We all know that exercise is good for you-but it is possible to get too much of a good thing. When you overtrain, you put your body under unnecessary stress and the effects can be rather nasty. In this post, I aim to address the problem of over-training, how to spot it, and what to do about it.
What is overtraining?
Overtraining simply refers to the act of training excessively, to a point where it has an adverse effect on your wellbeing.
This can happen in a few ways:
- Starting with too much, too soon when embarking on an exercise regime
- Not allowing for rest periods
- Simply putting in too many hours of exercise and exhausting your body
There are varying opinions on the subject of overtraining, all of which have merit. One view is that the problem is not overtraining, but under-recovery. This means that, in theory, you should be able to train very hard, as long as you take ample time to recover.
What is meant by “recovery”?
Recovery doesn’t just mean sleeping or being sedentary. There is a wide range of recovery techniques, including the following:
- Sleeping the required minimum of about 7 hours a night, but more if you need it and can manage it
- Stretching properly after your workouts. Stretching helps improve blood flow to the muscles, and aids in their recovery. Stretching regularly will also mean less injuries
- Recovery training. This is the practice of switching up your exercise to allow certain muscles to recover, and to allow your body to recover from a specific form of stress. For example, if you are running marathons, doing a few sessions of swimming will help your body recover -while you are still exercising
- Foam rolling. There is an increasing amount of research indicating that foam rolling is very beneficial to your muscle recovery. Foam rolling is a method of self-myofascial release, in which you apply pressure to eliminate scar tissue and soft tissue adhesion by freeing up your fascia. It improves blood flow to muscles and aids recovery
How do I prevent overtraining?
If you’re one of those “where is my rest muscle, and how do I train it?” types, I have bad news. Rest is just as important as exercise. When you rest, you allow your muscles to recover and rebuild stronger than they were. Pushing your body beyond its limits will not end well. To avoid the inconvenience and discomfort of over-training, follow the following guidelines:
- When you start training, build up gradually in terms of intensity and frequency.
- Set aside times for rest. A good rule of thumb is to allow a muscle group to rest for at least 24 hours, but preferably 48 hours, between training sessions. In other words, if you train your legs on a Monday night, train your upper body on Tuesday, and train legs again on Wednesday evening.
- Eat enough. Refuel your body with nutritious foods so that it can keep performing.
- Stick to one hour workouts. After an hour of intense training, your testosterone levels start to dip, and your cortisol levels start to rise. Since testosterone is what helps your muscles grow and maintain their strength, and cortisol is a stress hormone that can cause weight gain, this is obviously not ideal.
- Pamper yourself with a massage. Giving your muscles some TLC will help you recover faster, besides, a little bit of relaxation never hurt anybody!
- When your body is exhausted, rest! You know your body, and it will tell you when to take it easy.
I think I’m in trouble. How do I know if I’m overtraining?
There is a difference between the usual muscle fatigue and overtraining. Some of the signs and symptoms you should look out for are:
- Muscle soreness that just won’t go away
- An increased susceptibility to infections and illness
- Getting injured more easily/often
- An increase in your resting heart rate
- Loss of focus and motivation
- A decreased appetite
- Inexplicable weight loss or weight gain, and slower results
If you find yourself nodding along to the above symptoms, chances are good that you’re overtraining. Reassess your workout and consult a professional if necessary. A good personal trainer will be able to prescribe an effective workout that doesn’t leave you feeling terrible.
If your symptoms are severe, a visit to a doctor may be in order. Seeing a dietician can also help you ensure that your body has the fuel it needs to recover properly.
Overuse or overtraining?
Overuse and overtraining are two different things. When we speak about overuse, we are referring to the act of training one muscle/muscle group excessively. When we speak of overtraining, we generally refer to general overuse and exhaustion.
Overuse can result in area-specific injuries, such as shin splints. Over-training can result in general exhaustion, fatigue, and an overall increase in injuries and discomfort.
I have most of the above symptoms, but I highly doubt I’m training too hard. What could it be?
Another condition that can be confused with overtraining is chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). CFS is a very complicated health problem, and can be confused with a variety of other problems.
The symptoms of CFS are similar to those of overtraining, and if you think you may be suffering from it, it is worth a trip to a doctor. Some of the symptoms of CFS include:
- Loss of memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sore throat
- Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
- Inexplicable muscle or joint pain
- Poor quality sleep
- Severe exhaustion that continues for more than 24 hours after physical or mental exertion
I’ve read some scary things about something called rhabdomyolysis. Am I in danger?
Rhabdomyolysis (or rhabdo, as it’s unaffectionately known) is a serious condition that results from pushing your body so hard that your muscle fibers die and release their content into your bloodstream. This can lead to kidney failure if left untreated.
There are many causes of rhabdo, but the one that I’d like to address is extreme muscle strain. Extreme overexertion of a muscle can cause this condition, which is dangerous if left untreated. The triad of rhabdo symptoms is:
- Muscle pain in the shoulders, thighs or lower back
- Muscle weakness or trouble moving arms and legs
- Dark red or brown urine or decreased urination
Other symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- Lack of consciousness
While the symptoms of rhabdo may be difficult to pinpoint, it is also worth noting that half of people experiencing it may have non muscle-related symptoms. If you suspect you’re suffering from rhabdomyolysis, consult a doctor immediately.
I know that starting an exercise regime is exciting, and seeing results can make you want to push harder and harder. But remember that exercise is first and foremost something that you do to keep healthy. Spending 3 hours a day killing yourself in the gym is, in the long run, NOT going to help you reach your goals; in fact, it will hamper your progress. Be realistic with your goals, be patient, and work smarter, not harder.
by Chanel Serfontein