This week I have really struggled to adult, and that is, in part, because I’m going through a part of my training at the moment called “overreaching,” which is an important and thoroughly unpleasant thing to do. I realised sometime in the middle of the week that most people never experience this at all, so decided to write a little something on it. If you’re a competitive powerlifter you’ve probably done this a number of times before (and probably seen more than a few others sitting in the corner with dead eyes between sets), and hopefully this resonates with you. If you’re not a powerlifter, or are just getting started, maybe you’ll gain a bit of an understanding of what exactly we’re going through!
What is Overreaching?
If you have some sport science background, you can probably skip ahead a couple of sections.
You have a limited capacity to recover. That capacity can change over time, and it depends on a huge number of variables, (age, training age, sleep habits, eating habits, passive recovery habits to name a few). The amount you can effectively recover from on a microcycle-to-microcycle can be referred to as a Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV, good but long video here). This is true for all athletes, runners might express it as kilometres/mile per week, ball sport athletes probably express it in terms of hours of training per week and so on. In powerlifting, it can be expressed in terms of tonnage, reps per week, hard sets per week, or any similar variable (e.g.I can do 6 sets of squats at 80%, twice per week and recover in time to repeat it the next week – that’s my MRV for squats.) The important bit here is recover. Most moderately well trained people have a work capacity that exceeds their MRV, that is to say they can do more squats in a week than they can recover from (this is probably untrue for unfit people/novices. To follow on from my last example, I could probably do 8 or 10 hard sets of squats in a single session, but there is no way I could do it twice a week and still be okay for the following week.)
Briefly exceeding your MRV can and should happen regularly, about one week a month for competitive strength athletes. When planned properly, this could be called functional overreaching. You can also end up over reaching because your MRV goes down (you get sick, you start getting insomnia, you’re stressed at work or whatever), which is non-functional overreaching. This second kind should be avoided if possible! After a period of functional overreaching an athlete typically goes through a deload or taper, before continuing training or competing.
Why Would You Want to Overreach?
The human body is a huge homeostatic system, which you can influence using external factors, like your training and diet. If you push a properly damped homeostatic system in one direction, negative feedback loops force it to bounce back in the other direction (think a pendulum, pull it one way and it swings back the other before settling down), before eventually returning to the original state (the human body is a very well damped system!) This “bounce back” is called super compensation. We can view this on an SRA Curve (Stimulus Recovery Adaption). Here’s an example of an SRA curve I
stole borrowed from truefn.com. Strictly speaking, this curve doesn’t show overreaching, but this same principal applies to all time frames – in an overreaching case, instead of one training stimulus before allowing supercompensation, you might perform a second, a third, fourth etc before allowing yourself to recover! Properly planned overreaching periods, fitted within a well periodised program, result in good long term performance.
Wow, overreaching sounds great. Why is Rory whining so much?
What Overreaching Feels Like
Honestly, kind of like you’re dying.
This mesocycle (which is going generally well, by the way) I mistimed my overreach – instead of starting on the Monday of week four, I ended up exceeding my MRV around the Wednesday of week three. I went from 5 days of overreaching to 10, so I reserve my right to whine more than usual. (Lesson learnt.)
This mesocycle I have had some of the worst triceps tendinitis I have ever experienced – in both elbows simultaneously. On the Friday of last week my arms (elbows and shoulders by referral) felt like they were on fire in between sets. I probably would have gone to the hospital if I didn’t understand what was happening. I dropped my pressing volume this week in an effort to survive the mesocycle, but my left elbow is still pretty bad. (My knees and hips hurt too, but not as acutely.)
Small things heal more slowly. You ripped out a callous? Sucks to be you, that’s not healing until you take some down time. My skin ends up getting quite bad, like it isn’t recovering well either.
I generally feel flat all the time. Your body goes into this kind of long term fatigue state (vs. acute fatigue, like at the end of a training) where every spare bit of energy goes into surviving. Your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermo-genesis) drops; it becomes hard to focus, you might doze off or end up day dreaming more often than usual. Small day-to-day tasks end up leaving you very tired. I’ve barely cooked all week because just the thought of making some rice and putting some mince in a frying pan leaves me tired. I don’t know when I last shaved, but I certainly haven’t been bothered recently. Libido drops, the desire to socialise drops (I’m introverted anyway). When you might normally feel fine after 7 or 8 hours sleep, now you need 9 just to feel moderately human-like. Coffee doesn’t do shit any more. I feel snappy all the time (apologies to anyone I have been short with in the past 10 days. I’ve felt like a zombie. I’m working on it, but please be patient with me.)
Oddly, one of the symptoms of overreaching (I haven’t had this one this week, but I’ve had it quite badly before) is that your appetite disappears. I’ve had days where the thought of eating makes me feel physically sick. I don’t know why this happens, it doesn’t seem to make much sense from a natural selection standpoint (maybe to encourage you lying down and sleeping instead of going out searching for food?) but I’ve heard plenty of people complain about it.
Other common symptoms are pain in joints you didn’t even know could hurt (SI joint is a common one) or swollen joints. Retention of water seems to happen sometimes, complaints of “sticky” feeling joints (shoulder especially), starting to catch colds, forgetting basic and/or important things… If you’ve ever heard of Sheiko flu, or “the dark days” in Bulgarian training, these are noth referring to overreaching. It can feel like your body is giving up on you.
Tips to Surviving Overreaching
- Don’t stop eating, even if your appetite disappears. Loosing weight will only make things worse. Try to keep some micronutrient dense food in there, but sometimes downing an entire pizza (or two) will do you some good too.
- Try keep your sleep habits good.
- Drink plenty of water. I feel like this helps, though I have no idea why.
- Don’t make commitments you don’t need to make. Don’t feel like going to that party? Don’t go. If they’re your friends, they’ll understand that you need some time to yourself for a bit.
- Stick to the plan. If you’re overreaching on purpose, don’t stop/cut back training unless you’re at risk of hurting yourself. If you have a coach, you should tell them when you start overreaching, because its important information for them. If you do your own programming, make a note of what is maintainable for you etc.
- Let people you’re close with know. Your partner/flatmate/parents/friends will likely be more understanding if they understand you’re feeling beat up from training!
- Focus on what counts. Think about why you’re doing it. Spend some time on your own, or quality time with your family or significant other.
Well, that’s the end of my whinge session (wow, that was cathartic!) Hopefully some of this rings true for experienced athletes, and for those who have never overreached, hopefully you’ve gained something of an appreciation for what it feel like to be getting ready for a big event. Time for me to take a bit of an easy week, then my peaking block for Auckland Championships begins. Train hard guys!