While inactivity can be a predominant contributor to fatigue, too much activity can have the same outcome.
By Nicole Cutler, L.Ac.
Initiated by a wide variety of factors, nearly everyone experiences fatigue at one time or another. Whether due to a medical condition, lack of sleep, overexertion or an unknown cause, even competitive athletes go through times when they run out of energy and can’t get through their workouts.
Likely a result of today’s increasingly sedentary society, there is a growing emphasis placed on improving our physical fitness levels. However, some people are impacted negatively by persistent, vigorous exercise. Known as overtraining, athletes committed to their sport may harbor a surprising similarity to those who engage in very little physical activity.
Feeling well and having sufficient amounts of energy during each day lie in practicing moderation. Although they are due to different reasons, too little or too much activity can leave you feeling fatigued:
- Too little – Due to a cascade of physiological events, science has successfully demonstrated that spending your waking hours sitting in front of a computer or television leads to a host of medical ailments. Such inactivity easily leads to fatigue via obesity, metabolic disorder, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.
- Too much – On the other hand, athletes who train excessively can also suffer from dramatic fatigue. While overtraining will vary for each individual, it is generally understood to be the point at which one is exercising so hard and for so many hours that muscle recovery and return to normal energy level does not occur after usual periods of rest.
Working out harder and longer to improve performance, overtraining syndrome frequently occurs in athletes who are training for competition or a specific event and push themselves too hard. Warning signs of overtraining include:
- Feeling tired and drained
- Feeling mildly achy and sore
- Muscle and joint pain
- Sudden performance decline
- Increased frequency of colds, sore throats and flu
- Moodiness or irritability
- Loss of enthusiasm for sport
Research on overtraining syndrome shows rest is the primary treatment plan. The longer the overtraining has gone on, the more rest is required to recover. Some new evidence indicates that immunity and recovery speed may be hastened with low levels of exercise. However, total recovery from overtraining may take several weeks of rest, re-hydration, proper nutrition and stress reduction.
Muscle damage is the most likely explanation for excessive fatigue from overtraining. Preparing with a very hard workout for a competition literally damages muscle fibers. This is typically followed by a day of feeling sore, where the athlete should take it easy to allow those muscle fibers to heal. However, obsession overtraining can lead some athletes to engage in another hard workout before their body has a chance of recovering from their previous session. A continuation of this cycle prevents muscle fibers from adequately storing muscle sugar for fuel, so they contract with less force and tire earlier.
From a medical perspective, the overtraining syndrome is classified as a neuro-endocrine disorder. The normal fine balance in the interaction between the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal system is disturbed and causes an athletic type of jet lag. Such an imbalance renders the body with a decreased ability to repair itself during rest. Athletes who push even more challenging workouts onto this unbalanced system only worsen the exhaustion. If sufficient rest is not included in an athletic training program, then regeneration cannot occur and performance declines.
It seems that just like everything else in life, our body needs a balanced approach toward physical fitness. Not enough activity will create a host of medical problems that feature fatigue, and exercising too hard without adequate rest can lead to the same problem. Thus, even the most elite athletes must listen to their body and occasionally exhibit restraint in an effort to avoid overtraining.
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