Overtraining and how to avoid it.

May 12, 2022

My first experience with overtraining happened in my late teens without knowing what it was. I started weightlifting at 16 and by 17 I was training for my first Bodybuilding show. By 19 I had competed in 3 bodybuilding competitions and stopped menstruating. The demands of training and dieting started to take a toll and lead to fatigue, lack of motivation, weight gain, and depression. I felt depleted and with no energy  I'd walk out in the middle of a training session feeling defeated and depressed. Something I loved became something that made me feel miserable. I knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was. I consulted with a Sports Nutritionist thinking I was lacking something in my diet, I blamed it on everything else until I finally came across some literature on overtraining and started identifying with the signs and symptoms. I was relieved to get to the bottom of it. It took a long time to come back from the dark place I was in as Bodybuilding became my identity. I learned over time to start listening to my body and started a new instinctive style of training where I had no fixed routine of exercises, order, reps or sets. I simply did what my body felt like and it worked. Eventually I developed a love for training again without the pressure or stress of being so regimented.

What is overtraining?

Overtraining the body without taking time to rest can impact athletes and exercisers both physically and mentally and lead to a condition known as overtraining syndrome. Excessive training may cause decreases in athletic performance that can be long-lasting, sometimes taking several weeks or months to improve.

Full recovery from overtraining is difficult and can require weeks or months of time off from working out — something that can be especially challenging for someone whose life revolves around their exercise regime.

Symptoms and warning signs of overtraining

It may be hard to know when you’re overtraining. “It’s natural and expected to feel fatigued after challenging training sessions, but feeling like you aren’t recovering between sessions or experiencing overall fatigue and difficulty pushing yourself during workouts can be indicators of overtraining.”

Training-related signs of overtraining

  • Unusual muscle soreness after a workout, which persists with continued training
  • Inability to train or compete at a previously manageable level
  • "Heavy" leg muscles, even at lower exercise intensities
  • Delays in recovery from training
  • Performance plateaus or declines
  • Thoughts of skipping or cutting short training sessions

Lifestyle-related signs of overtraining

  • Prolonged general fatigue
  • Increase in tension, depression, anger or confusion
  • Inability to relax
  • Poor-quality sleep
  • Lack of energy, decreased motivation, moodiness
  • Not feeling joy from things that were once enjoyable

Health-related signs of overtraining

  • Increased occurrences of illness
  • Increased blood pressure and at-rest heartrate
  • Irregular menstrual cycles; missing periods
  • Weight loss; appetite loss
  • Constipation; diarrhea

If any of these signs feel familiar, it may be time to make some changes. “It is best to identify these symptoms early on and adjust training to accommodate. If the symptoms become more severe and prolonged, the recovery takes much longer.”

Here are tips to help keep your routine safe and realistic.

Listen to your body. Work closely with your coach  and let them know how you’re feeling.

Visualize your workouts. “Using imagery and visualization can provide the rehearsal you want from training, without overloading your body and risking injury

Keep a training log. Record your feelings of well-being as well as how much you’re exercising. “As you increase your training load, noting how you feel each day in a training log can help you recognize the signs of overtraining so you can reduce that load and prevent overtraining,” Dr. Roche says.

Balance training with time for recovery. Adequate rest is not a sign of weakness. You need at least one complete day of rest every week.

If you’re training for a specific activity, alternate hard and easy days. Incorporate cross-training and other forms of active rest into your training. As you increase the amount and intensity of your training, work up gradually.

Acknowledge when you’re overdoing it — and talk to someone about it. If you find yourself becoming obsessed with training, exercising despite injury or pain, or feeling guilty if you go a day without vigorous exercise, talk with someone about your feelings. You want to have a healthy relationship with exercise.

Make sure you’re getting enough calories and nutrients. Your calorie intake should cover what your body needs for training and muscle repair. Work with a nutritionist to evaluate your food habits and make sure you’re getting enough of what you need.

Drink lots of water. Dehydration contributes to muscle fatigue. Ensure adequate fluids with the goal of having light-colored urine. Be cautious with fluids that add to dehydration such as caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.

Do what you can to reduce your stress. Everyone deals with stress differently. When your stress levels exceed your ability to cope, your body will begin to break down. Look for opportunities to rearrange your priorities to reduce the effects of your stressors.

Consider getting help from a mental health professional to work through issues related to your training, job, family, social life, body image, finances, travel, time or anything else that impacts your mental well-being.