Overtraining is a real condition that many individuals face when frequently exercising with minimal rest periods. Oftentimes we push ourselves to the limit to get where we want to be, but there is a risk that we could be doing too much. If you are not aware of the symptoms, overtraining may reverse everything you have worked hard on.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining occurs with those who exercise at a high intensity excessively without allowing the body to get adequate rest. In addition, quick increases in intensity, duration, and amount of sessions can promote overtraining. This results in diminished performance, a plateau in weight loss or gains, and psychological stress. Overtraining affects multiple systems of the body including musculoskeletal, immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, nervous, and hormonal systems. It is essential to recognize the symptoms of overtraining early to prevent long term damage to the body.
The symptoms of overtraining have three stages:
- Functional: Here, you may see a minor plateau or decrease in performance. Aerobic performance may decrease while still being able to perform at high levels. In other words, you will feel short of breath more quickly, doing a familiar activity. Fatigue begins, and sleep becomes irregular. You may crave sweets, caffeine, and get sleepy after meals. In addition, you may find it challenging to get rid of that extra body fat. Other problems encountered in the first stage include Musculoskeletal injuries, cortisol elevation, sexual dysfunction, and stress. If these symptoms are not addressed, overtraining can progress to stage 2.
- Sympathetic: Along with the worsening of the symptoms above, the “fight or flight” part of the nervous system is increased. This means increased heart rate and hormone dysfunction. Specifically, cortisol is increased in the body, which can cause increased insulin levels. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and not able to fall back asleep, your cortisol levels are high. In addition, elevated cortisol levels decrease the ability for muscle recovery post-exercise. If this is not addressed, chronic overtraining can occur, leading to stage three.
- Parasympathetic: This happens when overtraining becomes chronic, leading to worsening bodily functions. One may feel no desire to train or compete in their regular activity. Serious injuries can occur due to diminished performance. The sympathetic nervous system becomes exhausted, plummeting hormone levels, and very low heart rates for recovery of exercise. This is a serious stage where recovery is necessary.
How to Get Back to Normal
If you think you are overtrained, it is easy to get back on track. First and foremost, rest! How long you rest will depend on how long you have been experiencing symptoms. If you think you are in the beginning stages, start off resting 3-4 days and as it progresses, 1-2 weeks may be needed. In addition, reducing the volume, intensity, and easing back into normal activity is recommended for recovery.
Watch your diet. Reduce refined carbohydrates since they increase cortisol levels, and increase healthy fats to control inflammation related to the stress from overtraining. Make sure you’re eating well-balanced meals to fuel yourself properly when training hard and make sure you get adequate sleep.
Listen to Your Body
Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint. Pay attention to your body, and don’t be afraid to sit down when your feeling tired. The term ‘no days off’ does not apply here; days off may be exactly what you need to get back on track. If the symptoms of overtraining do not end after resting, then talk to your doctor about the best option for you.