that is showing results for those who have deficient D3 levels. When you boost the D3 in those who are deficient, it increases low testosterone to normal levels. With as much time as I have to spend inside at my day job, I figure this one is a no-brainer.
#4. Get More Sleep
In case I haven’t harped on this one enough, sleep is critical. If there were one point I could revisit on sleep, it would be that screens are the enemy. I keep “real” books by my bed for reading 30 minutes before sleep.
I see so many of my friends complaining on Facebook at 2 a.m. that they can’t sleep. And that may be the case. But very few of them are willing to cut the screen time as it gets close to bed. The light from the screens throws off our circadian rhythm. And if you want to sleep, you have to get your rhythm back.
The Bottom Line on Over-Training
Although endurance athletes are at an increased risk of decreased testosterone and over-training, the risk of over-training to the point that you need multiple weeks of recovery is low. However, it is possible to reduce your testosterone levels (and slow your progress) by not recognizing outside stress factors and adjusting your workout load and recovery efforts to compensate.
By keeping an eye out for the 3 warning signs of over-training and implementing the 4 tips above, you can decrease your risks of over-training and protect your testosterone levels.
Guest Poster Dave Henly
This Guest Post was written by Dave Henly. Dave began racing road bikes in high school and worked his way through college in a bike shop. He tries to help new riders get into the sport by sharing the best bike deals he finds online. You can follow Dave’s blog here.
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