Overtraining can happen to anyone who works out … we always start off with the best intentions when trying to either take our fitness up a notch or start a new program altogether, but sometimes we overdo it without even realizing. Suddenly we may be feeling tired all day, but then restless all night or excessively sore after each workout or feeling like your working totally sucks and not because it’s challenging. There is actually a very fine line between being fit and active, and overtraining; no doubt that I have definitely overtrained in the past. Today we’ll look at the causes and impact of overtraining, some warnings signs and the importance of having a solid recovery plan.
Overtraining is a fairly self-explanatory concept where an individual exercises too often and for too long (think HIIT for over an hour, when it should be no more than 30 minutes max or heavy weightlifting for 2 hours everyday). It also will be more likely to happen if a person is following a fat loss diet plan or who’s restricting calories enough to be in a deficit each day. So for any hard gainers, mass builders or athletes in their off season in a mass gaining stage (who are ultimately in a calorie surplus each day), this usually isn’t a concern. In general, you’re being too hard on your body for far too long which is restricting your body from proper recovery. For the average fit person who does a four day weightlifting split with a couple of 30 minute cardio sessions and at least one rest day per week, this won’t be an issue so long as you are well nourished and eating more than 1200 calories per day. If you are overdoing with your workouts then it will definitely impact not only your progress, but your ability to maintain any lean muscle that you have along with strength and energy levels throughout each day, making you more prone to injury and potentially reducing your immune system’s strength leading to a greater chance of getting sick. None of this is my attempt to scare you into hypochondria or into keeping intense workouts at a minimum; it’s more about helping you to become aware of what you are doing and being mindful of keeping your lifestyle balanced.
There are a few symptoms and warning signs to look for that can be a guide for you to know if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends for too long.
- You feel weak and your body and muscles feel tired every day. You find yourself struggling to lift as heavy as you previously could and/or struggle to complete your usual sets and reps.
- You’re tired and sluggish during the day, but have a hard time falling asleep at night and feel wired making getting out of bed in the morning very challenging
- Excess soreness post workout. Although it is normal to feel some soreness or stiffness after an intense workout (especially when you’re starting a new program), in this case it would feel like you are so sore that just walking or carrying a light grocery bag is painful
- You get sick very often. Some people are very prone to illness and colds; this was me for many years. What I have noticed though is that I often catch colds when I am not taking good care of myself (not enough sleep, poor nutrition, not working out and during high stress experiences). The same holds true if you are overtraining and putting so much stress on your body that it can’t heal itself and bounce back as quick
- This will usually take place when your form is off or you have a nasty accident, but then again like getting sick if you are not allowing your body to get well, you will be more likely to get hurt
So how can we fix this? Well thankfully there are plenty of ways to alleviate and avoid this altogether.
- Get enough sleep each night (this should be a no-brainer for you by now so I won’t elaborate any further)
- Warm up for five minutes prior to each workout with some light cardio and dynamic stretching and/or incorporate some warm-up sets with lighter weight than your usual prior to weightlifting
- Cool down for 5 minutes post workout with some light cardio to break up the lactic acid build up (which can cause muscle soreness) and include some static stretching
- Include complex carbohydrates in your pre and post workout meals
- Go easy on the caffeine and pre-workout supplements, no more than two cups of coffee per day and try to consume before your workouts only so you’re not wired at night
- Use athletic tape on areas where your body feel stiff or sore
- Use wrist straps for upper body weightlifting and waist belt for back and certain lower body exercises (deadlifts for example) to help prevent injury and maintain proper form
- Consult with a certified trainer, healthcare provider and physical therapist if you are struggling with your recovery, have any of the above warnings signs or have chronic pains
- Regularly opt for massage therapy (aim for once per month if possible) and include foam rolling into your post workout stretch at least once per week
- Don’t let your workouts last for more than 1.5 hours per session and if you go above the 1 hour mark include BCAAs in your water bottle during your training to help stop muscle breakdown
Recovery is huge when it comes to exercise; if you are not permitting your body to heal then your workout is basically a waste of your valuable time. I’ve heard some athletes say that they can get by on five hours of sleep per night and still hit the gym for two-a-day workouts 6 days each week plus one active recovery day, but that is crazy. You will burn out so fast if you try this on for size. A lot of competitive bodybuilders (both men and women in all divisions) will in the three months leading up to the competition get too extreme with the diet and carb restriction and intense workouts that their bodies just can’t take it towards the end. The stress hormones will kick in full force and it will negatively impact not only how they look, but how they feel and ultimately how well they present themselves on stage. It is so important to take your overall wellbeing into consideration when you are living a fit lifestyle.
Since my current training and nutrition programs are very structured and specific I have started to include a few of the above mentioned strategies into my recovery plan. The biggest one is massage therapy. Once per month I get a hot stone massage. Some people prefer shiatsu, thai or deep tissue, but I’ve always responded best to hot stone. During the session I can feel the tension moving out of my body leaving my muscles feeling far more loose than before and helping me feel very relaxed. Another good option is to take a hot bath or sit a hot tub for a thermal experience, but it’s easy to get overheated during summer months so I try to limit this.
Remember to challenge yourself, but to also take it easy a bit too. Approach fitness as a way of bettering yourself; going to an extreme is not doing yourself any favors. As I mentioned, aim to maintain a good balance with your life and always keep your overall health in mind with everything that you do.
Start It, Finish It