Parasympathetic Vs. Sympathetic Overtraining

by Evan Peikon

In this article you will learn:
-The difference between Parasympathetic & Sympathetic overreaching/overtraining.
-How to quantitatively identify and overtraining state.
-What recovery modalities are appropriate in a given circumstance

Recovery (noun)- A return to normal state of health, mind, or strength.
When dealing with recovery from hard training, more is not always better. At some point it will in fact have a diminishing return. Such that, if you speed the recovery process to much you will disrupt the adaptation/signaling process in which your body super compensates for the training you did. Ergo, blunting some of the effects of your hard work in the gym. That being said, the use of recovery modalities should be to prevent a state of overreaching, or to ensure an athlete is fully recovered for game day.  However, there are two types of overreaching/ overtraining, known as a parasympathetic and sympathetic over training. Both are drastically different, and if you don’t know which one your dealing with, you’re essentially taking a shot in the dark in terms of choosing your modality of recovery.

Parasympathetic Overtraining:
Parasympathetic Overtraining (usually experienced by endurance athletes) is a state of “Rest or Digest” in which your body is chronically trying to repair itself.
Signs and Symptoms of Parasympathetic Overtraining include heavy fatigue, insomnia, no libido, chronic tiredness, low motivation, low resting heart rate, and low blood pressure. It is important to note though that these are all subjective measure and what is a low indication for you may be someone else’s all time high.

Sympathetic Overtraining:
Sympathetic Overtraining (usually experienced by power or speed athletes) is a chronic state of “fight or flight”, in which your body is under constant stress (ie- production of stress hormones like cortisol, which will in turn effect everything down stream including pregnenalone, DHEA, testosterone among many others).
Signs and Symptoms of Sympathetic Overtraining Include irritability, restlessness, poor sleep, weight loss, poor performance, and low libido.

Enter HRV (Heart Rate Variability):
HRV could easily have a full blog post on its own (soon to come), so without writing a page worth of information ill just give a general rundown. Assuming everyone reading this is familiar with measuring resting heart rate; HRV measures the variability in time between each beat. Originally used by Soviet Scientists working on olympic athletes, HRV technology is now accessible to any athlete. The general idea behind an HRV monitor such as the BioForce HRV (I have no affiliation to Bioforce) is that it tracks your daily HRV and HR. By doing so it established a baseline number, and acceptable range for your inputs. Each day that you track data your monitor will give you a Green, Amber, or Red indication which means “good to go”, “back off the training a touch”, and “Take a rest day” respectively. However, knowing that your nervous system is either primed or depressed isn’t enough, which is why it is important to use your HRV to track whether you are in a sympathetic or parasympathetic dominant state.

***Using a device such as the BioForce HRV (or any other HRV monitor) will make choosing a recovery modality much more accurate since you don’t have to rely on subjective cues from your body. However, if that isn’t an option you can assess your physical state with the aforementioned symptoms of Sympathetic/Parasympathetic overtraining to accurately gauge which condition you are faced with.

Recovery Modalities:
It is important to note that when in a parasympathetic state, you must do a sympathetic dominant recovery modality to assist your nervous system in reaching an equilibrium (and vice versa). Doing a parasympathetic dominant recovery modality while in a parasympathetic dominant state may in fact drive you further down the rabbit hole, which is why quantifying your recovery state is so important.

[Below is a chart I created explaining how to pick your recovery modality based on the state of your nervous system].






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