AXA Health senior physiologist, Jemelle Carpenter-Gayle, looks at the consequences of overtraining and some of the signs to look out for, and offers his top tips to help keep your training programme on track.
If you follow a regular training programme, whether it’s gym/home based, or out running and are looking to improve performance, strength, or speed, the best way to achieve your goals is to gradually overload your body.
This could be achieved by increasing the distance or the speed of your runs, lifting heavier weights, or increasing the amount of reps you do. However, if you don’t plan in adequate recovery, allowing your body to rest and repair, it can result in overtraining.
Overtraining is when we exceed our body's ability to recover from strenuous exercise. For example, if a recreational gym-goer performs ‘max out’ sessions two days in a row or a novice runner completes two marathons in two days (yes, these are extreme examples!) without rest, this could lead to injuries. If this is repeated over time, overtraining can limit our progress and can even cause us to lose our current fitness levels.
Signs and symptoms of overtraining
- Elevated resting heart rate – the rise in health tech and popularity of fitness trackers means we can track our resting heart rate throughout the day. A decrease in resting heart rate is an indication of improved cardiovascular fitness. But if your resting heart rate increases by 10-15 beats per minute when you think it should be going down, it may be an indication of overtraining.
- Insomnia – finding it difficult to fall and stay asleep is a possible sign of overtraining. This is due to your hormones and central nervous system being out of balance.
- Muscle soreness – feeling sore after a workout is natural; however, if it lasts for more than three days, it may be your body showing signs that it’s unable to recover after workouts as it normally should. You may also be feeling aches in muscles you haven’t even trained, which is another sign of overtraining.
- Poor performance – the easiest way to spot overtraining is if your performance declines. This could be shown in below par speeds in your training races or, in the gym, failure to lift a certain weight that once felt comfortable. It’s natural to have off days, but consistent poor performances are a sign that you may be putting your body through too much. If in doubt, modify your training to suit how you feel, or take some time out to rest and reset – it won’t undo your previous hard work and your body and mind will thank you for it.
- Weakened immune system – when over trained, it’s easier to catch illnesses, such as the flu, due to your body being significantly strained by the training.
Rest is important to reduce and eliminate the symptoms of overtraining. If you’re constantly feeling tired, take a look at your sleeping habits. We’re all unique and the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person, but to feel like you’re thriving, rather than just surviving, 6-8 hours of good quality sleep is recommended for most people. Persistent lack of sleep has been associated with poor training quality, increased chance of injury and a variety of health risks, such as diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure).
Light or moderate activity, such as walking, cycling and swimming, are all effective ways to handle overtraining offering a great way to get some movement into your day, without overdoing it. Try to have at least one or two days a week when you can switch off from training and do other activities you enjoy. An activity with friends, a hike in nature, or even dancing, are great stress-busters and you won’t be bored.
Nutrition can also play a massive role in reducing symptoms of overtraining. There’s an association between fatigue and performance, due to the decrease in muscle glycogen stores. Eating a well-balanced diet can help to replenish these stores and repair the muscles. It has been recommended that, during intense training periods, people should eat more complex carbohydrates and proteins (for example wholegrains such as brown rice and pasta and protein sources such as chicken and fish) to cope with the demands, as well keeping hydrated throughout the day.
It’s easy to lose track of how intense your sessions are if you don’t keep organised. Planning for the week or month ahead will help you to schedule in rest days or very low intensity days which will help your body recover. Also, logging what times you run or the weights you lift will allow you to train more efficiently and safely. You’ll be able to see how intense the session was and it’ll help explain if you feel slightly more tired or sore the next day.
Adapting your sessions will also help prevent overtraining. Having a very intense session while having a stressful week at work, or in your personal life, will end up exhausting you physically and mentally. To prevent this, why not adapt your session so it’s not as intense, whether it means training for a shorter time or not lifting as heavy weights. Sometimes life can throw a curveball, making it hard to train. When this happens, don’t compensate by ‘going harder’ during your next session. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself a break from time to time.
- Always have at least one or two rest days or low intensity sessions per week.
- Try to prioritise sleep, aiming for at least 6-8 hours of good quality sleep.
- Eat a balanced diet to give you energy and help repair your body
- Listen to your body – and adapt your sessions accordingly.
Taking a break from moderate exercise if you constantly feel tired will do your body the world of good. It’s easy to overlook or ignore how your body feels when you’re striving to hit a target. But without enough rest and recovery you’ll only be limiting yourself in the long run.
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