“Molly, question for your blog. As someone who is addicted to exercise, how can you know when you are overtraining? I’ve read a lot about how overtraining can release stress hormones such as cortisol and actually be counter-productive!” – Wesley L.
Thanks so much for this question! You’re exactly right! “Overtraining” can be extremely counter-productive if done for long periods of time. But first let me clarify what I mean by “overtraining.”
There is a lot of back-and-forth in the training community about whether or not “overtraining” really exists. Those in the camp that say that is doesn’t, point out that a huge number of athletes train 2-8 hours at a day at extremely high intensities over a long period of time and keep getting better at their sport, and that it’s highly unlikely that some Joe Schmoe is going to “over-train” by working out 3-4 days a week with the intensity of a sloth, at a commercial gym.
I absolutely, 100%, see their point. And I agree that Joe is probably not overtraining. Instead, I think Joe is under-recovering. Joe probably has a super stressful job, eats like garbage, has a ton of debt, has crazy family obligations, and doesn’t get much sleep. So even when he’s not in the gym, his body is on “high alert” from all of the life stress he is under, and he doesn’t get the opportunity to recover properly.
On the flip side of the coin, for many of those professional athletes who train 2-8 hours a day, their entire job is centered on their training, and recovering from their training. Sleeping, eating, and getting massages is literally part of their job. Sure, there are exceptions. I know some high-level athletes that train twice a day and still work another 60 hour a week job, and get better over the long haul, but they are the exception to the rule, not the norm.
Plus, since Joe has probably never trained consistently in his life, he has almost zero work capacity. Heck, 3 sets of 10 body weight squats will probably leave him sore! Now if Joe had started working out as a teenager and had consistently hit the gym 3-4 times a week and done intelligent weight training, he probably wouldn’t get sore from 3 sets of 10 relatively heavy squats, because his body would be adapted to that movement.
So, do I think TRUE overtraining is an issue? Not often, but under-recovering absolutely is.
At our gym, J&M Strength and Conditioning, it’s funny, we seem to attract a very high number of people who overdo it. We often have to reign our clients in and get them to do less in order to get them the results they are looking for, because they are doing 10-12 hours a week of cardio with very little true strength training. When they come to us they are absolutely “cooked” as we call it, because they never allow themselves to fully recover.
If you haven’t read it yet, you should really check out, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. In short, your body doesn’t know the difference between stress from life and stress from exercise. Yes, your body is producing the same hormones in your 60 minute super high-intensity spin class as it is when you’re being held at gunpoint or being chased by a lion.
Still think that crazy spin class is awesomely healthy for you? (Hint: it’s probably not).
Even scarier? Your body is producing that same stress response when you’re freaking out about sitting in traffic, fighting with your spouse, overdrawing your bank account, late for an important meeting, and up all night with your sick kid. Think about your life and the last several days or weeks. When have you really had the opportunity to chill out? When you were watching The Walking Dead, and your heart was racing because you weren’t sure what was going to happen next? Oh riiiiiight. So you weren’t really chilled out then, either.
And yes, I am the pot calling the kettle black. I struggle BIG TIME with truly relaxing and letting myself recover. I have to literally schedule recovery time to get a massage or meditate in my planner. No joke. But I do it, because it’s important.
The other issue is that most of us don’t know how to breathe properly. This is an extremely important topic that is just now getting some attention in the strength and conditioning community. To prove just how important breathing is, what else do you do 20,000 times a day and if you go several minutes without doing it, you die? The only other thing that comes close is your HEART BEATING. I’d say most of you consider that pretty important, right? Right.
Check out these awesome resources for more information on breathing properly:
Breathing, Anterior Pelvic Tilt, and Voodoo Witchcraft by Jim Laird
The Breath-Stress Relationship by Mike Robertson
Are You Full of Hot Air by Mike Robertson
IFAST Assessment Breathing Patterns by Bill Hartman
So, after that little rant…back to your question. What are some signs you might not be recovering properly from your training? This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start:
- Experiencing more muscle soreness than normal and/or taking longer for the soreness to subside than normal.
- Lack of motivation to lift/train.
- Major change in appetite (usually a decrease).
- Decrease in leanness despite not changing nutrition program/exercise regimen.
- Decrease in sex drive.
- Decrease in overall strength/performance in the gym or in other workouts. **Keep in mind that one bad workout doesn’t count, but several workouts in a row where you are forced to decrease the weight you are using or decrease the number of reps you can do, that counts.)
- Bouts of moodiness, mild depression, fatigue, or malaise.
- Getting sick more often than usual.
- Adverse reactions to foods that may not normally bother you.
- Struggling to fall asleep and decrease in sleep quality.
So if you realize that you might not be recovering from your training, what can you do about it? You have a few options.
- Take time to de-load. Read more about de-loading here.
- Make priority a recovery. In this article I discuss things you can do to help your body recover faster.
- Manage your stress more effectively. Here are 4 tips to do that.
- Take a good, hard look at your training. Does it make sense? Does it match up with your goals?
- Seek the advice of an expert who understands managing stressors, and one who can help you plan a training program you can recover from.
Hope you find this helpful Wesley. And remember, if you really do feel “addicted” to exercise, there are often a couple of culprits. You may be so “cooked” physically that the only time you feel good is when you exercise, and force your body to kick into super-hardcore-fight-or-flight mode (not good). Or you may use exercise as a way to escape from problems or stressors you don’t want to deal with (also not good). And finally, of course, there is the chance that you truly love exercise, and that’s fine. Just make sure you are earning your right to exercise by taking care of yourself outside of the gym. Good luck!
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