Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz, published 12 June 2018

While the majority of the population is in no danger of it, and typically it’s been the preserve of elite athletes, overtraining can be a problem amongst the hard core ‘go hard or go home’ type of exerciser.

Overtraining is when your body can’t handle, or recover from, the work or stress (whether that’s physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental or chemical stress) you subject it to. It’s something that happens over a longer period of time rather than as a result of a couple of hard workouts and usually leads to a chronic reduction in physical and mental performance, needing a relatively long recovery period.

From an exercise point of view overtraining typically occurs when the amount of training suddenly increases for an extended period of time and its of high volume or intensity without enough rest and recovery time. The amount of exercise you need for this to happen is variable between individuals.

It might seem counterintuitive that it’s not the workout where the gains are made but rather the recovery period. When we put just enough physical stress on our system, it encourages the adaptation response to make us a little stronger so that the next time this stress comes along its easier. Without adequate rest, we don’t see improvements.

It’s not just this physical stress we need to be aware of, there’s also the stress of work, family, relationships, poor diet and sleep – your body deals with all stress the same at the physiological level and it impacts how well you recover. So, when you add these stresses on top of a sudden increase of high volume and high intensity training, over time you may experience signs of overtraining such as:

  • Chronic muscle soreness or weakness and joint pain
  • Exhaustion, lethargy, fatigue, lack of energy
  • Increased risk of infection and susceptibility to colds and flus or lowered immune system
  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Decreased exercise performance and delayed recovery from exercise
  • Decreased ability to concentrate, mood swings or unusual irritability
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased quality and/or quantity of sleep
  • Decreased desire to train or lack of motivation

 

If you have a number of these signs, overtraining could be the issue and it’s time to get some balance and give your body time to recover. Consider the following:

  • Take a break from high intensity exercise for a few days. Gentle activity like walking, swimming, stretching or yin yoga can help re-energise and get your rest and repair functions going
  • Calm your mind and reduce psychological stress with meditation and mindfulness techniques
  • Try some pampering experiences – a massage, facial, or salt pod float
  • Drink lots of water and eat good quality fruit, vegetables, protein and fat to nourish your body and give it the fuel it needs to encourage optimal function
  • Get 8 hours of sleep a night and ideally be asleep by 10pm. Physical repair generally happens in the body between 10pm and 2am and you need to be asleep for this.

Exercise is good, but more is not necessarily better.