Functional vs Non-Functional Overreaching

Functional vs. Non-functional overreaching

By Riley Gould

If you’ve been hanging around Hammer HQ lately, you may have heard the buzz about our upcoming training clinic ‘Overreaching’. If you’re wondering what the overreaching clinic involves, it’s a 10-day training clinic which we run at the end of each year intending to impose a super-compensation phase while you recover during the Christmas break. If you haven’t participated in a training program like this before, the following article will provide some background information into overreaching and how it can be structured to benefit your performance.

The term overreaching is often viewed as taboo due to its capability of developing into overtraining syndrome if left unchecked. If the training is periodised and implemented correctly however, an individual can intentionally progress themselves into a state of overreaching which may be beneficial if followed by an adequate recovery period (Christmas break in this case). Even when periodised correctly, this type of training requires ongoing monitoring of each individual to spot any signs physiological stress beyond what is expected (there is expected to be some) and prevent them from developing into serious injury or illness. Being able to perform a training program with such a high stimulus while minimising susceptibility to serious injury or illness (overtraining syndrome) is of great importance as it is what differs ‘functional’ from ‘non-functional’ overreaching.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview into overreaching, explore the difference between its functional and non-functional counterparts, and list some signs and symptoms along with causes of overreaching. Initially, it will also provide a brief overview into overtraining syndrome and its gradual development from non-overreaching.

Overtraining Syndrome

To fully understand why it’s so important to develop and implement a functional overreaching program properly and the need to monitor individuals closely through the training period, you’ll first need to understand what overreaching can lead to if left unchecked. If you haven’t witnessed or heard of overtraining before its definition can give an insight to the symptoms.

Overtraining syndrome can be roughly defined as prolonged fatigue and underperformance following a period of heavy training or competition, lasting at least a month and measured by an appropriate performance test or competition results. Individuals who suffer from overtraining syndrome may also witness recurrent infections during maximum training or competition periods [1].

An example of this could be an individual who has increased their total training load in the last 6 weeks, in conjunction with the start of their rugby season and a sudden increase in work load which is causing increased stress and decreased sleep quality. They manage this for a couple of weeks but begin to notice decreases in energy and performance (weight squatted or benched), with it worsening over the next 4 weeks. In the 4th week, their performance is the worst it has been in years however their training is not decreasing due to the idea that; the more you train = the more you gain. Eventually this will lead to either a physiological breakdown (illness) or serious injury (muscle tear) and may require several months of rehab and return to sport programing before training can take place again.

Flow Chart of Training Developing into Overtraining.
Flow Chart of Training Developing into Overtraining.

Due to the generalisation of symptoms (e.g. fatigue, lack of motivation, infections/sickness), overtraining could often be mistaken as a simple off training period and failed to be addressed before serious symptoms occur, leading to the above situation. That is why it’s important to continually test and retest both performance measures and perceived efforts, and assess them in conjunction of measures of total training loads and other lifestyle factors (work stress, sleep, family life, nutrition). This will help determine the cause and appropriate strategies (lifestyle or training loads) can be implemented to combat overtraining and prevent further injury or illness. One of the greatest prevention strategies however still lays in the ability to determine when an athlete has entered a state of overreaching.

Non-functional Overreaching

In the exercise and sport science world overreaching is usually viewed as the stage of development which has the possibility of leading into overtraining syndrome which should always be addressed with appropriate recovery modalities. The term itself gives a rough description of what is actually means, you are literally overreaching beyond the point at which the training stimulus versus recovery continuum is sustainable without your body breaking down. Unlike overtraining however, if training and recovery are periodised correctly during a stage of overreaching, individuals can benefit from a stage of super compensation and greatly increase their performance. This is what differs ‘non-functional’ overreaching; leading to overtraining, from ‘functional’ overreaching; leading to super compensation.

Non-functional overreaching has a number of possible causes, hence it can sometimes be difficult to develop strategies to combat it. The below table by Kreher & Schwartz (2012) outlines some of the possible causes;

Causes of Non-functional Overreaching
Causes of Non-functional Overreaching

It’s also important to note that each cause may differ in magnitude between individuals depending on their ability to cope with increased training loads or lifestyle stressors. For example, you may be able to handle work stress well and separate it from home life resulting in a good night sleep and improved recovery, while others may bring work home and stress throughout the night resulting in interrupted sleep patterns and reduced recovery. Over time the later individual would be at a higher risk of progressing into a state of overreaching due to this reduced recovery.

So how could you determine the cause of overreaching? First, signs of unexplained underperformance should be reported or witnessed. Then a thorough history check can help to perform a diagnosis, which should include;

  • Persisting decreases in performance despite weeks to months of recovery,
  • Disturbances in mood,
  • A lack of signs/symptoms or diagnosis of other possible causes of underperformance (previous injury or illness)

A thorough nutritional history should also be recorded and compared alongside your current training program to assess caloric expenditure. Following this you can then assess the impact of each individual factor in the above table, which needs to be performed with your coach using both objective (recorded data) and subjective (perceived efforts) information. Ensure you compare your self-perception of your working hours and training exertion, as they may be inaccurate when compared to measured training loads which can then affect their prevention plan [1]. For example, someone may view the above complaints as weak or just a simple lull and alter their recorded self-perception scales to avoid cessation or complications of training.

Functional Overreaching

Functional overreaching differs as this type of training is periodised with the intent of an individual reaching a state of overreaching, however incorporates a period post training block to allow for recovery, and prevent further digression into overtraining syndrome. This allows the body to adapt to the stimulus provided during previous weeks, and compensate by improving body composition, strength and work capacity.

Recovery Differences in Functional vs Non-Functional Overreaching
Recovery Differences in Functional vs Non-Functional Overreaching

It goes without saying that the periodization of the program itself is the responsibility of the coaches, along with the ongoing monitoring of an individual’s fatigue, illness or injury status. While we use both quantitative and subject measures to assess your current physiological status, it is important that you also know preventative steps which you can implement to assist you through an overreaching training block. The table by Kreher and Schwartz (2012) below demonstrates some areas of interest in overtraining prevention, many of which we will discuss with you when undertaking the training clinic, however you can continue to refer to this table as a guide during the clinic to cross check your prevention strategy.

Preventative Measures for Non-functional Overreaching and Overtraining
Preventative Measures for Non-functional Overreaching and Overtraining

It is important to note that this table is based on long term (months-years) prevention of overtraining, so some areas are not going to be met during the 10day training period. For example, during the last 2-3days of the clinic you will be feeling fatigued and your perception of effort will be through the roof. This will not mean you get a day off of training however, we intend for this to happen as your recovery will occur soon after, and we will employ alternative strategies to help with recovery between sessions (ice baths & supplemented protein intake). In fact, athletes often test for perceived measures of fatigue, muscle soreness, and lethargy during their training block to make sure they have achieved a state of overreaching in order to provide sufficient stimulus to promote adaptations during recovery [3]. For example, the graph below by Meur et al (2013) measured running performance over a 3 week overreaching training block followed by a week recovery phase. Although they only measured running performance, expect similar performance decrements leading into the end of the overreaching clinic, but take note of the significant super compensation in performance following the week of recovery.

Running Performance During 3 Weeks of Overtraining vs. Standard Competition Training
Running Performance During 3 Weeks of Overtraining vs. Standard Competition Training

F-OR = Functional Overreaching Group
CTL = Control or standard training group.

This article intended to provide some basic insight into overreaching and how it can be modified to be beneficial and actually cause improvements in performance. It is one of the hardest training programs you’ll participate in for the year, however the improvements gained during your recovery period over Christmas are significant and in a way guilt free (body composition won’t take a massive hit). So if you’re up for a hard 10days of training twice a day with scientifically backed methods, come on down and give it a crack. If you have any more questions regarding our Overreaching Clinic, either send us and email or ask us in person down at Hammer Athletic.

Reference List

  1. Budget, R. (1990). Overtraining Syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 24(4), 231-236.
  2. Kreher, J., & Schwartz, J. (2012). Overtraining syndrome: A Practical Guide. Sports Health, 4(2), 128-138.
  3. Meur, Y. L., Pichon, A., Schaal, K., Schmitt, L., Louis, J., Gueneron, J., . . . Hausswirth, C. (2013). Evidence of Parasympathetic Hyperactivity in Functionally Overreached Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 31-33.

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