When exercise does more harm than good

Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz, published 1 September 2015

It’s generally accepted that as a nation, we need to get more active. But there’s a proportion of the population who workout religiously with a ‘go hard or go home’ mentality, day after day.

CrossFit, HIIT and other tough workouts are fashionable – but is more necessarily better? We have national guidelines about the minimum amount of exercise we should do each week, but how do we know when we’re doing too much?

Do just enough exercise and good things happen – energy, mood and vitality increases, immunity is strong and we lose fat and maintain or build muscle. Do too much exercise and you’re undoing your good work.

The basic concept of overtraining is an imbalance between exercise and recovery or it’s anytime your training is working against you and adding exercise makes it worse. Overtraining is highly personal and goal-dependent.

How to know you’re overtraining:

Decreased muscle mass despite increased exercise

Overtraining can cause hormone imbalances, resulting in loss of muscle mass. However, that annoying fat around your middle just won’t go away no matter how much cardio you do. That’s your stress hormone cortisol depositing fat in response to the chronic physical stress you’re putting your body through.

More sick, more often

You’re eating right, you’re sleeping well and so you increase your training. But you’re not quite 100% – nothing major, a little cough, a bit of congestion, headache, that sort of thing. The extra workout stress adds up and puts you in a catabolic state – you’re not quite coping with the increased workload. Your body isn’t repairing adequately and immunity is lowered.

Decreased performance

We’ve all got different training thresholds but if you’re exercising hard every time you workout (several times a week, over several weeks), your energy will be depleted and performance drops. As performance suffers, so will your results.

Niggling injuries

Without adequate recovery between workouts, you’re going to be tired, compromising technique, strength and focus, and increasing chances of injury or aggravating old injuries.

Muscle soreness – all the time

Muscle soreness is normal for a day or two after a workout but if you’re still sore 72 hours later your body’s recovery mechanism is compromised and you’re not going to be making gains anytime soon.

What to do about overtraining? It’s all about balance:

  • Take a break for a few days to let your body recover. You can still be active as gentle activity will help to re-energise and encourage your rest and repair functions. Go for a walk or swim, stretch or do yoga.
  • Meditation and practice mindfulness techniques help to refocus.
  • Get a massage
  • Drink lots of water and eat good quality fruit, vegetables, protein and fat to give your body the nourishment required to function optimally
  • Get to sleep before 10pm. Your body is most effective at physical repair between 10pm and 2am and you need to be asleep for this. Psychological repair occurs between 2am and 6am so you should be asleep then too

Being active is great, but listen to your body to find out how much is right for you.overtraining (1)