While many Americans struggle with obesity and lack of exercise, a minority of people struggle at the opposite end of the spectrum. Athletes are one of the most likely groups of individuals to overdo it on the exercise end of things, especially those who are involved in adrenalin-powered adventure sports.
My first real inkling that my maniacal workout schedule – including regular six-hour gym sessions – was perhaps doing me more harm than good came when I starting working with a rock climbing coach. For our initial session, she asked me to write down all of the training and exercising that I did every week.
“Why are you running five days in a row?” she demanded when we met. “Why are you doing a hard hill run on this day?”
Chagrined, I mumbled that I didn’t really know why, except that I’d seen some older gentleman run up that hill one day and had decided that I, too, would run up that hill as a regular part of my workouts.
“But where’s your rest day?” she said, shaking her head as she looked at each day on the calendar, most of which were filled with not less than two athletic activities. “When do you recover?”
Again, I had no real answer. I said that I supposed that my rest days from climbing were the days that I did a harder run, and my rest days from running were the days that I only climbed. I didn’t have any day of total rest each week, and I hadn’t had one regularly scheduled in years.
Under the shrewd guidance of my coach, I immediately earned a guilt-free rest day once a week, a day upon which I do not exercise at all. I also had my first real introduction to comprehending the sly demons of overtraining that can sabotage even the most well-intentioned workout schedule. I suspect that like me, many other individual athletes who create their own training schedules often overdo it, lacking the guidance of a coach or a comparable voice of reason to put the restraints on their internal drive to improve.
Ironically, the symptoms of overtraining, instead of encouraging such athletes to put the brakes on their excessive training, can actually goad them into training even more. When driven athletes notice that they are no longer improving or that performance is diminishing, they often interpret this as a sign that they are not training hard enough, rather than recognizing this as a symptom of overtraining. Thus they push themselves harder, driving themselves deeper into an overtrained state. This vicious cycle can only be broken with ample rest – one of the hardest aspects of training for the serious athlete to embrace.
The most obvious evidence that your workouts are taking too much of a toll is a change in your psychological well-being. Mood swings, depression and anxiety are all telltale signs that you are pushing yourself too hard and not allowing for recovery. In addition, psychological distress can result from decreased performance and the perception that normal exercise routines, instead of getting easier and easier, seem harder and harder. If, after several days of rest, routines still seem harder than usual, then it is likely that you are indeed overtrained.
Other easily noted signs of overtraining include sleep problems, notable muscle soreness and stiffness, and a lowered immune response. Numerous physiological indicators can also reveal if you are overtraining, from an increased resting heart rate to a lowered VO2max.
If you exhibit some of the above symptoms, perhaps it’s time to examine your current exercise program and to evaluate yourself for overtraining. A personal trainer or doctor can help you discern whether or not this is the case if you’re not sure. In addition, people close to you can probably help assess some of the above symptoms as well. If you are overtrained, your recovery starts out with rest. Take some time off – now, not tomorrow.
Once an athlete has slid into an overtrained state, the basic diagnosis for recovery is as simple and as difficult as this: the athlete must rest to allow his or her body to recover from the constant stress and breakdown of too much training. This rest period can last from a few days to several weeks, depending on the severity of the overtrained state. A personal trainer can help you assess the quantity of rest you need if you feel that you can’t judge for yourself adequately. One way to measure your recovery is to note a decrease in the symptoms of overtraining listed above. If you’re feeling more upbeat, your sleep is normal, and you feel good after light exercise, chances are that you’re on the road to recovery. But don’t go overdoing it right away!
The key to the prevention of overtraining is learning to listen to your body, regardless of what you’ve planned for a particular workout. If you’re supposed to run 20 miles but your muscles are achy and you feel under-rested, listen up! Go for a shorter run or swap out the run for an easy spin on the bike. You’re not going to achieve anything by blasting your muscles and fatigued body into a state of submission. Postpone the hard run for a day when you’re feeling adequately recovered.
I’ve come to realize that flexibility, along with discipline, is a key to maintaining a well-trained, not overtrained, state. I let my body dictate when I do my harder workouts, listening for those days when I feel ready and rested enough to push myself, and accepting it when, for whatever reason, I’m just not up to completing my planned workout of the day.
Keeping a workout diary is a good way to keep tabs on how you’re feeling from day to day. In the diary, you can note such indicators as muscle soreness, quality of sleep, mental state, and energy levels throughout the day. You can also take note of your resting heart rate every morning before you get out of bed to help you figure out if you’re flirting with becoming overtrained. An increase of 10 percent, or 10 beats per minute, over a period of days is a good indicator that your body needs you to slow down. If you’re having intestinal upset, diarrhea, sore throat or sniffles, these could also indicate a need for a decrease in workout intensity.
Make sure that you reserve at least one day for a total rest each week to allow your body to recover (splurge sometimes and give yourself two). In addition, while some of your training days each week should include high intensity workouts, those should be interspersed with days of more moderate exercise. Variation in your weekly regimen can help alleviate potential overtraining as well, allowing different muscle groups to work at different intensities from week to week.
Another important consideration not to be underestimated is the adequate consumption of calories, pre-, during and post-workout. Undernourished muscles will not be able to perform at peak levels, nor will they be able to recover from hard workouts, which can lead to a chronic state of fatigue and a decline in performance, not to mention moodiness and muscular pain.