Have you ever followed a heavy strength program, training consistently, pushing your numbers up as prescribed, feeling gangster af. Then, as de-load week approaches, a change in mood starts to creep in. You realise little things are starting to annoy you that didn’t before, you’re not sleeping the best, all you want to eat is junk food, and you don’t know why.
Assuming you have increased your training intensity each week, you can expect some behavioural and emotional changes (listed above) as you start to approach Central Nervous System (CNS) Fatigue or Overtraining Syndrome. Your CNS is the battery that runs your meat vehicle. Once it’s empty, you ain’t lifting anything heavy for a few days, you turn the key and nothing happens. I’m here to let you know how I manage the symptoms of this for both myself, and my clients.
I should also mention that CNS fatigue only comes on if you are training hard, heavy, and trying to push more volume each week on heavy compound exercises, for example: Deadlifts; and Squats.
In contrast someone doing casual body building with sets of 10-15 reps, using mostly isolated exercises, missing days here and there and not following a plan, then odds are you haven’t (and won’t) experience CNS fatigue at all and can train almost indefinitely without a de-load.
I compare the symptoms of nervous system fatigue to the way I feel when I have been burning the candle at both ends for too long in both my personal and work life. I get super run down and feel like I’m about to get sick. If I don’t look after myself during this time I usually do get sick. Keep in mind this period usually only lasts 3-4 days (at its worst) before it starts to ease.
Symptoms of CNS fatigue are:
- Loss of appetite
- Interrupted sleep patterns and a difficulty getting to sleep;
- Increased cravings for comfort foods;
- Irritability/ emotional; and
- Weakened immune system.
If you are paying attention, you can detect and manage the signs of fatigue long before your system crashes. This break is usually planned in advance in a strength program as your de-load week (a period of lighter training focusing on CNS and joint recovery). It helps to be aware of these symptoms so you can also manage your attitude during this time so you don’t ‘fly off’ the handle in front of your workmates when your local coffee guy hands you a flat white, instead of the cappuccino you ordered.
If you are training hard enough, you won’t be able to escape these symptoms. You can certainly minimise their effects by making a plan to manage them.
Below is a list of fatigue symptoms and my management guide.
Loss of appetite
Anyone that knows me, knows that I barely EVER miss a meal, but when I do, it’s almost always when I’m burnt-out from heavy training. If I allow myself to skip meals during this time, I can almost count the days until I get sick with whatever cold and flu is going around at the time. So to keep meals coming in, liquid meals become my best friend.
It’s much easier to drink a few smoothies than it is to chew down meat and vegetables when you’re not feeling your best. These are usually highly nutritious, with higher calories, using ingredients such as protein powder, nuts, raw veggies, coconut milk, fruit etc.
I really try and hammer the sleep strategies that we have spoken about, in other Hybrid articles, during this time. Things like: no screens an hour before bed; turning your room into a batcave (darkest room possible); higher carb meals before bed; lowering caffeine throughout the day; and practice 10 minutes of meditation in the evening will help bring your body into a better rest and recovery state.
If I am really trashed I will even book a massage that week to iron out any muscle soreness, relaxing me further and helping me get a much better sleep. I always sleep great the night after a massage. Coincidence? I don’t think so! I’m usually so relaxed that it’s much easier for me to float into a deep sleep.
I find the craving severity during this time is mostly influenced by the prior two points. If you are experiencing terrible sleep, skipping meals and burnt out from a lot of training, I guarantee the first thing you will feel like when you want to eat is ALL THE BURGERS AND CHOCOLATE.
Sometimes despite managing your sleep strategies, you might still sleep like garbage and still yearn for burgers and chocolate the next day. On days like this, if I’m not trying to put on weight, I will reach for a diet coke to try and ease the cravings or, if I’m not worried about a little fat gain, I’ll just have that damn burger and be happy.
Just be sure it doesn’t become a junk food party that includes a burger, a pizza, lollies, crisps, chocolate, soft drink, ice cream and your dignity, all in one sitting.
I believe that simply being aware that hard training can change your mood is enough to manage it. For example, its common to lose grip of your emotions during this time and become short tempered or, on the other side of the spectrum, cry at the drop of a hat. I know I can personally get crabby as I get closer to the de-load week. That’s enough for me to question my reaction to things if I feel myself getting worked up over something.
Once again, this is something that is fuelled by the prior points. The more you are able to minimise them, the less severe your irritability. On the flip side, if you aren’t looking after your other recovery points and your sleep is off, you’re eating way less real food, by way of consuming more junk food, then you’ll be super irritated and no one will be able to stand being around you!
Weakened Immune System
CNS Fatigue can suppress the immune system when you are really run down. That means you’re more susceptible to catching many of the illnesses or viruses that are going around, E.g. common cold, gastro bugs, etc. I went to a seminar presented by Ed Coan, arguably the best power lifter of all time, and he talked about constantly being congested and having a runny nose due to hard and heavy weight training effecting his immune system.
During this vulnerable time, simple stuff your grandma taught you during your childhood will go a long way to maintaining good health. Rug up if cold, wash your hands before eating, eat A LOT of nutritious food and try to minimise contact with anyone who is getting sick.
So, there you have my guide to managing the symptoms of CNS Fatigue or Overtraining Syndrome. Remember, this is a normal part of heavy training and it can be confronting if you’ve never had too deal with it before. Hopefully, this gives you all the tools you need to get through your next hard training block without getting sick or your partner/friends disowning you.