8 Signs of Overtraining & What to Do About It
Now more than ever, exercise is making its way into the lives of thousands of people. And, if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those people.
The benefits of regular physical activity is no longer a question; you know that moving is good for your health. Moreover, high intensity exercise is now king in the fitness industry. More and more research is revealing that it yields better energy, body composition and fitness when compared to steady state aerobic exercise.
But this trend of high intensity exercise has gotten the best of many. This may even include you.
When you take your physique and fitness goals to an extreme level without any coaching or supervision, it’s easy to run into some problems. Suiting up every day and going 100% in the gym with no periodization or recovery protocol will lead you into physical exhaustion. While stimulating your body is necessary to make gains, taking yourself to failure each and every workout over a long period of time, in the end, will do more harm than good.
For the beginner to intermediate trainee, it’s important to understand that while high intensity workouts do provide the best results for body composition and strength, training for results and training for pain are not the same thing.
While it may be trendy to show off your training session with a post on social media, detailing how your hands ripped doing pull ups, or how you puked because of the intensity of the workout, or how sore you are after a brutal squat session, the reality is that none of these things necessarily mean you’ve improved.
The goal should be to strive for maximum results with as little energy expenditure as possible.
Sadly, mainstream fitness does the opposite. Go hard all the time, every workout and go until you can’t go anymore seems to be a common mantra.
While I can appreciate the mentality of working hard, we also can’t forget that our bodies aren’t designed to do this for a long period of time. Eventually you get burned out.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining is more than just spending too much time in the gym. A reckless approach to fitness that is based on a high intensity routine will push the body’s stress response too far. This will lead to a landslide of biochemical responses that can wreak havoc on your health.
Let me say this first before we go any further into this topic. Some of you aren’t overtraining, even though you think you might be. It’s more likely that you are looking for an excuse not to train hard enough. You know who you are.
Secondly, some of you are overtraining and I know what it’s like. It’s awful isn’t it? You have this cloud of anxiety floating in your head. You start thinking that you need to work out more, but you know that’s the last thing your body needs. Everything annoys you. Your appetite wanes. The barbell feels 3 times as heavy as it should.
Regardless of where you’re at in your fitness journey, this article is for you. Why? Because at the turning point, when you finally decide to take your health and fitness seriously, you’ll flirt with overtraining. It’s inevitable. I wrote this for you when you get to that point. My hope is that you reference this information when you get there.
Or, if you’re stubborn like I am you’ll push yourself past what your body can handle for too long, spiral into a mild depression, swim in a pool of mental anxiety before you come back to this article to realize that you probably should have taken these tips into account before doing what you did.
Anyways, let’s get back to overtraining.
Working out too much can actually cause your body to use muscle as fuel, instead of burning fat.
The Impact of Overtraining
Overtraining has been shown to affect important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and 5-HTP. This can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue.
Furthermore, driving yourself into the ground with extremely high intensity exercise for extended periods of time will cause an immediate increase in cortisol, the stress hormone that is released when your body is under stress. Before you demonize cortisol, it’s important to realize that cortisol is a vital hormone for good health. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone in the maintenance of homeostasis; it influences and regulates essential life functioning activities like blood sugar levels, anti-inflammatory responses, blood pressure and central nervous system activation.
However, when your cortisol levels are chronically high because of over exposure to stress, that’s when a good thing can turn bad. Chronically high cortisol levels increase your chances of a list of health issues such as depression, memory loss, digestive problems and sleep disturbances.
The one that typically gets people’s attention is the fact that elevated cortisol makes you fat……especially around the abdomen. If your goal is to improve body composition, boost energy and improve your health, exercise can be a barrier to achieving those goals.
8 Signs of Overtraining
I’ve compiled the following signs of overtraining largely from personal experience. It’s a basic list that you can run through to see if you are experiencing any of them. You’re basically becoming your own test subject along your fitness journey and it’s important to get familiar with what your body is telling you.
As much as we want it to be a linear progression of “just keep doing more” and you’ll see results, it simply isn’t designed that way. You’ve got to manage your body well, if you want to yield progress.
Sign #1 – Weight Feel Heavier
You can’t complete a workout If you’re struggling with weights you typically handle with ease, having trouble running the distance you’re normally run, or can’t finish the number of reps required. If this is happening it’s a possible sign you’re overtraining.
Sign #2 – You Go All Out, Every Workout
You go 100% every workout. Unless you’re pharmaceutically enhanced, you simply can’t go for a PR every workout. You can’t go all out every rep, all the time.
You can’t lift heavy, sprint fast and do high intensity workouts seven days a week and adequately recover. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.
Sign #3 – It is Taking Longer to Recover
Recovery is taking longer. After you’ve been training for a while, you’ll have a pretty good feel with how fast your body can recover.
If you’re recovery is lagging and it’s taking several days longer than usual for you to recover, it’s a sign that you might be overtraining.
Sign #4 – You’re Getting Sick
Are you getting sick more often? Lifting and high intensity exercise stresses the body. With stress comes elevated cortisol levels.
As mentioned earlier, if cortisol is elevated chronically it causes problems. One of these problems is a suppressed immune system, which leaves you vulnerable to upper respiratory infections and also a lowered level of testosterone.
If you’re getting sick more often, it might be due to overtraining.
Sign #5 – You Feel Depressed
You’re in a cloud of mild depression. The rush of endorphins should leave you feeling energetic and refreshed after a workout. I think this is why we all love working out so much right? That internal glow that infuses your mind and body, leaving you high for hours and even days after working.
But when you’re overtrained, that “glow” is nowhere to be found. In fact, if you’re overtrained you might even feel like hell after a training session. In general, working out should elevate your mood. If it’s doing the opposite in a severe manner, this is a sign you’re overtraining.
Sign #6 – You Feel Sluggish and Fatigued
You’re sluggish and chronically fatigued.
For endurance based athletes, parasympathetic overtraining is what you should look for. This is defined by low testosterone levels, elevated cortisol, extreme fatigue (mentally and physically), and an inability to lose body fat.
Keep an eye out for these factors.
Sign #7 – You’re Anxious and Restless
For strength-based athletes, sympathetic overtraining is what you should look for. This is defined by extreme anxiousness, restlessness, and an inability to focus even when you’re not working or on your rest day.
Slow recovery and low quality sleep is typical as well.
Sign #8 – Adding Volume, Gaining Fat
It’s a vicious cycle that you can fall into. The onset of overtraining typically sends the trainee to lift more, thinking that increased volume will induce more fat loss. But it doesn’t work that way.
Hormones play a big role here. Working out too much can actually cause your body to use muscle as fuel, instead of burning fat. This results in you getting less lean.
The good ol’ cortisol hormone comes back into play. If you’ve been working out like crazy only to realize that your leanness has decreased and you have less definition, you’re probably overtraining.
Working out should elevate your mood. If it’s doing the opposite in a severe manner, this is a sign you’re overtraining.
What to Do if You’re Overtrained?
The best advice I can give you is to stop working out…forever. Naw, I’m just playin’.
But seriously, if you’re in an overtrained state you’ve got to take action now. Or you’ll just run down this path until things get worse.
Here are a few practical ways to repair yourself:
1. Lower the Volume
Take a look at your training for the past 3 to 6 months. If there hasn’t been any plan for recovery or periodization, than it’s time to do that right now.
Be realistic with your training as it relates to your life as well. Most of you aren’t professional athletes, you don’t need to train like one to be fit and healthy. The stressors of life outside of the gym (work, finances, relationships, school) also play a role in your overall health.
If you have a high stressed life outside of the gym, and you add 6-7 high intensity workout sessions a week into it, chances are you’re either overtrained already, or heading into that state. As a general guideline, 3-5 high intensity workouts per week will suffice.
2. Eat More Foods That Fight Inflammation
In my opinion, this is the largest aspect of sports nutrition that is overlooked, particularly with strength athletes. Yes, protein is important. But balancing your body’s pH level with inflammation fighting foods is vital to your health and fitness.
All you really need to know is that the pH scale runs from 0-14. Neutral pH is 7.0. The higher the pH (greater than 7) the more alkaline, while a pH lower than 7 is acidic. For good health our bodies need to be slightly alkaline, just above 7.
However, most strength athletes feed their bodies tons of acidic foods (coffee, dairy and copious amounts of protein) that influence inflammation. And top this with the inflammation induced by too much exercise and you have a very acidic internal environment in your body.
The easiest way to favor an alkaline state in your body is to include foods in that get your body in a balanced pH state and fight inflammation. Some possible foods to induce are kale, coconut oil, turmeric, chia seeds, and kimchi.
3. Eat More Carbs
When fat loss is the goal, the low carb craze can sometimes take over your life (and your mental state too). If you’ve been dieting for far too long, particularly with a low carb approach, it negatively impacts your cortisol production and comprise your immune system.
4. Stop Training for a Bit
Seriously, the gym will be there if you take 3-5 days off, I promise.