Overtraining is real, ladies and gentlemen. From high performance athletes to the occasional runner, overtraining is a problem that many face—yet it remains undiagnosed. I know this because I have gone through several periods of overtraining myself. Only now, after several years of dedicated training, do I believe to have found the balance between pushing myself and overtraining. Being aware of overtraining, taking precautions towards avoiding it and correctly identifying as well as treating it cannot be emphasized enough.
What Is Overtraining?
To over train means to “train or cause to train too hard or for too long”. Training too hard is a danger for beginners, as they will often go harder than what their untrained body’s can handle. A friend of mine injured his calf muscle on a 5km run he did after having not exercised for years. This is a case of overtraining until injury. When I haven’t worked out for a while, I’ll go light on my first few sessions back. This ensures proper adaption and recovery towards the physical stressor.
Training too long refers to the excessive duration of a workout. Again, untrained individuals are more susceptible to this than novices as their bodies can handle less.
During the warm up phase of a workout, your body is rather stiff and your blood circulation isn’t optimal. Moreover, your full range of motion isn’t at its peak yet.
Once you’ve taken the first few deep breaths, the body is ready for performance. This is when the real workout begins. Your performance increases and then plateaus. After some time, your performance decreases and you slowly wind down your training.
While pushing past the exhaustion is a necessary component of productive training, you don’t want to overdo it. The danger of training too long is especially relevant to runners. At some point, your muscles become painfully sore and your heart is beating like crazy. You start losing focus and your technique decreases dramatically. You become susceptible to serious injuries and the impact on your joints increases. A classic example of training too long.
Working out too often is the third type of overtraining. While the workouts are well planned, you are training often and the body can’t recover fast enough. Personally, I have found this to be the type of overtraining I’m confronted with the most. If you’re training with a deadline in mind (i.e. competition), how do you train as much as possible without overtraining?
This is a tough question to answer without taking any markers or indicators into consider.
How To Tell If You’re Overtraining
There are multiple ways to gauge your body’s condition. Here are a few good ones:
- Low Morning Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
My morning HRV is one of the few numbers I truly believe in and take into serious account. Heart rate variability refers to the space between your individual heartbeats. Contrary to popular belief, your heartbeat is consistently inconsistent. Your body is always making tiny adjustments towards its environment, which can be reflected by more or less unnoticeable changes in the time between heart beats, hence heart rate variability.
When your body is healthy and thriving (not over trained), your HRV is higher. The body is able to handle stress and can react to its environment, which translates into an increase in heart rate variability. Vice versa, when your body is over trained and battered, your HRV is lower. Stress isn't dealt with optimally and you react poorly to your environment.
How does one know if their HRV is high or low? There are multiple ways of measuring it, but my favorite is simply using an app on my phone. “HRV4Training” is an app especially useful for beginners, as it analyzes the data and gives you simple advice. Instead of overwhelming the user with numbers, it provides one score and a sentence informing you about your score and whether or not you should workout during the day. All you have to do is hold your finger over the camera lens for it to measure your HRV.
If your morning HRV is low and you’ve been training hard, consider resting for the day. Take a few days off if your HRV is consistently low or getting lower on a daily basis.
- Chronically Tired
Find yourself yawning constantly and chugging coffee despite having slept well? Overtraining doesn’t only cause your body to be sore, it can also make you feel tired and decrease your mental performance. Listen to your body instead of trying to hide the signs of training too much by binging on caffeine. Take a day off or nap frequently.
- Poor Sleep Quality
Strangely enough, sleep quality tends to suffer when training too much.
One bad night of sleep shouldn't lead to you worrying about overtraining. However, if you have trouble sleeping for a few nights (and you usually sleep like a rock), consider resting.
Aside from your own perception, tracking your sleep is also useful for determining a decrease in sleep quality. You can track your sleep using simple tools such as the SleepCycle app or more expensive trackers such as Zeo tracker.
These trackers will monitor your sleep and give you a report in the morning to inform you about the quality of your sleep. Using the data and your own perception, you can determine whether or not you might be overtraining.
- Suboptimal Performance
Declining performance is another great indicator of training too often. If you can’t reach your previous records, you aren’t resting enough in between workouts. If you find yourself tired and sore during the warm up, think twice about working out. Overtraining isn’t always the case when you're sore and not performing well, however it is an indicator one should take into account.
These are just four possible indicators of overtraining. To make use of them, track all four and then make a conclusion rather than only regarding one or two.
How To Deal With Overtraining – Simple Methods Of Recovery
If you’re overtraining or are on the verge of doing so, use these recovery tips to eliminate it.
While there are ways to lower the demand for rest, you can’t avoid it. The body needs rest, period. Take 1-2 days off per week and don’t train more than twice a day. As a hobby athlete myself, I train around 3-4 times per week and find it is demanding enough.
Eating healthy is paramount for recovery. Provide your body with an abundance of nutrients and lower inflammation by avoiding trans fats, added sugar and processed foods. Ensure proper micronutrient intake by eating a lot of vegetables, nuts, meats, fruits and other healthy, unprocessed natural foods. Don't forget to eat enough carbohydrates, fat and protein! Your body needs macronutrients for energy, recovery and overall health.
- Stretching And Massage
Stretch daily and after workouts to promote muscle recovery as well as to increase your full range of motion. Runners, weight lifters and other athletes tighten up due to the high demands on the body and thus underperform. Make time for stretching and you’ll not only recover faster, but also feel and perform better.
Massaging is another powerful recovery enhancer. Taking massages with trained professionals is mandatory for athletes. If you don’t have the time (or money) to take a hands-on massage once a week, spend more time on the foam roller.
Self-massage using a foam roller, tennis ball and/or golf ball is referred to as self-myofascial release. Myofascial release (MFR) is a great way to relax the muscle and improve blood circulation. Furthermore, MFR softens up soft tissue, thus allowing for more mobility. Check out this video for a foam roller routine .
- Good Sleep
When we talk about sleep, we usually refer to how long one should sleep. The quality of sleep is equally important however, if not more. Increase the quality of your sleep by following these protocols:
- Pitch black room
- No screens before bed (unless your using f.lux)
- Take honey (or other form of simple sugars, such as berries or fruit) and magnesium before bed. The carbohydrates will help your body replenish during the night and the magnesium will relax you.
- Consume protein before bed for muscle recovery
Aside from improving the quality of your time in bed, sleep 7-9 hours per night.
- Cold Exposure
Ice baths, cold showers and winter temperatures are great ways of exposing your body to cold. Why do so? When your body is in a very cold environment, it retracts blood to the vital organs to ensure survival. Then, when you go back to normal temperatures, fresh blood is pumped back to the muscles. This fresh blood boosts the recovery of your muscles.
A cold shower is my favorite way of getting regular cold exposure. I’ll take a cold shower directly after my training, which will get rid of the lactic acid build up as well as refreshing my blood that is in my muscles.