How to know if you're overtraining

How to know if you’re overtraining

Thank you for all the responses – both positive and negative – to my post on Wednesday. I appreciate that some people do not care about or agree with what I have to say, but I think it’s critical to create an open dialogue about the issues which have such a dramatic impact on our lives.

Much in the same way I will never shy away from expressing my opinion that powerlifting can be life-changing, detoxes are bullshit, or Tracy Anderson is a total moron, I will never be afraid of publicly expressing my political beliefs. Having spent time in countries where people do not have the same rights of free speech, I do not take mine for granted.

Not all of you share the same beliefs as me, but that is the beauty of diversity. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is treating each other with love and respect. This can be achieved regardless of who won the election, provided that we stick together in the face of any adversity.

Moving on!

While the big trend in fitness once involved working out as hard and as often as possible, people have thankfully started to wise up in recent years and move away from this. Due to the proliferation of information on the internet, more and more people are researching conditions that can be brought on by too much training, such as hypothyroidism, metabolic damage, and overtraining syndrome. More people are becoming convinced that they have these conditions, but do they really?

It’s all too easy for someone to think that because they exercise every day, already watch what they eat, and can’t seem to lose weight at the drop of a hat, they must have metabolic damage or be overtrained. In reality, these conditions can be debilitating. I’ve talked about how to know whether you truly have metabolic damage or not plenty of times but, in general, you need to have restricted your calories below 1,200 for an extended period of time, experience digestive and hormonal problems, and display a strong resistance to weight loss.

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Overtraining is another one of these conditions that is often claimed by many people who do not actually have it. One hard workout or even two weeks of brutal workouts do not automatically lead to overtraining.

Overtraining syndrome occurs when your physical and mental state is compromised by intense workouts which are not followed by adequate recovery. It is generally caused by training too often or at a too-high intensity. You cannot keep charging forward at full speed indefinitely; your body will crumble sooner or later.

I have worked with athletes who train five or six hours each day who do not necessarily suffer from overtraining (because they have nailed their recovery routine), yet still receive questions about overtraining from the most casual of exercisers who go to the gym for three hours a week. The harsh reality is that the vast majority of people simply do not need to worry about overtraining.

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While I am largely against self-diagnosing any medical condition, there are a few symptoms to look for to know if you are genuinely in an overtrained state:

  • Lack of energy and motivation. While some fatigue and periods of demotivation are a normal and inevitable part of your training career, it should not be constant. If your workouts are feeling harder than usual, it’s a sign that you’re pushing too hard.
  • Insomnia. If you feel tired all day but can’t sleep at night, you could be overtraining.
  • Loss of appetite. When cortisol levels are high, the hormone controlling hunger, grehlin, is suppressed. This means you will feel less hungry than usual.
  • Frequent illness. When you are overtrained, your immune system becomes compromised, resulting in more frequent bouts of poor health.
  • Persistently sore muscles and joints. While delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a normal part of exercise, this pain should not last longer than one or two days. Also, although some muscle pain is normal as a by-product of a hard exercise session, you should not feel any pain in your joints – either during or after your workouts. Particularly watch out for elbow and knee pain, especially if it carries over into normal daily activities.

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If you think you are overtrained, start with the following:

  • Cut back on the number of days you train per week. Allow yourself to have one, two or even three complete rest days per week.
  • Eat enough to fuel recovery. Make sure you eat enough calories to compensate for the energy you burn, and try to get the majority of these calories from healthy, nutritious food. Adding about 100 grams of carbs a day to your regular intake can do wonders for overcoming a period of overtraining. In addition, make sure you are eating enough healthy fat (at least 60 grams a day) to ensure good joint health.
  • Drink plenty of water. Aim for two to three litres per day, as a minimum.
  • Ensure you are getting enough sleep and general down time each day. Most of the “magic” of training actually happens when you are at rest, whether your goal is to build muscle or lose fat. Take regular epsom salt baths or treat yourself to a massage.
  • Periodise your training blocks. Although it is fine to go hard and heavy occasionally, this should not be something you do all the time. It is, therefore, important to periodise. Also, vary the types of training strategies you implement. Scale back on things like drop sets, giant sets, circuits and forced reps.
  • Incorporate gentler forms of exercise into your regime, too. Make sure you take time to stretch, to counteract the shortening effects of resistance training, and include gentle forms of exercise like yoga and walking into your daily regime.

If you are feeling tired and a little unmotivated due to general life pressures, try taking a week away from the gym or scale back on your workouts significantly. It’s likely just a normal dip that you will be able to recover from quickly. True overtraining can take months to recover from, however.

In general, if you are lifting weights, I recommend taking a deload week (which can either be a complete rest or lifting at 50 per cent capacity) every eight to 12 weeks. Your body will generally let you know when it’s a good time to take a break; it’s important to learn how to listen to it. At least twice a year, you should take a complete rest week. I like to time these during vacations.

Have you ever felt overtrained?

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