A regular exercise routine is a key component in a healthy lifestyle. Exercise itself has a lot of upsides, like decreasing fat, improving heart and lung health, boosting the immune system and perking up your mood. Therefore, if you want even better results in a shorter span of time, you just exercise a lot more frequently and intensely, right?
Well, not exactly. While we often hear about the benefits of exercise, it’s also important to look at all angles when it comes to finding a balance. It’s possible to actually overload your body’s capacity for exercise. And when that happens, you’re not doubling or tripling the benefits, you’re negating them.
Change occurs with exercise when you push your body beyond its current physical capacity in order to attain new results (decreasing fat, building muscle, increasing stamina, etc.). Huff and puff now to eventually huff and puff less as you grow stronger, right? This is commonly known as a training threshold principle. But there’s another type of threshold with exercise; when you push yourself to a level so far beyond your current capacity, you begin to actually reverse rather than enhance your gains. This is your threshold for overtraining.
Overtraining occurs when your body reaches the point where it exceeds its ability for exercise; pushing so long or hard that your body loses the ability to gain any benefit from the activity. It’s like trying to run a car on an overheated engine: It will keep going for a while but it’s going to cause damage and ultimately shut down on you.
For the average gym-goer who exercises moderately two or three days a week, overtraining is unlikely to be a big issue. But what about for the more dedicated fitness enthusiasts: bodybuilders, competitive athletes, endurance trainers and good old fashion gym-rats? If you’re regularly stacking hour upon protein-packing hour in heavy training or long cardio sessions throughout the week, you might want to keep an eye open for signals that your body is headed for a burnout.
1. Weight Gain
Chemically, our pituitary gland responds to exercise by producing cortisol (the “stress hormone”). In proper doses, cortisol released through exercise is beneficial. However, excessive cortisol can trigger catabolism, where your body begins breaking down muscular tissue rather than fat and your muscles actually start wasting away. This can slow the metabolism, increase insulin resistance, and over time lead to increased fat deposition. You may drop a few pounds with a decrease in muscle mass, but ultimately that’s because your body is less efficient at burning fat. And despite those pounds lost in muscle, your body fat percentage (and overall “squishiness” level) can rise.
2. Weakened Immune System
Stress hormones, particularly cortisol, also help to regulate your immune system. In the right doses, it’s quite helpful. Moderately intensive exercise can enhance innate immune cell functions by introducing lower, more controlled levels of cortisol secretion. However, extensively exhaustive, high-intensity exercise releases much higher levels of cortisol and actually depresses immune cell function (leaving your immune system weakened and more susceptible to illness).
3. Decline in performance
Struggling to meet past personal bests, or set any new ones? A decrease in athletic performance is often an early sign of overtraining. You may also find yourself sloshing through workouts fighting constant fatigue, mental fogginess or a significant disinterest in activities you once found motivational or enjoyable.
4. Appetite Funkiness
Both the American Council on Exercise and the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America list a decrease in appetite as a top warning signal of overtraining. This decrease is typically attributed to excessive secretions of epinephrine and norepinephrine (flight or flight hormones) following an intense workout. In spite of the nutritional boost your body may need to support rigorous levels of activity, you have no motivation to choke down another bite of food.
On the flip side, links have also been shown between the production of cortisol and ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”); they often increase simultaneously as cortisol levels climb. Studies have demonstrated correlations linking cortisol to directly influencing food consumption by influencing appetite, particularly for foods high in sugar and fat. In this case, despite pushing yourself harder and monitoring your diet, you can still experience a mad case of the munchies after your body is properly refueled.
Every person is unique, so abnormalities can differ based on the individual and type of activity they engage in (aerobic exercise decreases ghrelin in the body while resistance training does not). If you’re experiencing irregularities with your appetite from one extreme to the other, it may be time to monitor your calorie intake and talk to your doctor or nutritionist about if it fits your body type and activity level.
Emotional instability is a common side effect associated with overtraining. Your body releases the same hormones when you’re physically stressed as when you’re emotionally stressed; in small doses, it can be beneficial. In excess, those hormones can actually shift your emotional balance. Rather than exercise relieving frustrations, it can stem them. Anger, irritability, anxiety, apathy, loss of motivation and depression are common side effects associated with overtraining.
6. Susceptibility to Injury
One of the greatest hazards and warning signals of overtraining is the risk of acute and overuse injuries. Acute injuries are more often associated with a single traumatic event (bone breaks or fractures, sprains, joint dislocations, muscular tears or strain). Overuse injuries happen slowly through repetitive micro-trauma to the bones, tendons, and joints (including conditions like tennis elbow, runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis, ITBS, stress fractures and shin splints). Overuse injuries are more common than acute injuries, as they tend to occur subtly over time, making them more difficult to diagnose and treat. Many exercise enthusiasts push aside the idea of overuse injuries, believing it won’t happen to them or they have the right form to avoid it. But one way or another, those high-intensity workout sessions will take their toll on the body over time.
7. Trouble Sleeping
Sleep is one of your body’s most needed components in recovery. But if your body is in a constant state of overload, you might have trouble getting that rest. You may experience changes in sleep patterns with difficulty falling asleep, restlessness at night or even waking up after 8+ hours feeling tired because you were unable to achieve a sleep quality that let you recharge properly.
So how do you prevent overtraining, or treat it once it occurs? The solution is relatively simple: Rest and recovery.
Alternating workout intensity with hard, easy and moderate periods of training throughout the week (instead of repetitive hours at the same grueling pace) can help prevent overtraining. Rotating focusing on different muscle groups can also keep your routine fresh while allowing different areas of the body time to repair. And always be sure to leave adequate recovery time between heavy bouts of exercise. Allow yourself a day or two of rest following an especially intense workout to allow your body time to recuperate.
Overtraining can also be aggravated by dehydration, so make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day. And lastly, let your body get a good eight or so hours of sleep each night to repair those muscles as they grow. Our bodies are incredible vessels of perseverance; they fight hard to keep us going each and every day. Part of our responsibility in taking care of that body includes learning how to listen to and respect the signals it is sending us when we need to slow down and take a break.
All writing copyright © 2015 Rachel Elise Weems Woods
Images copyright © Pixbay and Unsplash
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