Your New Year’s resolutions may still be simmering away on the back burner, but it is to be hoped that you remain as committed as ever to hitting the gym a few times a week and keeping pace with your running club. It takes perseverance to keep up with exercise because for most people it’s a bit of a chore. But can you do too much of it? Is overtraining even possible?
For most physically fit people, the idea of overtraining almost deserves a chuckle. Exercise is crucial to longevity, so how can you overtrain? Isn’t that just something elite athletes need to consider? In reality, there is such a thing as overtraining syndrome. It is a serious concern for professional athletes, but even more-casual athletes such as yourself need to keep an eye out for its signs.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
According to Jennifer Swartz and Jeffrey Kreher, authors of Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide, “Overreaching is considered an accumulation of training load that leads to performance decrements requiring days to weeks for recovery.” In addition, they conclude that overtraining syndrome appears to be a poor response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in mood changes and disturbance of the neurologic, endocrinologic, and immunologic body systems. They add that in their study, “Many hypotheses of OTS pathogenesis are reviewed, and a clinical approach to athletes with possible OTS (including history, testing, and prevention) is presented.”
Physical activity is all about progressively improving endurance, mobility, strength, and performance. When we exercise healthily, cycling correctly between workouts and rest days, all of us should notice incremental improvements in performance levels. We’ll notice we can run longer, lift heavier weights, and hold that yoga pose as long as everyone else. That is healthy progression.
But, it’s normal to hit a plateau after awhile. Running the same ten miles just isn’t cutting it anymore. The plateau is the most opportune moment for us to fall into the trap of overtraining. After all, if you’ve reached your goal, why not jump full force into your next workout. You may logically conclude you’ll need to train harder and longer than before. Obviously, you need to exercise more to push through the plateau, right?
During the plateau phase, dramatically increased training is not always the right answer. Pushing harder could eventually lead to the onset of overtraining symptom. Overtraining can develop slowly, but without taking appropriate steps, it will ultimately rear its ugly head.
Identify the Signs of Overtraining
Because of the potential risks associated with overtraining, it’s important that you know the tell-tale signs. Being in tune with your body is essential for knowing when you are overtraining.
1. Reversal of Progress
Plateaus are normal, but experiencing a decline in performance despite maintaining an intensive workout schedule is not. If you find that you are having trouble recovering from physical activity, or that your progress seems to be lagging, it could be one of the first signs of overtraining. Your body cannot keep up with the demands you placed on it.
There is also evidence suggesting that gaining weight, even with excessive exercise, is a sign of overtraining.
2. Difficulty Sleeping
Healthier levels of physical activity are scientifically shown to improve sleep quality. The moment you experience problems sleeping despite the hours logged at the gym, something may be off.
3. Extended Muscle Soreness
That post-workout muscle soreness may be one of the best indicators that you have put in a good workout. But what if it never goes away? Sore muscles should last only for one or two days after a workout. If you still experience soreness after three or four days, that is another sign of overtraining.
4. Depleted Immunity
When overtraining syndrome hits, it often affects more than physical performance. One sign that your body is dangerously run down is when you notice you get sick more frequently and for longer periods. Just as when your body has trouble recovering from a workout, it will have difficulty recovering from illness.
5. Changes in Mood and Self-Esteem
One of the more serious signs of overtraining syndrome is a change in mood and self-esteem. Physical activity, although a proven way to combat stress and depression, can be taken too far. While changes in mood and temperament may be triggered by other stressors, in some rare cases it could also indicate you are pushing yourself too hard at the gym. If it’s already too late, and you’re experiencing one or more overtraining symptoms, start an overtraining-recovery program immediately.
RELATED: Dangers of Overtraining
Overtraining Prevention Tips
The risk of overtraining for the casual gym rat is relatively low, but it’s important that you understand how to structure a safe workout schedule to avoid future issues. It’s easy to skip a few days of workout and try to cram in double the physical activity to make up for the lost time, but it isn’t always healthy to do so. Overtraining-prevention is all about quality exercise and taking time to plan.
1. Quality Over Quantity
According to Men’s Fitness, a quality workout shouldn’t take longer than seventy-five minutes. Any longer, and you’ll risk overreaching an already taxed body. Focus on short bursts of high-intensity training, such as HIIT programs or other short calorie-burning workouts and weightlifting.
2. Introduce Rest Days
Nobody should work out seven days a week. To recover from bursts of intense physical activity, its vital that you take days off. Listen to your body as you develop your workout schedule. After an especially vigorous gym session, you’ll need a day of recovery, maybe even two.
3. Work with a Professional
If you are spending a lot of time at the gym, it may be time to work with a personal trainer or fitness coach. Relying on an expert’s depth of knowledge can help take the onus off you. He or she can monitor your progress, and make adjustments along the way. Especially for people prone to overtraining, or struggling to break through the plateau, having an expert on your side takes all the guesswork out of it.
For most of us, overtraining syndrome is nothing to lose sleep over. Going to the gym for reasonable periods a few times a week is safe, healthy, and a great habit to get into. The fear of working out too much shouldn’t prevent you from working out at all.