The Risks of Overtraining
“Less is more” has never been so true. Read what the pros have to say about staying healthy when you love to go hard.
The “no days off” memes started as an innocent way of motivating people to achieve their fitness goals. But the truth, personal trainers say, is that passing on rest days too frequently can lead to overtraining syndrome, a serious condition that involves reduced athletic performance, lifting plateaus, weakness, fatigue, disturbed sleep and even injury.
New Orleans-based certified personal trainer and health coach Amanda Capritto says that people often ignore signs of overtraining because of an increasingly hardcore fitness culture. “You might be feeling sore enough to call into work,” Capritto says. “But you’ll still lace up your kicks and hit the gym because that’s what the jacked dudes on Instagram do.” The way she sees it, pain and fatigue are often the last warning signs before burnout.
The good news is that overtraining syndrome isn’t a forgone conclusion—even when you like to go hard, and go often. You can prevent it with a few simple steps—but first you have to learn how to spot it. These are some of the most common red flags.
Easy workouts feel impossible. Last month you deadlifted 200 pounds for five reps. Today you can’t even pick up 200 pounds once. If you’re experiencing something like this, “your body is screaming at you to take a break,” says Capritto. “When easy loads begin to feel impossible, you’ve pushed your body past the point of productivity.” (This also applies to running and other forms of exercise.)
You can’t sleep. Insomnia has many causes, including psychological stress and artificial light. Overtraining is another culprit. “When you work out too intensely too often,” Capritto says, “your adrenal hormones spike when you’re supposed to be calming down, which can preclude high-quality sleep.”
You can’t eat. Loss of appetite is a sign that your body is overworked. “If you’re exercising daily yet can’t stomach the thought of eggs and toast, something’s off,” Capritto says. “Your hunger hormones aren’t being properly regulated because your body is putting too much energy into simply staying awake and active.”
You’re irritable. Snappy, knee-jerk reactions normally might cause you to slip on your joggers and head to the gym to get it out of your system, but it could also mean it’s time for a rest day. “Irritability and mood swings are signs of hormone imbalances,” Capritto says. “These can occur when you push your body to its limits day after day.”
Your workouts feel lackluster. Instead of being fun, exercise begins to feel like an obligation. Says Capritto, “Fatigue and soreness are unlikely to keep athletes from working out, but there’s definitely a problem when you start resenting your normal routines.”
You’re constantly sore. Muscle soreness is an inevitable part of fitness, and it doesn’t always indicate overtraining. But if you feel sore every day, or sore to the point of feeling weak, check in with yourself. You might benefit from a day or two away from the gym.
You keep getting sick. Decreased immunity occurs in the late stages of overtraining syndrome. At this point, the athlete will likely need to take several weeks away from intense exercise. “If you ignore the signs of overtraining to the point where your body is fighting to stay healthy, a single rest day won’t help,” Capritto says.
The Fallout from Overtraining
If you reach the point of overtraining, you’ll start to experience diminished returns for your workout efforts—meaning you’ll do the same workout as usual, but find your reps, load or speed slipping, says Capritto. At the same time, if you keep upping the intensity of your sessions without allowing your body time to recover, your injury risk skyrockets. Stress fractures, tendinitis and bursitis are all common injuries that occur due to overtraining.
With all these setbacks, it’s not surprising if your love for fitness starts to wane. “The effects of overtraining aren’t just physical,” Capritto points out. “Many people who experience overtraining describe a declining enthusiasm for their sport.”
Because the early signs of overtraining syndrome are so broad, it’s often tough to pinpoint the cause of your fatigue and crankiness. The key is to monitor symptoms and look for correlations, Capritto says. For example, if you’ve been feeling irritable and tired but you PR your deadlift two weeks in a row, your symptoms likely aren’t stemming from too much training. On the other hand, if you’re having trouble falling asleep and you dread going to the gym, it might be time for a rest day.
Staying on the Healthy Side
It’s a fine line between going hard and getting injured—especially with so many fitness enthusiasts on social media chronicling their every squat. “You’re just going to have to ignore the pervasive hustle culture you see on your Instagram feed,” Capritto says. “Yes, you should work out hard often, but you don’t have to work out hard every day.” Establishing a routine with high-intensity days, low-intensity days and full-out rest days is key to avoiding overtraining syndrome, she says.
Make sure to include stretching, foam rolling and low-intensity aerobic exercise like walking in your routine as well: These all help your muscles recover from an intense workout. Sleep is also essential. “Sleep is a highly restorative process,” Capritto says, and without enough of it, your body can’t flush out toxins and repair tissue as effectively as it needs to.
Your perfect rest schedule will be unique to your needs, but in general, one to two rest days per week is perfect for high performers. Taking a complete week off two to four times per year can help reset your body after an intense training cycle, too. Yes, it’s tough for hardcore exercisers to step away, but a few days of self-imposed rest beats a month-long layoff for an overtraining injury every time. With a little R&R in your pocket, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running again.