If you want to boost your performance, you need to pencil in enough time for recovery.
If you love to sweat or have ever trained for a big race, then you’ve probably had to think about overtraining and how to avoid it.
Overtraining is essentially when you start to see a decrease in exercise performance or health because you’re working out too much and not getting enough recovery.
“Training stresses the body and breaks down muscle. It’s actually in recovery that we grow stronger and become fitter as our body repairs and rebuilds our muscles,” says Rachel Cosgrove, C.S.C.S. and co-owner of Results Fitness in Newhall, California. “So if you break your body down and it starts to rebuild, but you train hard again right away, you never get to the point where you’re fully recovering and gaining strength.”
But prioritizing recovery isn’t always easy, especially when you’re conditioned to think “more is better” when it comes to exercise. And it can be difficult to see that you’re overtraining until something serious, like a chronic-use injury, occurs. So what should you look out for? Here, the seven signs of overtraining you need to know.
The symptoms of overtraining
- You’ve hit a plateau or you’re getting weaker. If it feels like you’ve been putting in a ton of work, but you’ve stopped seeing (or never started seeing) any results—you’re not able to lift any heavier or longer and your endurance and stamina isn’t improving, for example—it could be a sign of overtraining, says Cosgrove.
- Your mood is all over the place. Feeling super stressed, overwhelmed, moody, sad, depressed, or anxious? That could be a symptom of overtraining. Since your body is essentially breaking down, your hormone balance and mental health can start to take a toll as well, notes Cosgrove.
- Your sleep is wonky. Hormone changes, coupled with extreme soreness, can make it hard to get the solid seven-plus hours of zzz’s you need to properly recover from exercise, says Cosgrove. Fatigue is another common side effect. This low energy comes from high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).
- You’re catching every cold. Overtraining often compromises your immune system, making it more likely that you’ll get sick every time you encounter a virus, says Cosgrove. Training through these illnesses can make things even worse. Repeat after me: rest days.
- You’re way more sore than usual or an old injury is flaring up. Exercise causes inflammation, and when there’s no recovery period for it to be reduced, aches, dull pain, and injury are much more likely, says Cosgrove.
- You lose your period. Extreme weight loss and hormone changes can halt your menstrual cycle, says Cosgrove, which is a sure sign you’re overtraining and need to ease up.
- You’re losing muscle mass. Check with your gym to see if you can monitor your body composition to see whether you’re losing fat or muscle. If it’s muscle mass, you’re probably overtraining and not giving yourself enough fuel to recover after workouts, says Cosgrove.
There are plenty of ways to safeguard yourself against overdoing it at the gym. “It starts by flowing a training program that works in recovery days,” says Cosgrove. “Everyone should have one day completely off from exercise, other than maybe a light walk.”
If your schedule forces you to train intensely back to back, Cosgrove says ideally, you should never have more than two hard workout days in a row. And every four to six weeks of working out should be followed up by a “de-loading phase” where you lift half what you normally do or slow your pace and lower your typical mileage significantly. These de-loading phases serve as active recovery weeks in your overall training, she explains.
Outside of the structure of your training, it’s crucial to get the most out of your recovery time between tough workouts. That means stretching, foam rolling, icing, eating protein-heavy meals to rebuild muscle tissue, and even meditating to reduce stress, says Cosgrove.
“If you’re someone who doesn’t get much sleep or already has a lot of stress in your life, you need to focus even more on recovery from workouts,” she says. “Anything that’s going to lower your cortisol levels is going to be good for you and your body.”
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If you recognize that you’re overtraining, take a few days off from working out, and focus on getting quality sleep and fueling your body, says Cosgrove. After that, reexamine your fitness routine and plan to add in more recovery time or more frequent de-loading phases. “If you jump right back in to what you were doing before, you’re going to get the same result.”
Above all, know that it’s okay to take time off from working out if it’s negatively affecting your health. “It’s important to remember that we get our results from our recovery,” says Cosgrove. “The more you recover, the harder you can actually push during your tough workouts. It’s all about quality over quantity.”
A true love for sports