Fitness: How to Avoid Overtraining

Many athletes fail because they think that if they just work harder and do more workouts than the next athlete, they will succeed.  True, working out harder and more often leads to better fitness, but there comes a time when this strategy can cause harm.  When training too much causes harm, we call it overtraining; this is in contrast to overreaching which occurs from the intentional, planned overloading that occurs as part of a well designed exercise program.  Overreaching is mainly a short term phenomenon (days to weeks) that sometimes leads to small amounts of fatigue and decreased performance; overtraining usually causes more severe and longer term symptoms that can be present for a month or more. The primary cause of overtraining is usually a lack of rest and recovery in the training program.  In our training program, we purposefully try to overreach for at least one week each month.  During that week, you may find that you experience fatigue, muscle soreness, and other symptoms that would suggest your body is not performing optimally.  The following week when the training volume is lower, you should notice those symptoms subsiding and your fitness will gradually improve as your body adapts to the high training stimulus the week before. This adaptation phenomenon is call Super-compensation, and it is the foundation upon which all of exercise methodologies rest.

Training too much, with too high intensity, or without proper variety is certainly the leading cause of overtraining, but other factors that limit recovery can also lead to overtraining.  For example, chronic psychological stress can limit the body’s ability to heal between exercise sessions.  Hormone imbalances created by a poor diet or medications can lead to an imbalance between catabolic and anabolic hormones which decreases the body’s ability to recovery from stressful workouts.  Poor sleep is a very common complaint, and people who don’t sleep well are notoriously weak and tired when they show up for the workout sessions.

So how do you prevent overtraining?  The old adage about listening to your body applies.  Athletes will go so far as to keep a training journal in order to monitor various physiological parameters.  If they start to become abnormal for any sustained period, then they would change their exercise program or focus harder on enhancing their recovery.  Signs and symptoms of overtraining are:

  1. General Fatigue, lack of motivation and even depression and other mood changes.
  2. Poor performance in workouts or on key measurements.  For example:
    1. Decrease vertical jump or leg power
    2. Poor grip strength
    3. Muscle stiffness
    4. Joint Pain
    5. Skin complexion and presence of acne.
    6. Athlete gets sick easily.
    7. Changes in the resting heart rate.
      1. A common practice among elite athletes is to take your resting heart rate every day at the same time – usually in the morning.
      2. Higher and more variable resting heart rates are signs of overtraining.

The better you get at monitoring these aspects of your health, the better you can match your training with your goals.  You may start to notice that you never experience any of these signs and symptoms, and that you may not be pushing yourself hard enough.  Or, you may notice that you get many of these symptoms and you realize that you don’t vary your workouts enough.  Quite often the reasons for the symptoms are obvious, but you never would have noticed them unless you forced yourself to take a look!  Its very difficult to be objective about yourself.

Some of the general methods for avoiding overtraining are similar to those that provide for good health:  Eat well, sleep well, avoid chronic stress and have some fun once in a while.  For those that train really hard, you will benefit from extra stimuli to the body, like massage, hot/cold applications, nutritional supplements and active recovery.

In summary, “Whatever doesn’t kill you will makes you stronger.”  Both in exercise and in life, the optimal doses of stress seem to be right in the middle – not too much or not too little.  Because we live in a sedentary society, we don’t pay much attention to overtraining in exercise, because most people don't push to the point where overtraining is an issue.  However, many people push too intense with their exercise when their body is not ready - this is a type of overtraining that is becoming more common now, with the gaining popularity of Crossfit and other intense types of workouts.  The solution to this is to perform lower intensity exercise in higher quantities at first, then build up to doing lower amounts of activities at higher intensities.   This allows the body to be prepared to do high intensity activities, and helps to prevent injury.

Finding that sweet spot where you get the least down sides and the most upsides with your exercise routine is both your job and your health care provider’s job.   I hope you found this article helpful and good luck finding your sweet spot this month!

Dr. Ryan Oughtred, ND