When you were a kid, did you ever over-indulge in something you loved? Maybe you ate ice cream, pizza or some other treat until your belly felt like it would bust. Maybe you spent too many hours in front of the TV or playing video games and your eyes got all googly and blurry.
Even adults can over-indulge. In most cases, it’s probably just uncomfortable and counterproductive. You wind up feeling like garbage because you filled up on garbage. In others, it can be downright dangerous. A DUI or worse could be your “reward” for making some really bad choices.
But what if getting “too much of a good thing,” something otherwise healthy and smart was more than just a bad cliché? What if it might lead to serious, long-term or potentially life-threatening health issues? Would you be more careful?
In recent years, the fitness industry has adopted some troubling habits. High volume, high intensity training has become far too common. In fact, this kind of all-out, run-through-a-wall-then-repeat exercise is held up as a standard, rather than an exception. The concept that you must train to “be ready for anything” has crept into our mindset and perverted our profession, at least in some important ways.
We can view the idolization of the “uber-exerciser” as part of what is leading us to a rise in the incidences of over-training among average people as well as elite athletes. We’ve idolized the glutton while providing the unlimited supply of ice cream, pizza and junk food on which to pig out. But unlike a bellyache, exercise gluttony can actually stifle your fitness efforts and be hazardous to your health.
But how do we cross the line from intense to hazardous? How can we tell when our “elite fitness” is likely to land us on the couch or even the emergency room? There are warning signs, if we’re willing to pay attention.
Here’s 9 signs you may be over training:
1. Increased difficulty perception during normal workloads. Have your “easy” workouts recently started seeming harder to complete? Is it harder to get started and push through your workouts?
Because your body is fatigued and not getting enough rest, it isn’t responding to the exercise stimulus like it once did. You may notice you don’t get the “pump” you once did. You’re likely also not getting the post-exercise endorphin response you once did, either.
You might respond by going harder. You might try a pre-workout or other supplement to boost the pump and raise your energy. It might work, temporarily, but it’s more likely to make the problem worse, at least over time.
2. Reduced performance. You’re slower, weaker and have less endurance. See #1, also. Hand-eye coordination can also be affected.
The nervous system is taking a beating and trying to keep up. Muscles aren’t getting the time they need to repair and replenish. Soft tissue is weakened by over training. This weakness may manifest in nagging, low grade injuries which negatively impact performance.
Eventually, your system may not be able to stabilize your training loads. When this happens, expect a serious or even catastrophic injury. Then you’ll get some doctor-imposed rest.
3. Excessive fatigue and frequent illnesses. Bodies not allowed to recover from repeated bouts of exercise suffer a kind of general malaise. Exercisers describe “heavy legs” and a feeling of dragging through their day and their workout.
Because the immune system is under constant “attack” it is drawing resources – vitamins, minerals, glycogen and others – from the body to manage the stress. With reduced levels of things like Vitamins, especially Vitamin C, the immune system loses some of its resistive power. Higher frequency of viral illnesses has been noted, along with longer healing and recovery times.
4. Insomnia or restless sleep. Over-trained bodies have hormonal imbalances that negatively impact sleep. Additionally, they tend not to slow down during rest periods due to increased metabolic rate. Poor sleep or lack of sleep contributes to the cycle, worsening the effects of the over-training condition.
5. Chronic muscle or joint pain. Over-training never lets muscles and joints repair themselves. Arthritis-like conditions can set in, making joints hurt even when they are at rest. The associated muscle weakness leads to joint instability, raising the likelihood of a more serious joint injury.
6. Agitation, loss of focus, irritability, angry or melancholy bouts or outbursts. The hormonal system is under extreme stress and is unable to assist with emotional management. This system is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
We know that the HPA axis gets dysregulated in over-trained individuals. As a result, these folks secrete less of the hormones that help manage emotional response to stress. Since over-training is a form of stress, this leads to unwanted changes in mood, sense of self and even cognitive function.
7. Loss of appetite. Since over-training can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine, which tend to inhibit appetite, the over-trained individual often loses their appetite. The physical exhaustion, general fatigue and anxiety associated with over-training also serve to suppress appetite.
8. Heart rate deviations. It is not uncommon for over-trained individuals to have heart rate elevation at rest. Heart rate may become elevated beyond normal during training, then take much longer than usual to recover after completion. As a result, there is an increased risk of cardiac event during these occurrences.
9. Menstrual cycle dysfunctions in women. Very high training volume, combined with eating too few calories can lead to a disruption of a woman’s menstrual cycle. In some over-trained women, the menstrual cycle may cease altogether.
These are the signs of over-training that should be fairly easy to spot. Over-training can result from simply training too many days in a row. It can also result from repeating the same kind of exercises or exercise programs too often during a training period, say, a week or a month.
It can also occur from focusing all your work on one kind of exercise with ever-increasing volume and intensity. The body will respond with altered hormonal and energy system functions that negatively impact the day to day operation of its’ systems. In the extreme, over-training can lead to debilitating injury or even death. And that’s kind of the opposite of the desired outcome, one would think.
The simplest answer to this problem is to plan some active and passive rest days. Then, train hard on training days and rest just as hard on rest days. As the bible tells us, there is a season for everything under the sun. There’s also a season for every aspect of your fitness program.
Keep the faith and keep after it!