How To Know If You're Overtraining

September 05, 2021 5 min read

How To Know If You're Overtraining

Does this sound familiar? You’re putting in hours at the gym, logging miles running or biking and working hard to achieve your goals but you’re not seeing progress or maybe even starting to decline in your performance? 

More is not always better when it comes to exercise, and it is very easy to cross the line of over-training, especially if we aren’t on top of our recovery.  

So the question you may ask is how much is too much? How do I know if I am overtraining? What signs should I be on the lookout for? How can I improve this to continue seeing progress? 

For everyone this is a bit different depending on their training age so first I want to start off by saying that if you're just starting out on your journey and implementing a new exercise routine - it is normal to feel a bit sore as you’re challenging your body in new ways. 

But, we certainly don’t want you feeling like you can’t walk for days or struggle to perform your daily duties. If you’re a beginner, the best advice is to ease your way into things, hydrate, nourish your body with the right foods and give yourself a good amount of time for recovery between training sessions. Start with a goal of 1-2 workouts a week, then you can increase from there. Just like with dieting, we know that trying to go 0-60 overnight isn’t going to work, it simply won’t last. So be realistic with your goals, and implement it in a way that you can sustain. 

On the flip side, if you've been training for a good amount of time you may be experiencing overreaching and/or over training.As we get further into training experience, it is important to be more precise and specific around your training volume, and more importantly, your recovery efforts to continue to see progress instead of running your body into the ground with stress and even injuries.

What’s the difference between overreaching and overtraining? 

Overreaching is when you’re experiencing muscle soreness or fatigue beyond what you typically experience. This is usually due to a programming change such as increasing volume, lack of proper stretching and mobility work or insufficient recovery between workouts. If you are doing several consecutive days of hard training and high intensity, this will eventually result in feeling run down. However, the effects of overreaching can be easily reversed with rest days as your body will be able to recover and adapt. (source)

Overtraining on the other handoccurs when your body is exposed to more training, or stress, than it can recover from over the course of weeks or months. This usually occurs when athletescontinue to ‘push through the pain’ because they feel they can’t skip a workout or believe that their poor performance signals the need for harder workouts, which only breaks down the body further without proper recovery. This can result in fatigue, declining performance and injury. 

Overtraining has a high degree of variability as it is very dependent on the individual, their training age (aka experience/years training), genetics, lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, and nutrition (how much they are eating), along with the type of training. Overtraining from excessive volume (aerobic training) can look different from overtraining that is the result of high-intensity overload (anaerobic or resistance training). While there is some overlap, each can result in different signs and symptoms of overtraining. (source) 

What works for one person, might be overtraining for another person. Therefore, following the plan that your friend is doing is not a great approach to fitness. Let's take a look at the signs and symptoms of overtraining and what you can do about them if you’re experiencing these things. 

Training-related signs of overtraining

  • Unusual muscle soreness after a workout, which persists with continued training
  • "Heavy" leg muscles, even at lower exercise intensities
  • Performance plateaus or declines, decreased agility, strength and endurance, such as slower reaction times and reduced running speeds are all common signs of overtraining.
  • Workouts feel unusually difficult 
  • Loss of motivation, energy, drive, and enthusiasm to train

Lifestyle-related signs of overtraining

  • Prolonged general fatigue
  • Increase in tension, depression, anger or confusion
  • Large weight fluctuations
  • Inability to relax
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Poor concentration, brain fog
  • Poor-quality sleep, insomnia, nightmares 
  • Lack of energy, decreased motivation, moodiness
  • Not feeling joy from things that were once enjoyable

Health-related signs of overtraining

  • Increased occurrences of illness
  • Increased resting heart rate and elevated resting blood pressure
  • Longer periods of time for heart rate recovery to normal levels after exercise
  • Irregular menstrual cycles; missing periods
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea, upset stomach and loss of appetite

So what should you do if you’re experiencing these things? 

First, take time to rest! Taking 2-3 days off or a full week off of the gym may be just what you need! Mentally we know it can be challenging to do, so fill the workout time with non stressful movements such as walking, yoga, or mobility work. Add in other de-stressing activities such as deep breathing, massages, meditation, or spend time working on other hobbies that are not physically taxing.

If you’re training consecutive days in a row, consider changing your schedule up a bit and alternating rest days with active days i.e. instead of training Monday-Thursday, you may consider something like Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, etc. 

Second, evaluate if you’re eating enough! Cutting calories can negatively affect health and performance if you are frequently performing high intensity training. If your body consistently draws on its energy reserves, you may develop nutritional deficiencies such as anemia. 

Changes in appetite, specifically, a decrease in overall hunger or desire to eat, is a common symptom of overtraining that many people overlook.

Other changes to appetite, including an increase in hunger or cravings for carbohydrates can also mean the body is overtrained and undernourished. The solution is to supply the body with all the nutrients and resources it needs to build muscle and recover from workouts. Focus on nutrient-dense foods, lots of protein, and plenty of carbohydrates, and if you’re hungry - EAT.

Third, talk with your trainer or coach about how you are feeling so they can properly adjust your training regime. If you’re not working with an expert, and you’re feeling run down, sore, or you are regressing in the gym it is time to seek help with your training program and nutrition. 

Lastly, talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing irregular, missed periods or frequent illnesses! Many people push off these symptoms because they are afraid of having to change their lifestyle, but overtraining can lead to more serious health conditions and impact your cardiovascular,gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems.

While high-intensity and high-volume training is not necessarily harmful short-term, it can lead to inadequate or incomplete recovery, which can not only be very dangerous and detrimental to the body, but can also work directly against weight loss or fitness goals.

We know that it is easy for people to feel like they need to do MORE when they aren’t seeing the results they want… but the answer is often LESS, not more. Healthy sleep, adequate nutritional choices and intake levels as well as mental wellness are critical in preventing overtraining. These should all be part of your training programming, just as much as the exercise and rest plan. 

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