If you spend any amount of time poking around this site, and many other fitness sites for that matter, you’ll quickly learn that exercise is of vital importance when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. I live for it. I believe that I’m better for it and that my readers are too. Indeed, according to the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey, I’m in the minority. They say that only 31% of Americans get sufficient exercise (they quantify this as 30 minutes, 5 times a week). This I’m sure comes as no surprise, we’re constantly being told that we need to exercise more for one particular health reason or another.
That being said, little attention is paid to those of us in the 31% who do get sufficient exercise. A great many exercisers actually suffer from the opposite problem, that is, too much exercise, or too little rest. There’s a fine line between getting the activity that we know we need and overtraining. It’s often difficult to quantify how much exercise is the perfect amount for us individually, and unfortunately for us there is no one surefire description or definition of overtraining that universally applies to everyone. It goes without saying that what may be overtraining for one person, might be little more than a warmup for a triathlete.
It’s true that some activity is better than none, but too much activity can be worse for your health than none at all. Overtraining is very real, and those who are most prone to it often aren’t very good at recognizing the signs and symptoms of it. You can simply be doing too much, or doing too much too soon. The real trick is to find out how much activity is right for you by listening to your body, being aware of the information below, and doing a little detective work for yourself.
Signs of Overtraining
- You’re Getting Sick. A lot. A lot more than usual, in fact. Getting sick in and of itself doesn’t mean you’re overtraining. However, if you’re finding yourself with the sniffles more often, or if you’re waking up with a sore throat multiple days in a row and you’ve recently increased your training schedule, it may be worth investigating. There are many ways to give your immune system a run for its money, including but not limited to; under sleeping, high stress, improper nutrition, etc. If these things are all in check though, you may simply be pushing your body too hard and a well earned break from training may be your best remedy.
- Past Ailments Are Back. If you’ve had a nagging injury or used bad form in the past that you’ve since recovered from or fixed, and it’s now coming back to haunt you, chances are it’s because you’ve upped your training recently and it’s a bit much for your body. Best to reel back the reins and ease into your increased training more slowly. If that causes the your former problem to rear it’s ugly head too, then you’re probably just trying to do too much, period.
- You Feel Awful After a Workout. If you regularly exercise, you know all about that great feeling you get after a workout. Usually, this will last for the rest of the day. That’s thanks to the endorphins that exercise has been proven release. Sometimes, you might get some delayed onset muscle soreness, but this in and of itself can be a good kind of pain. But what happens if you just feel like crawling into a hole and dying after a workout? I can safely say that this isn’t normal. Whether you’re physically or mentally worn down to the point of feeling miserable after your workouts, you’re probably exercising too much.
- Your Limbs or Joints Hurt. Your body is better at telling you that it doesn’t like something you’re doing better than your concious brain is. If you’re training in a way which is causing aggravation to a joint, you’re probably doing something wrong. It could be that you’re just using improper form (whether lifting or running), or it could simply be that you’re doing too much of it. It could also be a case of delayed onset muscle soreness, but that usually goes away within a day or two. Only time will tell. Don’t let that endorphin high get the best of you – if you’re doing something daily that is causing pain in any area of your body, back off for a while.
- You Can’t Finish Your Normal Workout Routine. If you ever get to a point where you’re consistently struggling to finish workouts that you’ve done dozens of times before, you may very well be overtraining yourself. I’m not talking about pushing yourself to complete a longer run than usual, or lifting more weight than usual and failing to complete it. I’m talking about not being able to complete a task that you’ve routinely successfully completed in the past. This is a sign that you’re regressing in your training and you need a good break before coming back to it with fresh eyes and muscles.
- You’re In a Foul Mood. Especially after your workouts. Scientists have recognized that an athlete’s phycological state is often a better diagnostic tool than physical factors when trying to determine if overtraining is at play, according to Jack Raglin, Ph.D., a Kinesiology professor and researcher on sports and psychology at Indiana University. “Changes in demeanor are an early sign of overtraining, so if a runner recognizes this symptom, he can adjust his training to prevent physical damage,” says Raglin. He goes on to state that if you can catch overtraining in its early stages, then simply taking a day or two off will remedy the situation.
- A Loss of Enthusiasm. Chances are, when you first got into your current workout groove you were excited about it. You were excited about your future results. You craved the post-exercise feeling and benefits. If you’re at the stage where you’re approaching the overtraining bug, you’ll quickly find that enthusiasm withering away. The spark has disappeared. When you get to that point where exercise is just another “thing” in your busy schedule that you feel you must do, it’s probably time to have a look at your routine and see if something needs some changing. Exercise should have a level of fun to it, and not consistently feel like a chore. This attitude can be a sign of overtraining.
- You’re Losing Muscle or Gaining Fat Despite Increased Exercise. If you’re working out like crazy to try to increase your results, only to have the exact opposite thing happen, then you may be overtraining (or you’ve started eating way too much). If your diet hasn’t changed, then it’s probably because you’ve upset your cortisol and testosterone levels. Too much exercise can result in an excess of cortisol and reduced testosterone. Cortisol will increase the levels of fat on the body. Your body is also probably looking to glycogen as a fuel supply since you’re exercising so much. Glycogen is stored in your muscles, and the effect of your body using glycogen as fuel, combined with reduced testosterone, is a loss of muscle size. If you’re regressing in terms of body composition despite increased training and a similar diet, you’re probably overtraining.
- Excitability and Insomnia. This is usually more of a problem for explosive athletes like power lifters and sprinters, but the inability to sleep and increased restlessness is often a tell tale sign of overtraining. This is due to your sympathetic nervous system being stressed to it’s breaking point. Other common symptoms include increased heart rate, even while at rest or at first waking in the morning, and an inability to focus.
- Sluggishness and Chronic Fatigue. These symptoms tend to affect endurance athletes more than the explosive force-type athletes. They’re products of your parasympathetic nervous system being overworked, and is a very real danger for people who tend to run 50+ miles a week. The fatigue associated with this type of overtraining can be both mental and physical, and you may feel like your legs are heavier, your zest for training has disappeared, and like you’re just plain ol’ useless.
In the end, there is no definitive test for overtraining, not even for high calibre athletes. The only way to know for sure if you’re overtraining is by exclusion of other causes, and being aware of the signs and symptoms above. It never hurts to take some time off. Your body doesn’t get faster and stronger by training. It gets faster and stronger while it’s recovering.