Are you exercising too much?

Hitting the gym daily, but not seeing the results? You may be overtraining. Here’s how to tell if you need to slow your roll.

MEET REFILWE*. Refilwe started an intense training regime just over three years ago. ‘I started at a CrossFit gym because I wanted to get in shape and lead a healthier life,’ she says. She began slowly but steadily, going to the gym three times a week, maybe four if she was feeling strong, for an hour at a time.

‘When I started, I was so unfit, I could barely run 500 m,’ she says, ‘but my fitness picked up quickly. Within eight months, I had dropped about 7 kg and could do all these incredible things – like pull-ups, push-ups, heavy squats and deadlifts, and running became a pleasure – things that I never imagined possible before.’

The feeling of accomplishment that comes after a good, hard training session, coupled with seeing the physical results of your efforts, is what leads many people to believe that, when it comes to exercise, more is more – the more I train, the more weight I lose and the fitter I get, right? Not exactly…

Too much of a good thing

After about a year and a half, Refilwe’s training sessions went from four to six a week. Soon, she was training twice a day. ‘I would go to gym in the morning and head back again during my lunch break or after work. I would sometimes spend up to three hours in the gym a day. It became an addiction.’

At first, she saw incredible gains in strength and endurance, she’d dropped even more weight and her body became beautifully toned. The extra work she was putting in was definitely paying off. This went on for about six months, Refilwe says, before she realised that she wasn’t quite feeling herself any more.

She was:
Always sore and stiff
> Hanging on to little injuries and niggles
> Battling to sleep through the night even though she felt exhausted
> Feeling low and irritable
> Unable to get through workouts.

The symptoms she was experiencing are all common signs of overtraining. She’d crossed the very fine line between achieving maximum fitness and going overboard.

Overtraining Syndrome

There’s a big difference between the general tiredness you feel after a hard workout and how you feel if you’re working out too much for a prolonged period.

Overtraining happens when you push your body beyond its ability to recover, and is often seen in athletes who do not allow for adequate recovery between training days, and those who neglect to eat enough for the level of training they’re doing.

At first, overtraining syndrome can present itself as flu-like symptoms, such as feeling drained, unmotivated, unable to focus, sore and tired – which would require you take a few days or a week off training to rest. If the initial signs are overlooked or misdiagnosed (which they often are) and you continue to exercise at the same volume, more extreme symptoms such as depression, skipped periods, chronic sleeplessness and risk of serious injury can occur – from which you may take months to recover, and have to re-evaluate and overhaul your training regime.

Are you overtraining?

Some of the signs to be aware of are:

1 Elevated Resting Heart Rate

Your resting heart rate (RHR) is how many times your heart beats per minute when you’re at rest. Generally, a healthy RHR sits somewhere around 60–90 bpm (or lower for those who are super fit). Training places (good) stress on your circulatory system, forcing your heart to pump more blood to all your muscles. But if your heart rate stays elevated long after a workout, it’s a sign that your system is under too much stress.

Many of us can now easily track our heart rate through fitness trackers and smartwatches, but if you don’t have one, you can measure yours by counting how many times your heart beats in 15 seconds, and then multiplying that number by four. Do this in the morning before getting out of bed, and do so regularly so you can keep tabs on any changes.

2. Insomnia

It’s totally normal to feel wiped out after a workout, when all you want to do is fall into bed and sleep like the dead. People who are overtrained, however, find themselves staring at the ceiling all night even though they’re completely exhausted. This is an indication that your hormonal and nervous systems are out of whack, which will not only affect your sleep, but everything from your appetite and immune system to your menstruation cycle. Your body is begging for a good night’s sleep to help it recover! Take off as much time off from the gym as it takes for your body to reset itself.

3. Decreased performance

You feel slower, less powerful, breathless, your legs are heavy, you can’t throw around the weights you usually do. What’s going on? Yup, you’ve overdone it! A marked decrease in your ability to perform, or aches and pains that never seem to go away, are sure signs that your body is not recovering well. People often want to push through this phase, thinking they’re just having an off day, week, month… Stop! This is when serious injury happens.

Let’s talk about stiffness
Feeling stiff after a good workout is totally normal – but you should allow yourself time to recover. What causes stiffness? When someone starts a new exercise routine or programme, or has increased the intensity and duration of their routine, the muscles have to work harder, causing microscopic damage to the muscle fibres. This damage, commonly referred to as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), is the reason for stiffness. People often think that if they’re not properly sore after a training session, then it must have been a useless sesh. Not true! You don’t need to have muscle soreness to build muscle, and you definitely shouldn’t rely on it as an accurate indicator of the gains you’re achieving.

4. Mood swings

As if not sleeping, not performing well, and being constantly sore weren’t reasons enough for you to feel down, you’ll also find yourself experiencing a range of not-so-good emotions: Depression and sensitivity, even anger, as well as a loss of motivation, focus and determination. In short, your mind is as fatigued as your body.

5. Illness

One of the most common signs, and the earliest, is getting sick more frequently than normal. This can be difficult to spot as a symptom of overtraining, because we all catch the common cold at some point – but if you find yourself getting a runny nose, a scratchy throat and a cough more often than usual, or you take ages to get better, you need to take a pause for the cause.

Prevention is better than cure

Refilwe cut back on time in the gym every week by nearly half: ‘I found that I didn’t need to be working so hard in order to see results. I’m still able to perform like I used to, but I’m happier and more balanced.’
Here’s how you can avoid overtraining:
> Have at least one scheduled day of rest a week, two if you can – otherwise, have a lower intensity or active-recovery day, where you walk, jog, swim or cycle at an easy to moderate pace.
> Reduce the volume and/or intensity of your training per day. Don’t work longer. Work smarter.
> Switch up your routine to give your body a boost of energy: If you’re a cardio machine, do a weights session once in a while, and vice versa for the iron pumpers.
> Keep your body properly fuelled by eating as many whole foods as possible, with lean proteins, good fats, and lots of veg.
> Importantly, make sure you’re eating enough food to help you get through your workouts. Working out intensely and eating like a rabbit will not make you lose weight faster.

Your body needs to rest in order for your workouts to be effective. High-intensity workouts cause micro tears in your muscles, which are repaired when you rest or sleep, helping them to grow and become stronger. Give them the time to do this.

*Name changed. Originally published in FitLife February 2019 issue.

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