Are you overtraining your body?
The effects of undertraining – i.e. lack of exercise – are often written about in articles reminding us do regular physical activity if we want to feel fit and maintain a healthy lifestyle.What is less discuss are the effects of overtraining.
Rather than referring to working so hard that you pull a muscle or sprain an ankle, overtraining is actually an issue whereby people are training to the point that they stop making progress and in many cases actually get weaker, meaning exercise becomes counterproductive.
It's of course more common among amateur and professional athletes, with studies suggesting that up to 20 percent exhibit symptoms of the overtraining at some point. But it is not uncommon with regular people who all but live in the gym.
Overtraining occurs when intensity of exercise (be it weights, aerobic, or anything else) exceeds the body’s ability to recover, leading to both a lack of progress and an increased risk of injury and illness.
It's often overlooked, simply because many of the signs and symptoms of overtraining are thought to be “normal” – due to that intense workout that was just completed.
These symptoms can be rather varied, and include everything from muscle soreness to elevated resting heart rate to frequent injury to unhealthy weight loss.
In rare cases the consequences of overtraining can actually become quite severe, and include issues such as depression, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and sexual dysfunction. But how exactly do we know whether we are overtraining and not just feeling the effects of an intense workout?
How much training is too much training?
The answer to this question no doubt depends on your fitness ability and what you are trying to achieve with your training programme. As a general rule of thumb, those wishing to bulk up should be looking to do four to five thorough workouts per week, while those training for weight loss should be aiming for three to four – as this type of exercise requires total body training which can take longer to recover from.
As for you runners out there, it is best to have one or two days of rest a week to allow the endocrine system in particular (the glands that, among other functions, produce hormones and regulate your body's metabolism) to fully recover.
When it comes to sports training, particularly for professional athletes, the advice is slightly different due to the training routines generally being more seasonal, and the incredible fitness levels these individuals attain and the guidance they receive from nutritionists and coaches and trainers. In such a case, training up to six times per week for hours at a time is not uncommon and can usually be done without issue providing there is adequate rest time in the offseason.
Of course, it must be stressed that this is very much a guide, and how much exercise your body can handle depends on a number of factors, including age and general health and wellbeing. Ultimately, knowing how much training is right for you – and finding the balance between not enough and too much – comes down to listening to your body (and keeping an eye out for the signs of overtraining which is addressed below).
What is true for everyone, however, is that rest is a vital part of any exercise regime. It allows your muscles and the body's systems that support them to recuperate, and if you are looking for muscle growth in particular, rest is in fact a key part of the growth process. That's because when we work out, muscle fibres become stretched and damaged (one of the main reasons you often ache after a weights session). This damage can only be repaired during a period of rest, as our body replaces these damaged fibres, fusing them together with new muscle proteins – which increases muscle thickness and causes them to grow.
Ultimately, knowing how much training is right for you – and finding the balance between not enough and too much – comes down to listening to your body.
The impact of overtraining
Now before considering the long-term impact of overtraining, it's important to consider some common symptoms that may be indicators of overtraining. These include fatigue, lethargy, and a lack of motivation to train, along with feelings of irritability, chronic muscle soreness, and a loss of appetite.
For those who spend a lot of time in the gym, more serious effects may include insomnia and restless sleep, diarrhoea, nausea, and headaches (it's no wonder that many people actually describe “overtraining syndrome” as feeling like they have the flu). And some sufferers may notice that it takes much longer than normal for a resting heart rate to return to normal – and in extreme cases that resting heart rate may be constantly elevated.
Training performance is also directly affected, with your workouts simply not giving you the feeling that they are worth it at all. You will often hear fitness buffs talk about a poor performance at the gym where they felt as though they were operating at a capacity of say 50 percent or so. And indeed, depending on the effort your body is able to give, those may quite rightly be very ineffective gym visits.
If you do train regularly and experience some of the above symptoms, then it's worth dropping by your physician's office for a chat, as the longer-term impact of overtraining can be more impactful on your overall health. As your immune, adrenal and endocrine systems become fatigued, they will stop working at the best of their ability, which can lead to a whole litany of health issues.
For starters, when we exercise, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline, which increase blood flow to the muscles and pump glucose into the bloodstream for energy. A byproduct of overtraining is the overproduction of adrenaline which, among other things, suppresses the production of other hormones and chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. In time this can bring on anxiety disorders and depression, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, and drastic fluctuations in weight.
Another potential hormonal issue we see as a result of overtraining concerns the production of cortisol. In the later stages of overtraining syndrome, the body's adrenal system – responsible for producing adrenaline, aldosterone, and cortisol – kicks into high gear and begins to overwork. Cortisol is worth a special mention because its overproduction leads to increased insulin levels, increased appetite, the body’s inability to burn fat, and the body's tendency to store fat – all of which can result in the rather ironic situation where exercise is actually damaging your health and causing weight gain.
A byproduct of overtraining is the overproduction of adrenaline which, among other things, suppresses the production of other hormones and chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine.
How to avoid overtraining
To ensure you maintain a good level of health over your lifetime it's important to remember that a fitness routine is not about two or three months of hard work aimed at losing a few pounds before getting back to that normal infrequent routine of maybe working out once every couple of weeks. Rather, it is about regular workouts, several times a week, as long as you are physically able to carry these out in a safe manner. And for anyone who takes care of his or her body and is generally healthy, it should be possible well into old age.
Of course this means altering to fit the situation. As you age or depending on your particular physical level or your goals, you need to find the workout – both the type and the intensity – that suits you. You want to feel good about your fitness routine, and this all starts with being realistic - forget those plans that have you going to the gym six times a week for two hours at a time. The problem? After a short while they are starting to skip regularly, and after a few weeks they are all but done with the routine, heading straight to the couch once again right after work. Why? Because people tend to bit off more than they could chew, and overtrain right from the start.
But avoiding overtraining is in fact very simple. Just listen to your body and find a pace you somewhat enjoy. The word "somewhat" is key, because you still have to push yourself. What we want to see with our workout routine is one that leaves our minds refreshed and our bodies just the right amount of tired out.
And while you want to watch out for any of the overtraining symptoms mentioned in this article, in my opinion the best test for whether you are working out too much is to monitor how you feel during the workout itself. If you find yourself suffering through every step of that jog, hating every rep of those weight sets, or harbouring animosity for the enthusiasm of the aerobics instructor, then it's time for a refresh.
That's when you want to take one or two or three days or more off. And you can do so without fearing the loss of results in the meantime, because you can rest securely in the knowledge that it takes around three weeks of inactivity for aerobic power to decline by about 20 percent, while muscular strength and endurance declines at an even slower rate. In other words, a few days off will do nothing to undo your hard work, and in fact will have quite the opposite effect.
The opinions in the column are by Dr Graham Simpson, the Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai, and are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International.