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  • Neurotransmitters: Recovery For Motivation

    Most athletes will know the fine line between ‘hard training’ and ‘over training’ and whilst there are the more obvious physical problems associated with over training, there are also psychological implications that can be just as important. Here we look at the effect over training can have on the body’s neurotransmitters and ultimately concentration and motivation in the gym.

    No doubt you will have experienced that ‘stale’ sensation in the gym, where your body is recovered but you’re just not that motivated to pick up that weight or jump on the treadmill, essentially the body is willing but the mind just isn’t. Often people think they are just being lazy, but research shows it could be more to do with your neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse within the body. They regulate a number of physical and emotional processes such as mental performance, emotional states and pain response. Virtually all functions within the body are controlled by neurotransmitters since put simply they’re the brain's chemical messengers. On days that you are feeling good, motivated and focused quite often it’s because your neurotransmitters, hormones, and other brain chemicals are working in harmony and are in balance. Conversely when your neurotransmitter levels are inadequate you probably feel sluggish, unmotivated, lose focus easily and ultimately feel more stressed.

    So how does this relate to your training? Well in a study conducted by J.L Barron et al (1985) entitled ‘Hypothalamic dysfunction in over trained athletes’ it was found that athletes that over train and don’t get enough rest and recuperation from training and competition could have an imbalance in their neurotransmitters. Experts believe that athletes who over train and don’t get enough rest experience a dysfunction of the neuroendocrine system (the neuroendocrine system is a highly complex organization of hormones, neurotransmitters, nerve cells, portions of the brain and various other parts of the body that affects nearly every organ system.) The central control for the neuroendocrine system is a portion of the brain called the hypothalamus. Several hormones and neurotransmitters, namely Growth Hormone (GH), cortisol and Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) have been found to be low in individuals who may be over trained, indicating a hypothalamic dysfunction.

    So how do you stop overtraining and demotivation? Well to date experts have found it hard to identify markers of overtraining despite analysing everything from anaemia (low red blood cell count) to decreased basal catecholamine (stimulating neurotransmitters) excretions. So perhaps the best advice would be to listen to your body and have a well-designed workout routine that not only loads the body above its habitual level to ensure it progresses, but also allows enough time to recover. Furthermore whilst everyone’s training will be different, there are certain guidelines you can follow:

    (1) Get between 8-10 hours sleep since this is the time when your body not only releases more growth hormone to repair and regrow, but also replenishes critical neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenalin.

    (2) Design a well thought out training routine that allows the body sufficient time to recover between training and competition. Even elite athletes tend to have an entire day off a week.

    (3) Try to keep heavy, large, compound weight training sessions down to a maximum of 45 minutes, since after this time the body starts to enter a catabolic state and cortisol levels start to rise.

    (4) As a general rule of thumb muscles typically take 48 hours to recover, so never (strength) train the same muscle twice within 48 hours. This is to ensure the muscles have adequate time to recovery from the micro trauma caused to the muscles themselves.


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    Barron JL, Noakes TD, Levy W, Smith C, Millar RP. Hypothalamic dysfunction in over trained athletes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1985 Apr;60(4):803-6.

    Lehmann M, Foster C, Keul J,. Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Physical Fitness and Performance, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 25(7):854-862, Juli 1993.

    Kuipers H, Keizer HA. Overtraining in elite athletes. Review and directions for the future. Sports Med. 1988 Aug;6(2):79-92.

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