Are you tired, overtrained or suffering CNS fatigue?

Andrew Jansen

If you are an adult, in a real job, it is sometimes so hard to tell if you just feel bummed about heading to work for the day, some sort of relationship problem, or if you are CNS fatigued or just pure overtrained.

We all yearn for the days where you never wake up in the middle of the night from stress, and you sleep in until you feel rested.

100% of the people reading this have felt flat some days, and started creating a mental checklist about what is the cause and what is the solution.

Here are some guiding principles that may help:

  1. Stress is stress, fatigue is fatigue. If you feel tired, you probably are. There is no award for ‘fighting through it’. Being solution based not ignoring is a pretty good idea
  2. If you use caffeine not to be tired, that’s not actually the same as being rested. We’ve all been in this boat, and beyond the possible health effects, caffeine annoyingly regulates in the body. That’s why you need more and more. There is no solution in simply more caffeine
  3. The easiest way to feel more rested is to reduce stress or improve sleep. Third place goes to better recovery

Easiest way to improve sleep

Number one, easiest, is black out curtains. You can google solutions from $50 to hugely expensive heavy curtains. If you want a easy solution, google something like ‘blackout curtains suction cups’. If they sit behind the blinds, they are barely noticeable, and you will sleep noticeably better (they deaden noise from outside too).

Number two, if you bed is old and you don’t have the funds for a new one – you can get mattress toppers for pretty low cost. You can get them in a range of densities to match your needs.

Number three, chill out prior to sleep, not in the bedroom. Lying on the floor listening to a meditation app, hiding from a partner saying ‘we need to talk’, attacking your tight spots with a massage gun, stretching, whatever you find that will chill you out. Personally, I find stretching annoying and not stress free at all, so I just attack my neck and shoulders on a low setting of a massage gun and try to breath slow during the process.

Number four, consider some electrolytes post dinner, that will keep you hydrated through the night, but not having you up to go to the bathroom all night. This has been a huge help to me.

Image result for quality of sleep


Easiest way to reduce stress

Reducing life stress is way beyond this post. All we can offer is lower intensity when you are super tired, and possible drop some overall volume. Also, don’t underestimate the joy in doing some bro movements and just chasing a pump. Curls and pec-deck are fun at times.

If you can, turn your phone on to airplane mode and take ten deep breaths between every set. Literature spanning decades has shown lowering of stress and cortisol from slow mindful breathing, and combining it with training increases compliance. I just close my eyes, think about how many reps I’m suppose to get next set, and try to imagine form. If you can do it, if definitely helps.

Increasing Recovery - Hit mico, marco and vitamin minimums

Get enough protein. Get enough vitamin D (sun). Eat some veges to have some micronutrients. Consider iron supplements. If its been a long time of being tired – go to a doctor. In Aus, you have the right to free bloods once a year – that really should be part of the triage of tiredness.

Protein, hydration and sleep will effect your recovery more than any supplement possibly could. Massage, massage guns, rollers, lacrosse balls, all have perceived lowering of muscular soreness, and are valuable additions if you have the time.

Obviously – you should be training – we assume you have that one on lock. At least three times a week. Up to 5 is fine if you can recover. Active recovery is advised on off days. It is not a crazy goal to be doing something active every day of the week (its probably a very healthy life goal).

Other considerations

  • If your energy is super up and down during the day – it could be as simple as, too many simple carbs. These burn bright then die quick, leaving the brain in waves to glycogen.
  • If you train super late at night – it never helps sleep unless you wind down properly
  • If you add 15 minutes of walking at night – or even on the treadmill after training – it helps create a higher level of final exhaustion so you can pass out
  • If you drink wine every night (or rely on sleeping pills), you should not consider these long term practical solutions (or even healthy short term solutions)
  • Some things trigger anxiety – for example, I have to sleep with my phone in ‘do not disturb’ or some part of my monkey brain listens for notifications

CNS fatigue

CNS fatigue involves a reduction in our ability to exert voluntary force. If you are doing things right, getting rest, but have just been hitting the iron hard, but are going backward, that is a likely sign of CNS fatigue.

Being tired is just fatigue – not a neural condition caused from lifting. In the last years, mixing up general fatigue and CNS fatigue seem to be a common statement.

CNS fatigue you literally will feel this within a workout. Start strong and fade hard.

CNS fatigue in academic literature is far more prevalent in lower intensity higher rep schemes that lower repetitions. Crossfit is far more likely that powerlifting. The logic is neural fatigue is possible in low rest, high rep areas. In low reps we are far more likely to suffer pure muscular failure.

46% decrease in corticospinal excitability occurs in 20 minutes. That is a key marker of CNS fatigue. Full CNS recovery occurs in 72 hours. CNS is acute (despite what some PTs say) and most neural fatigue is resolved in minutes. Sadly, CNS has become largely a buzz word, but you can easily google a large number of studies in the last 3 years.

Are you tired, overtrained or suffering CNS fatigue?

Do not discount Mental Fatigue

One of my favourite things that Mark Bell has said is it’s the lifters job to stay motivated. That is something we all need to do. If you don’t make lifting, and the outcome of lifting important to yourself (ie, a high level of care) its very hard to feel accomplished when doing it. Same goes for sleep, and for nutrition. You may surprise yourself by how much getting a sleep app that monitors sleep incentives you to sleep more.

Equally – jobs you don’t enjoy – or workouts you don’t enjoy illicit a feeling of dreary that is hard to distinguish from fatigue. Never be scared to step back and remember that goal of lifting. If its to get strong, get healthy or get lean, all those stems from compliance. Compliance is married to a lower mental fatigue. Once you have been doing strength sports for some time, you realise that throwing in an arm day is not going to destroy the world. Having a period of strength plateau while you drop calories and lean out may do a mental wonder, as you enjoy looking in the mirror. Always step back and overview – don’t get lost in the minutia of a single workout.

Mindset is often studied, and it is shown we can have a perceived level of exhaustion that does not match our bodies markers.  We can all convince ourselves we are tired by saying it over and over again. For those of us who work in offices, we all know people who literally wear the ‘Im so tired’ badge constantly, despite have a much lower work capacity (inside and outside of the office) as others.

Wrap Up

It's not ‘cool’ or a marker of character to be tired all the time. Few people can be tired and pleasant to be around. Your sport of lifting should be an addition to your life, not that thing that makes you slump through days and nights. Hopefully the above can help, and some small changes will improve your feelings of fatigue.

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