Overtraining - how do we harness our energy?

Posted by Ian Craig

I’m about to write a revised article on overtraining for the Functional Sports Nutrition magazine, so I thought I’d start with a bit of a warm-up with this blog. 

Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is a topic that has been quite mechanistically described in sports science/medicine, but despite attempting since the 1980’s, scientists struggle to pin down an exacting description and diagnosis of the condition (or what I’d prefer to call ‘an imbalance in health’). 

However, I’m hopeful that mainstream science is now starting to accept that OTS has multiple manifestations and multiple aetiologies, which in order to try and ‘fix’it, will therefore bring the problem (or health imbalance) into the realm of integrative thinking. 

Even within integrative thinking, however, our understanding of energy production, energy flow and the support of energy homeostasis is constantly shifting. I started writing about OTS about 10 years ago, when I had the sudden realisation that OTS, as described in the sporting literature, was one and same as adrenal fatigue, as described in nutritional therapy and functional medicine. Here’s one of my early FSN magazine articles, when I viewed an overtrained cyclist through the lens of adrenal fatigue. 

But, the adrenal glands are only one aspect of energy production. Yes, we need adrenal output (including adrenaline and cortisol) to break down substrates for blood sugar stability, plus many other functions, but we are also reliant on our thyroid gland to provide a metabolic fire and we also need our nervous system in tip-top condition for optimal ongoing energy provision. Ironically, if we think in an integrative health way, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which are responsible for the outflow of adrenal and thyroid function (HPA and HPT axes), are completely immersed in the nervous system - as discussed in my article on nervous energy, in addition to the hypothalamus being considered the ‘master gland’ in endocrinology, it is also considered to be a major conduit for nerve pathways between the brain and the body.

So, energy provision is complex and it is also entirely individual, based on genetics and unique life loads. From clinical observation, I can tell you that some individuals (myself included) are very susceptible to adrenal burn-out when they push their bodies and minds too hard. Other athletes tend to have strong adrenals, but they fry their thyroid gland in the process of life excesses - my wife Rachel, for example, ended up on thyroxin in her 20’s when she was competing internationally in triathlon, studying at university, plus holding down several jobs (including being a gym instructor). Did you know that thyroxin is now a controversially common drug being prescribed to some of the world’s top athletes? 

It’s also too simple to just blame the adrenals or thyroid gland for OT: because the hypothalamus and pituitary are the go-between glands, linking the mind and body, they are also prone to fatigue and burn out. Additionally, it is entirely unlikely to find an adrenally fatigued athlete who doesn’t experience imbalance in autonomic nervous function - i.e. they spend too much time in a sympathetic (fight or flight) state and not enough time in a parasympathetic state (relax and repair). That is essentially the ‘state’ of the world right now - too much yang and not enough yin.

I’ll also add in another dimension to OTS - if you ever study the chronic fatigue literature (which is even more complex), mitochondria function is heavily discussed. If you’ve studied physiology at some point in time, you should know the Kreb’s cycle inside out, or at least think you do… However, mitochondrial function tends to be taught in quite a macronutrient way, with a strong focus of getting enough substrates (carbs, fat, and to a lessor extent protein) into the mitochondria and then it should pretty much take care of itself. But, the Kreb’s cycle, plus the biochemical pathways feeding into it, also rely heavily on enzyme co-factors, which include certain B-vitamins, lipoic acid, iron, magnesium, carnitine and CoenzymeQ10. 

Under-functioning mitochondria obviously link to systemic fatigue, such as experienced by an athlete with OTS, plus they can cause fibromyalgia, which to me isn’t a diagnosable condition as such, but rather a collection of symptoms which can be experienced by anyone, such as an athlete struggling to recover quickly enough between training sessions. But, it’s also not as simple as just getting these micronutrients in through the diet (and absorbing them through the gut); the mitochondrial membranes are highly sensitive to oxidative stress and toxicity, meaning that practices such as detoxification, which we tend to label as fluffy and non-scientific, now become critical for an athlete to recover and to perform at his/her best. 

Performance and recovery is not just about macros - that’s only the start… 

To learn more about overtraining and energy, click here to read an expanded piece on this topic and you can also view a 45-minute webinar which I presented for BASES and Human Kinetics.