The Difference Between Overloaded Muscles and Overtraining, Part I

TAGS: overloaded muscles, Christopher Wolff, fatigue, overtraining, injury, recovery

I've always been active. Growing up, I participated in soccer, cross-country skiing, basketball, and the gym life. By the age of sixteen though, I had stopped participating in all organized sports. It wasn’t until I went to a university to study physical therapy in 2007 that a coach asked me and a friend, while lifting weights, if we cared to give crew a try. My friend and I said sure. We had plenty of spare time being students abroad in the Netherlands, and we loved to compete. Over three months, this resulted in a serious training regime and big ambitions to win the freshmen’s eighth league. I trained seven to nine times a week, ate my heart out, and spent so many hours on the indoor rower that I actually stopped hating it and started to like it.

The results came quickly because we had time to rest, eat, and benefit from all the training. In eighteen months, I went from an average Joe to setting all the U23 requirements. Then I started taking the training to a new level and working, which wasn't a smart combination. Everything was fine for a while, but after three months, my scores suddenly dropped significantly. This happened in a two- to three-week time period, and I didn't have any of the classic overtraining symptoms like staleness, fatigue, lack of motivation, and a higher resting heart rate. I immediately took a complete break from the training. Later, I tried a couple easy trainings, but I could tell something was off. I saw my general practitioner, who didn’t do much but take a blood sample that didn’t show anything. She just nodded along when I explained my training and work, and said yes, she agreed that it was overtraining so take a rest.

So I did rest for three weeks. I went back to the Netherlands and explained the situation to my coach. I took it easy in the trainings, only doing UT1. That went fine, but something was still off. My legs swelled up a bit, and as soon as I started to go above UT1, my heart rate shot way up too quickly. In the Netherlands, they cycle a lot and so did I. I noticed when cycling that I was struggling even more. One day on my way to see the sports doctor in the Top Sports Center, there was a headwind, and I couldn't even get there by bike. My heart rate was like 200 beats per minute, and my legs just stopped completely. I got a long assessment by what seemed to be the best practitioners you could get. They were completely sure that this was just overtraining and that I just needed to rest. I rested, but I wasn’t convinced, so I read and read to try to figure this out. I had constant spasms in my legs and I was tired for a while, but that went away after some time. I noticed that my resting heart rate was almost the same the entire time (it was still in the low 40s). However, my heart raced when I stood still and slowed down during walking. I knew that this hadn’t been the case before the dip in my results. I asked the sports doctor about it, but he didn't have any answers. He just said that overtraining isn’t fully understood and he didn't have any explanation for what I was experiencing.

After six months of rest, my test scores in the questionnaire from the sports doctor went up. I started training easy again and using weights. However, every time I tried high intensity for a longer period, I felt dizzy and sleepy. Something was still off, but it wasn’t until six months later that I discovered what.

After four months of weight training—that was the only training my muscles seemed to tolerate—I went for a 7-km run with my brother. This almost happened by chance because it was icy outside and we almost didn’t go. I ran the 7 km as fast as I could. I didn’t get dizzy or sleepy, and it was awesome to push my body again like I used to. Two days later, I unexpectedly started to have anxiety attacks and I had strong cramps in my entire body. This lasted for ten days until I got some relaxing pills. The strength in my legs totally disappeared. I went from deadlifting 400 pounds for sets to almost not being able to lift 200 pounds once. After this, I knew that this wasn't simply overtraining and I found an expert in Oslo who could explain that this was something else.

It's called 'feiltrening,' meaning wrong training or monotonous training that has overloaded your muscles. This is different from pure overtraining, and that’s what I’m going to discuss in this series. With my very hard-earned experience, I'll discuss this huge gap in the training world. Many athletes have this problem without being aware of it, and many coaches and sport practitioners misdiagnose this as overtraining, which can be cured by rest and less training.

Basic training principles and the problems of overload and overloaded muscles versus overtraining

Training is based on two basic reactions—stress and adaptation. Overtraining is too much stress on the body, and the nervous system is overloaded. This can be subdivided into parasympathetic and sympathetic, which are often different in endurance and strength athletes.

Typically, an endurance athlete shows signs of parasympathetic fatigue, and the power athlete shows sympathetic signs. Although this phenomenon is poorly understood, some research suggests that parasympathetic versus sympathetic can also be a measure of the severity and time spent overtraining, sympathetic being the early state of overtraining and parasympathetic being the later state (1, 6). It’s important to understand that you aren’t overtrained by only having an overloaded muscle. Overtraining is systematic. Many athletes are overtrained because to be able to perform to the best of your ability, you will always be on the edge of what you can tolerate

The first and still reversible state is over-reaching, which in most cases is done intentionally to peak performance. It is when the over-reaching is pushed so far that the athlete won’t achieve super-compensation from the overload that this becomes overtraining (5). In overtraining, you can also find that athletes suffer from overloaded muscles, so you can be both overtrained and have overloaded your muscles. In the case of pure overtraining, it is per definition cured by rest, less training, and sufficient nutrition. However, rest won’t cure overloaded muscles. Instead, they need active treatment (7). Overloaded muscles can come in combination with overtraining as well, but in many cases, the athlete doesn't show any signs of being overtrained and the “history” doesn’t fit with the symptoms of overtraining. The condition of overloaded muscles may be present in a power athlete but is more likely to strike an endurance athlete.

When you train, the desired result is to appropriately stress the body to create super-compensation. As this happens over time, the body will increase its tolerance to stress by becoming stronger. If you overload the body with a stress factor that is too big or too frequent for it to recover, this super-compensation won't happen.

Too much stress and not enough rest can happen due to many reasons. Stress and rest are complex factors and have many underlying variables. When you look to the training itself, you can look at two key elements of any training schedule—volume and intensity. Usually the problem lies in the volume of high intensity, as the body can handle a lot of stress from low intensity training. But surprisingly, in most cases, it isn’t even the training that can take the full blame. Several external factors act as stressors besides the training—work, health problems, obligations, family, relationships, deadlines, financial issues, and so on. These are underlying factors that influence your rest and sleep and anabolic time that the body needs to recover between sessions. Other less common reasons are unbalanced nutrition, fast metabolism, exhausted adrenalin gland virus, and others, which cover a really small percentage.

Healthy reaction to overload:

You workout, and as a result, you get an acute micro-trauma in your soft tissue. Through rest and nutrition, your tissues and body recover. Super-compensation has taken place, and you are fit for a new training schedule.

Unhealthy reaction to overload:

You workout, but the stress is either too big and creates an injury or the stress is too frequent and you never completely recover. Over time, this will lead to a chronic overload in your soft tissue and an error in your healing process toward the desired goal of super-compensation.

So what happens in your muscles when you do this? The consequences of this are accumulation of scar tissue in the muscles, which leads to a series of less favorable reactions. The scar tissue makes the muscle fibers less flexible, and they will be more contracted where the scar tissue is situated. Due to the constant overload, this process continues to form more and more scar tissue. Accumulation of scar tissue has many unfavorable side effects such as poor circulation, ischemia, vasodilatation, and trigger points in the muscle. So slowly, as you train too much without being aware of it, the muscle will slowly start to lose its abilities. It can become shorter and weaker and may need a longer recovery period due to poor circulation. Oedema can develop, you can feel cold in the area, and you can experience impinged peripheral nerves, hypersensitivity, and loss of endurance. You can also have the sensation of lactate acid buildup, and the muscles become “stuck to the bone” and are less flexible.

By studying trigger points and overloaded muscles, we can see that there are massive scar tissue formations and trigger points. These trigger points can be measured by electrical activity and palpation by an experienced practitioner. The muscle fibers are contracted, which leads to poor supply of blood and oxygen because the muscles need to be stretched to receive blood. The same part of the muscle that is classified as a trigger point is also more active, actually demanding more energy than what it can get. This activity is initiated by the organic compound of acetylcholine, which acts as a neurotransmitter in the PNS and CNS. It acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter at the neuromuscular junction in skeletal muscles, telling the muscles to contract. This makes the healing process for the muscles even harder, as they can’t get a sufficient blood and oxygen supply. They can’t relax, so basically the muscles won't heal while in this state.

During training and in the worst cases even in sedentary life, you can experience anaerobic metabolism locally in the affected muscles. In training, your anaerobic threshold will be seriously lowered, and in the affected muscles, you will have lactic acid accumulating long before your heart rate suggests it.

In part two, I'll give insight as to how you can recognize these problems before they get too far. I'll also tell you how to prevent getting overloaded or overtrained muscles and how to treat them if you do.



1. Budgett R (1998)Fatigue and underperformance in athletes: the overtrining syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 32:107-10.

2. Lescaudron L, E Peltékian, J Fontaine-Pérus, D Paulin, M Zampieri, L Garcia and E Parrish. (1999). Blood borne macrophages are essential for the triggering of muscle re- generation following muscle transplant. Neuromuscul Disord 9:72–80.

3. Sato K, Y Li, W Foster, K Fukushima, N Badlani, N Adachi, A Usas, FH Fu and J Huard. (2003). Improve- ment of muscle healing through enhancement of muscle regeneration and prevention of fibrosis. Muscle Nerve 28:365–372.

4. Overtraining Effects on Hormonal and Autonomic Regulation in Young Cross-Country Skiers,' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 26(5), p. S65, 1994

5. Asker E.Jeukendrup MSc  and Matthijs K.C. Hesselink MSc Department of Human Biology, University of Maastricht, The Netherlands

6. Dr. Phillip Maffetone (2010). The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing.

7. Sandvand Omfjord C. Muskulære funn ved feiltrening (Hovedfagsoppgave i idrett). Norges idrettshøgskole: Oslo 2003

8. Collins M, Renault V, Grobler LA, St Clair Gibson A, Lambert MI, Derman EW, Butler-Browne GS, Noakes TD, Mouly V. Athletes with Exercise-Assosiated Fatigue Have Abnormally Short Muscle DNA Telomeres. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2003; 35(9): 1524-1528.



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