Published on May 14, 2012
Recently, I raced the Wildflower triathlon in California (that's me running in the picture above).
Wildflower is know for being a tough, hilly event – designed to chew up triathletes and spit them out.
So I knew that if I wanted to do decently in this race, I needed to train hard.
Typically, leading up to a Half-Ironman or Ironman event, I “build” for 8-12 weeks – meaning that I workout at both greater volume and greater intensity (click here for a free, hour-long video that outlines exactly what I recommend for the last 12 weeks leading up to an Ironman triathlon).
For example, here's what a typical training week looked like for me for the last 8 weeks:
Monday: 45 minute bike workout, 45 minute lift, 90 minute tennis match
Tuesday: 3-4K recovery swim (mostly drills)
Wednesday: 2 hour swim-bike-run workout with tempo intervals
Thursday: 3-4K swim intervals, 90 minute tennis match
Friday: 2 hour swim-bike-run workout with speed intervals
Saturday: 90 minute bike, 3-4K swim intervals
Sunday: 60-90 minute run
For the last 3 weeks of this build, I didn't have a single recovery day, and it finally caught up to me. I was approaching what I refer to as an “overreached” state (incidentally, most people call this state “overtraining”, but in reality, overtraining is typically when you're trained so hard that you've reached the point of no return – the only reason I used term “overtraining” in the title of this article is because the term “overreaching” is not as recognizable).
How did I know this?
I've mentioned before on a podcast that I use a device called the “HeartMath emWave2” to track my heart rate variability (the differences in length of time between each of your heart beats). This allows me to know if I've “overcooked” myself, because it will tell me when my nervous system has been overtaxed, which is usually the first sign that you may be getting overtrained.
Here's the basics of how heart rate variability tracking works and how you can use it to track your training status:
The origin of your heartbeat is located in what is called a “node” of your heart, in this case, the sino-atrial (SA) node.
In your SA node, cells in your heart continuously generates an electrical impulse that spreads throughout your entire heart muscle and causes a contraction. Generally, your SA node will generate a certain number of these electrical impulses per minute, which is how many times your heart will beat per minute.
Below is a graphic of how your SA node initiates the electrical impulse that causes a contraction to propagate from through the Right Atrium (RA) and Right Ventricle (RV) to the Left Atrium (LA) and Left Ventricle (LV) of your heart.
So where does heart rate variability fit into this equation?
Here's how: Your SA node activity, heart rate and rhythm are largely under the control of your autonomic nervous system, which is split into two branches, your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system and your “fight and flight” sympathetic nervous system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system influences heart rate via the release of acetylcholine by the vagus nerve, which can inhibit activation of SA node activity and decrease heart rate variability.
In contrast, your sympathetic nervous system influences heart rate by release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, and generally increases activation of the SA node and increases heart rate variability.
If you're well rested and haven't been overtraining aerobically, your parasympathetic nervous system interacts cooperatively with your sympathetic nervous system to produce responses in your heart rate variability to respiration, temperature, blood pressure, stress, etc.
But if you're not well rested (overtrained or inadequately recovered), the normally healthy beat-to-beat variation in your heart rhythm begins to diminish. This variability indicates sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system balance, and proper regulation of your heartbeat by your nervous system.
In other words, the delicate see-saw balance of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system no longer works.
In a strength or speed athlete, you typically see more sympathetic nervous system overtraining, and symptoms such as:
-High cortisol & insulin
-Low testosterone & DHEA
-Fluid retention and swelling
-Highly variable HRV (heart rate variability number bounces around from day to day)
Comparatively, in endurance athletes, you typically see more parasympathetic nervous system overtraining, and symptoms such as:
-Adrenal exhaustion (low cortisol, low insulin, low testosterone, low DHEA)
-“Rest & Digest” overstimulation
-Low HRV (the heart rate variability number stays consistently low)
In my case, as I neared the finish of my build to the Wildflower triathlon, I began to notice consistently low HRV scores – indicating I was nearing an overreached status and my parasympathetic nervous system was getting overcooked.
Technically, if you can recover correctly from this type of breakdown and overreaching, your rebound and subsequent fitness gain is actually greater than what it would have been if you hadn't pushed yourself “to the edge”. This is basically a stair-step recovery effect and looks like this:
The problem is that many people overreach…
…and then don't recover properly…
…so the graph looks like the one below – with weeks and weeks of improper recovery eventually leading to overtraining and lower fitness levels, which is how most people are when they get to the starting line of a triathlon or similar endurance event, scratching their head and wondering why they feel like crap even though they did so much hard training:
Aside from the very apparent opposite direction of the stairstepping effect, did you notice the primary difference between the two slides?
The first slide indicates recovery while the second slides indicates only partial recovery.
And that's the trick, really – to push yourself to the edge (overreach), and then achieve supercompensation and a gain in fitness by giving yourself full recovery.
But recovery of a taxed parasympathetic nervous system cannot be gained simply by training less, lower volume, or decreasing intensity. While reduced training certainly helps restore proper nervous system function, typically there are other strategies necessary to get fast and effective recovery from overreaching.
So here are four of my favorite methods, and what I immediately pulled out of the closet when I realized my HRV numbers were rapidly dropping, consistently low and I had an overtrained parasympathetic nervous system that needed some serious adjustment if I was to be ready to race:
1. Frequent Cold Exposure – Cold immersion can lower inflammation, and markers of inflammatory damage such as CRP or interleukin – which allows the body to bounce back faster from an overreached state. In my case, I have access to a very cold river that currently runs at about 40-45 degrees Farenheit, so when I saw those HRV scores begin to drop, I began full body immersion for 20-30 minutes a day, 1-2x/day (you can also achieve this in an ice bath if you live in a warmer climate without access to a cold body of water). I combined with wearing 110% compression tights and shirt filled with ice sleeves while I was sitting at home working.
2. Adaptogenic Herbs – I use a Chinese Adaptogenic Herb complex called Tian Chi, and I began to double dose on an empty stomach 1-2x/day, in mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon. The ingredients of Tian Chi include compounds that help to relieve adrenal gland stress and support proper adrenal function, including ashwaganda, eleuthero, epemedium and gotu kola. These type of compounds are incredibly effective at restoring function to your adrenal glands when you've been asking yourself to churn out adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine, etc. with day after day of hard training.
3. Deep Sleep – During deep sleep, your body releases large amounts of growth hormone for repair and recovery, and initiates cellular turnover that can speed up removal of “junk” from a taxed musculoskeletal system. Once I saw my HRV score drop, my goal was to get myself into a deep sleep phase as quickly as possible, and I did this by using an Earthpulse Sleep Machine device to activate my “deep sleep” Delta brain waves, along with sleeping in a very dark room, using 500mg magnesium before bed, and making sure to use my blue-light blocking glasses at any point after 4pm in the afternoon.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Diet – Because they result in a net acidic load when you metabolize them, pro-inflammatory foods will increase inflammation and increase your pain from the inflammation. These include processed meats, foods high in omega 6 fatty acids like roasted seeds and nuts, pastries and cereals, starches, and even nightshade plants like regular potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. When you're injured or overtrained and looking for every available advantage, you should instead prioritize foods with natural anti-inflammatory properties, like dark-skinned fruits and vegetables (pomegranates, cherries, blueberries, plums, artichokes, spinach and broccoli are excellent), high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (cold-water fish, cod liver oil, fish oil, etc.) and natural herbal anti-inflammatories like turmeric, curcumin, garlic and ginger.
Within 5 days of using the strategies out lined above, my body was restored and ready to race, and rather than arriving at the starting line feeling beat up and overworked, I ended up recovering, having my heart rate variability score sore back up, and setting a personal race record at the triathlon (pictured right as I come off the bike).
I hope that helps you to better understand how to track markers of overreaching or overtraining, and what type of action to take when you realize that you've been pushing your body too hard.
If you'd like to check out some of my recommended supplement “stacks” for getting out of adrenal fatigue or overtraining, then you should go to the Ben Recommends page and scroll down to “Adrenal Exhaustion”. Usually, the type of supplement protocol you will read about there is only really necessary if you've truly overtrained yourself, whereas the 4 strategies outlined above will work if you are simply needed a quick fix to a slightly overreached system.
Questions, comments or feedback about what to do when you're overtrained? Simply leave them below.