Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Talk to any dedicated fitness person and you will find that exercise is a safe haven for them. Exercise provides relief from stress, builds confidence in the self, creates new relationships, creates new mobility, and staves off against diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Exercise is truly a magic drug when it comes to longevity throughout the life course. Exercise that includes weight lifting, HIIT, steady state cardio are the common categories for different types of exercise.
However there can be a negative impact to the body if exercise is taken to the extreme and rest is not prioritized.
If you are finding yourself slowing progress, gaining weight, and/or just feeling like crap...you might be overtraining.
In today’s post I will give you 10 different ways to know if you are overtraining and what you can do about it to make all the hard work benefit you rather than hurt you.
The thrill of the workout
As a fitness professional I’m always happy to hear when people start their journey in a regimented schedule of exercise. I know that the benefits of exercise can make you feel younger, look younger, and overall provide a positive mindset moving forward.
Working out just feels good. There is something unique about pushing your body to do a heavier weight in an exercise. Exploring new strengths and accomplishing goals that you didn’t once think you can get.
Many of my clients have been overjoyed after they hit a new number on their bench press, beat their 1000m Row time, or just successfully train 3 times each week. I can get behind this - it’s exciting to make progress and to see the changes in the gym!
Once that exercise bug hits - we become dedicated and committed to making changes, working hard and pushing our limits. You all probably either know someone who is always talking about exercise, or you are that person yourself! Exercise can certainly be addicting - feeling the high that is followed by an intense workout is a sweet natural drug that almost nothing else can compare to.
The muscle burn in the legs, the feeling of soreness while you walk up and down the steps...the strength that you feel when going through your everyday life are motivating factors to continue your exercise routine for the long term.
This is the thrill of the workout - it’s in our genes to want to move the body effectively and efficiently. It’s part of who we are as a species and it’s how our ancestors had to survive day in and day out. There was no amazon fresh to deliver your food - you had to go out there and use your hands and feet to feed yourself.
While on one end this is all very good stuff. Like stated above exercise provides numerous benefits to the longevity of your physical and mental health - it might be one the most important things to do as we age into our later years of life.
However when does exercise become too much on the body? When does your desire to change and feel good actually derail you and leave you injured, unmotivated, tired and dreading your workouts?
Many people who are in regimented routines find it hard to take an objective look at what they are doing and be able to see that they are in fact overtraining.
Why might you ignore the clear signs of overtraining?
More exercise = more results….right?
Many avid gym goers believe that the more exercise they can do each week - the faster their results will come. It makes sense to believe this looking from the outside in. We get visions of this through the media - we see the ripped up woman or man on the cover of a magazine and they talk about how many times they exercise each week.
Some of them might talk about how they exercise 1 or even 2 times a day for 6-7 days a week. They are dedicated and give us the impression that in order to get to look like that person - we need to do the same exact thing.
We might also hear from other friends who are in better shape than us - they talk about how they do all of these different activities each week which starts to create this image of what is necessary to get to look like them.
We might also have a specific health reason to exercise. Maybe the doctor told you that you really need to lose weight to avoid becoming pre-diabetic. A fire is lit underneath you and you begin working out 5 times a week at the gym and doing short runs 2 times a week. You are motivated to change for the betterment of your health!
I think there’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy that takes place here - “the more I workout, the better person I will be”. Therefore to make sure you are a good person you decide that working out 6 times a week is the goal. If you don’t do this - you aren’t a good person and you can’t call yourself a fit person.
Finally you might be seeing great results in your body and feel like you are doing the right thing. Progress and results can cloud us to the reality of the situation. Yes you dropped 10 lbs the past 2 months but now you can no longer sleep, feel agitated all the time and have lost your appetite. You might see this as necessary in order to get the body that you want! This cannot be further from the truth.
Let’s go over 10 ways to know if you are overtraining - it’s okay to have 1 or 2 of these but if you find that you can relate to many of these - I’ll give tips to what you can do to help!
10 signs that you are overtraining
1. Not eating enough - When attempting to make a body change it’s often a 2 part project. You increase your exercise while decreasing the amount of calories you eat. On one end this will definitely lead you to lose weight - but at what cost? When you exercise too often, too intense your body is constantly drawing energy from your stored reserves. This SHOULD cause you to want to eat MORE not less food. Exercise is fueled by what we eat. If you find that you are eating less with more exercise - you might be doing more harm than good since your body will get into a less than ideal rhythm of using energy effectively.
2. Soreness, strain, and pain - This one is more obvious and in your face. If you find that you have ailments regularly and aren’t recovering, you might be exercising too much. Yes it’s normal to feel soreness after a workout but soreness isn’t the driving force to change. Soreness is basically an indicator for you to know that you’ve used those muscles quite a bit and they need healing and recovery. Any kind of strain or pain while doing an exercise is a red flag. The whole belief that so many people have “no pain no gain” is a horrible motivating factor, don’t workout in pain!
3. Overuse Injuries - This one also might be obvious but it’s more specific to one style of exercise. For example if you constantly are running and develop knee pain - you are not resting enough! This can also be found in weightlifters who often do a particular exercise (ie. Bench Press) and have a problem with their shoulder each and every day. The remedy for overuse is to do the opposite, don’t use it!
4. Fatigue - If you are finding yourself getting really tired during or right after a workout, you might be in this state of fatigue. Fatigue is normal and natural and gives us a warning sign that our bodies are running low on energy. This can be because of your pre-workout and post-workout nutrition (be sure to check out our blog post on “What to eat before a workout”). When you start to notice that the same kind of exercise is getting you even more tired than it used to - this is your sign!
5. Irritability and agitation - Are you feeling more on edge lately? Have you added in that 6th day of exercise and just feel annoyed with everything during your everyday life? Overtraining can lead to stress hormone imbalances which in turn impact your mood. If you are feeling low on energy and don’t feel rested enough you will certainly be quick to crack. Remind yourself - exercise is supposed to make you feel good, not the opposite!
6. Disturbed sleep - When your stress hormones are out of whack you’ll find it’s much harder to settle down and relax right before bed. If you are finding that sleep is broken up and that you can’t release this overarching tension - overtraining might be the culprit. Disturbed sleep is a vicious cycle because sleep is the very thing that most people need more of to counteract this heavy training regiment. If you don’t get good sleep your body will wake up not fully recovered which can have impacts on your performance but also your mood.
7. Decreased immunity to illness - Exercise is meant to be an aide to your health, not a hindrance. If you find that you are getting sick more often, and taking longer to feel better you might be overtraining. Getting the cold when you haven’t normally got it can be your red flag on overtraining.
8. Weight gain - Isn’t weight gain the thing you are trying to avoid, and reverse with exercise? If you find that you are gaining weight this might be due to the higher cortisol levels in your body from increased physical activity. When you workout, cortisol is released into the body to help with the stress on the muscles and joints. When there is more cortisol in the body, the amount of testosterone will decrease. This leads to the body not effectively using its energy to burn fat but rather hold onto excess calories because your body is being put through the ringer. The body’s job is to protect itself - sometimes that means protecting itself from your own decisions.
9. Decline in performance - Are you hitting a plateau or even decreasing the weight you can lift, the speed you can row or run? Training too often will have you entering each workout with less energy because your body has not yet healed completely from the day prior. When done correctly and consistently, your body should adapt to the changes in weight and speed by growing muscle rather than losing strength, losing mobility, and losing endurance.
10. Loss of motivation - “I’m exercising 6 days a week and STILL can’t lose the weight I want!” If you’ve ever thought or muttered these words - the motivation train is going to leave your station. Positive changes fuel us and show us that we are doing the right thing. When we are met with roadblocks and find our progress stalling it’s easy to lose the motivation to do anything. Sometimes it’s simply because the body is overtraining and under recovered. If you don’t want to get out of bed and exercise - you’ll fall into the hole of self-sabotage.
Under-recovery is really the problem
If you can relate to some of those above warning signs of overtraining - this will be super important for you to start implementing.
To take it back to the start of this post - let’s talk about that fitness model or professional athlete who is ripped up and talks about how they workout twice a day for 6 days a week.
How can they accomplish the changes that you see?
Well - it isn’t solely from the amount of exercise they are doing - their rest and recovery can be pointed to for this positive change.
Think about a professional athlete...they have the time to sleep more fully, form their day around their workouts and have professional help with their meal prep, massages, icing, and sports therapies.
Therefore we can take from this that it’s not really the 6 days a week that is making the changes and helping them maintain that - it’s the recovery that sets the foundation to their progress.
Let’s talk about you now….you have a busy professional life in which you work 8 hours (at a minimum for most people these days), you are taking care of teenage kids during the time around the work hours. You are making time for family and friends on a weekly basis and need to work on your relationship with your significant other.
There is simply not enough time in the day to fit everything in and still get a good night's sleep, be able to ice body parts that are in pain, or schedule a massage to work on muscle tissue.
So what can you do to balance this?
My recommendation for those who feel they fall into this over trained, under recovered group is to begin to realize the importance of rest and recovery.
The science is there to back this up - you need to start prioritizing your recovery. What might this look like?
Sleep is the most underrated and most important aspect to a healthy body and mind. I know...there’s never enough time in the day to get a good night’s rest. However if you want to make the most progress you NEED to make this a priority of yours.
Here’s something you can try...make small little steps to increasing the amount of sleep you get. For example if you normally go to sleep at 11PM and wake up at 5AM everyday, you are routinely getting 6 hours of sleep. 6 hours of sleep is really at the low end of what is recommended for sleep.
Start by attempting to get to sleep at 1050PM, increasing your overall sleep by 10 minutes. Try to increase this by 10 minutes every week. Within 6 weeks of time you’ll take the 6 hours of sleep to 7 hours. This shouldn’t feel too difficult and your body will start to adjust to this new time for sleep.
As far as exercise goes - monitor how your body feels. I recommend that everyone gets about 3-4 days a week of intense exercise. This should include 2-3 days of weightlifting with a progressive overload (increasing weight or reps each week) as well as 1-2 days of more cardio intensive, HIIT training workouts.
You can then add in lower intense activities such as walking, yoga, laundry, yard work (yes the body is still moving for these things!) for 1-2 days a week. This will keep the joints and body moving without needing a ton of rest to recover from these lower-intensity days of workouts.
Overall if you are hitting the gym hard 3-4 days a week, taking 1-2 days of low intensity work and at least 1 day a week to do completely no exercise...you should be able to regain the strength and rest that your body is craving.
Exercise is a seriously great habit that can have profound positive effects. From boosting metabolism, to gaining lean muscle, to gaining confidence, and staying mobile... exercise is definitely the magic pill for people of all ages.
As with everything in life, moderation and balance is necessary for true, ultimate success. Remember that rest is just as important as the exercise. You know you care about how your body looks and feels - treat it that way with good rest and you’ll start to break through any plateau’s you might be facing!