With most sports, intensive training is required to improve performance. Bodybuilding, fat loss, weight loss; whatever your training for, it’s no different. It requires a lot of effort to achieve your desired goal.
Like all training, you need to allow enough time for recovery, if you don’t, then your body could go into a state of overtraining. But how do we know if we’ve fully recovered? How do we know if we're training too much? What happens if we do overtrain? These are some of the common questions we find people regularly asking.
Today, overtraining (or overtraining syndrome) is not uncommon. In order for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts to improve their physique they need to apply progressive overload, this promotes consistently pushing the body to places it’s never been before, so I’m not shocked to hear so many people have become overtrained.
Overtraining occurs when the body is pushed (through exercise) beyond its natural ability to recover.
Essentially, after you work out you need to allow time for muscles to rest, repair and grow. If your rest is cut short, then you’ll never let your muscles get to the growth stage, and your muscles will never get bigger.
You hear about it all the time. People complaining about how they’ve been killing themselves in the gym 6 days a week but they don’t look any different, it’s because they’re overtraining.
Everyone’s different; genetics play a big part in how quickly you can recover. Some people can spend 6 days a week in the gym and never get into a state of overtraining but others can overtrain after 4 days in the gym.
Also, you can be more prone to overtraining depending on the other stressors involved in your life. Travel, occupation and inadequate sleep are likely to have an effect on how much you are able to train before you enter the danger zone. If you have a stressful job then it may be advisable to rest, and chill out when needed, rather than dragging yourself to the gym when you’re already pretty exhausted.
Essentially, overtraining is caused when there is an imbalance between training, nutrition and rest. This can lead to decreased performance, fatigue, any other problems discussed later in the article.
Have you been consistently hitting the gym hard but your physique is nowhere near looking how you imagined it to be?
Is your nutrition on point?
If you answered yes to both of those questions then it’s likely you’re overtrained.
If like most people, you think more is better, and usually it is. The more you practice something – the better you get at it. The more money you earn – the more free time you have, the more you socialise – the more healthy relationships you build, etc.
It’s more than reasonable to believe that if you spend more time in the gym then you’re going to speed up the muscle building process.
But, building muscle mass is different. And actually, in this instance, more is not always better and too much in the gym can actually become counter-productive.
In order to get bigger and stronger you must allow the muscles to recover and then build, as we said before; if you’re not allowing enough time for recovery, then you’re never going to reach the build stage, and you will never pack on the muscle you’ve been working so hard for.
In order to prevent getting into an overtraining state, you need to know what to look out for.
We have compiled a list of common symptoms athletes usually experience when in a state of overtraining.
- Overly fatigued
- Elevated Morning Pulse Rate
- Muscle Soreness (More than usual)
- Poor Sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Mood Swings
- Decreased performance
- Decreased strength
- Increased Perceived effort when working out
- Overly sore joints
- You’re putting on fat
- You struggle to finish your workout
- Loss of appetite
If progress has come to a halt, and you’re experiencing some of the symptoms listed, then you need to act smart to get yourself out of the overtraining rut and back on track.
The best way to recover from an overtraining state is to not let yourself get into one in the first place. Following the following points will help to reduce the likelihood of overtraining.
Sleep is often suggested to be the single best recovery strategy available to elite athletes. When you’re sleeping, the muscles that were broken down during the workout begin to heal, recover and grow.
During sleep, growth hormone is produced and protein synthesis occurs, therefore, enhancing muscular recovery.
If we start cutting back on our sleep, then we’re cutting back on our recovery and muscle building potential and run the risk of reaching a performance plateau.
It is vital to provide the body with the correct nutrition to optimise recovery.
Quality sources of carbohydrates are needed to replenish energy stores that would have been depleted during your intense workout.
A high protein diet will promote protein synthesis and allow the muscles broken down during your workout to recover and rebuild.
And healthy fats are needed to provide energy, organ protection and nutrient absorption.
Factors such as occupation, social life, and family life can make it difficult to get the required nutrition from food sources. Using supplements is a convenient way of ensuring your body is getting the right amount of nutrients and vitamins it needs to prevent overtraining.
When you are in a stressed state the body produces a hormone called cortisol. The hormone is produced on a daily basis but the amount in which is produced increases when you’re stressed.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that reduces protein synthesis and prevents tissue growth. If you don’t manage your stress levels then cortisol will have a negative effect on your recovery, and if you aren’t recovering properly, then you’re going to be more prone to overtraining.
In order to manage stress levels there are a number of things you could try:
Rest is arguably the most important factor to consider to prevent overtraining.
Sometimes it can be quite difficult to bring yourself to take a rest day. It feels like you’re slacking and taking a day off from training will only slow down the journey to reaching your goals. But this most definitely isn’t the case.
During a rest day your nervous, immune and hormonal systems return to a situation conducive to growth and performance So that when you step back into the gym you can perform to your potential and give yourself the best chance of building the muscle you deserve.
During an intense workout, you create microscopic tears in the muscle fibres. When resting and recovering these tears heal and grow back thicker and stronger (it’s how you get bigger!). If you don’t allow enough time for recovery then not only are you not allowing the muscle tears to heal, but they can develop into bigger injuries and put you out of action – putting a halt on all progress.
Think of it like this – damage to the muscles is done in the gym, but the growth of the muscles is done out of the gym. In other words, if you’re not allowing yourself adequate recovery time outside of the gym, then you’re never going to grow bigger and stronger.
During your recovery sessions, it’s still vitally important to supply your body with the right nutrition. As mentioned above, when trying to build muscle keep your protein and carbohydrates high with moderate intake from healthy fat sources.
A well-earned break from the gym can also help you mentally. Transforming your body doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a long hard road. A break from the gym can help prevent boredom, rekindle your hunger for exercise increase the likelihood of adhering to a long-term plan.
Rest is the component that is often overlooked when it comes to transforming your body, be sure not to neglect it or you’ll pay the price further on down the line.
The hormones that are in charge of regulating your mood and sleep patterns can be thrown out of normal ranges when your body is under too much stress from overtraining.
Changes in your endocrine system (which regulates your hormones) can lead to insomnia or early wake times, which makes people feel groggy and less alert throughout their days.
Additionally, the hormones that stabilise your mood are damaged by overtraining, which can lead to depression, irritability, anxiety, etc. This is one of the reasons why it's important to keep your exercise at the recommended amount.
Too much exercise can negatively affect bone density, especially for women. This is because over-exercising can lead to decreases in estrogen, which creates an increased risk of osteoporosis. This means that overexercising is even more serious in menopausal or pre-menopausal women whose estrogen levels are already lowered.
Weaker bones also mean you’re more prone to injuries such as breaks, sprains, and joint pain. Taking a break to recover now might just prevent you from having to recover from a more serious injury down the road.
Overtraining can cause your immune system to weaken.
Studies have shown that serious endurance athletes and sedentary people get sick more often than people who do a moderate amount of exercising.
To prevent your immune system from weakening, make sure you aren’t getting too little or too much exercise.
Overuse of certain muscles or muscle groups is very common in people who exercise too much. Overuse injuries usually occur when people train the same muscle group too many days in a row and don't give their bodies enough time to recover.
Getting into a state of overtraining not only sets you back from reaching your physique goals, but it also increases your risk of injury which can potentially set you back for even longer.
It’s important to remember, that muscle isn’t built when you are training, it’s built when you are resting; thus if you aren’t resting long enough, then you’re never going to get bigger & stronger!
You need to allow enough time for rest so that your muscles can recover and grow bigger. If you cut back on the rest time, not only are you sacrificing potential muscle growth, but your following workouts are not going to be as effective if you haven’t fully recharged your batteries.
Listen to your body! Take a break when your body tells you to, and don’t get into the unhelpful trap of thinking time away from the gym is counter-productive, it’s just as important as time spent in the gym!
- Foster, C.A.R.L., 1998. Monitoring training in athletes with reference to overtraining syndrome. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 30, pp.1164-1168.