My body hurt. I was tired all of the time. I felt guilty over whether I had done “enough” that day.I was exhibiting classic signs of overtraining. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I have a story I want to share with you. But, before I do, I want to cover what overtraining is and how to identify it:
To put it simply, overtraining is when you don’t allow enough time for your body to recuperate in between training sessions. Have you ever spent an hour on the treadmill everyday? Went to 5 exercise classes in one day? I have done both of those things. That’s overtraining. But, overtraining does not just affect us physically. It has mental and emotional consequences, too.
So, how do you know if you’re overtraining? Here are some signs:
- Decreased interest in training/exercising
- Decreased strength and performance
- Elevated cortisol levels (extra fat storage)
- Frequent illness
- More prone to injury
- Chronic muscle soreness
- Depression and/or anxiety
Something that many of us fail to recognize is that there are two parts to the training equation: training involves work and rest. And unfortunately, many of us fail to take our recovery seriously. You don’t make gains simply by working out. The gains happen in between workouts during which the body recovers and rebuilds itself. The body undergoes stress every time you work out and the only way to overcome the stress that you’ve imposed on your body is to rest. If you don’t give your body this opportunity, it doesn’t happen. Makes sense, right? And for some reason we focus more on the work aspect and much less on the rest. (To learn more about the different stages of overtraining, click here.)
If you suspect that you’ve been overtraining, you’re not alone. Here’s my story of when I recognized I was overtraining and what I did about it:
I started making exercise a staple in my life about 5 years ago.I wasn’t sure where to start, so I bought a set of dumbbells and followed a series of exercise DVDs.The program I was following required me to workout 6 days a week for at least 1 ½ hours each day. And, I would be lying if I said that this program didn’t give me results. It did. In fact, it catapulted me into my current career. People would ask me what I did for exercise and I was happy to tell them. I enjoyed showing them what I knew. I just didn’t know enough yet.
You see, since working out 6 days a week for 90 minutes each day was all I knew, I thought that that was what I needed to do…..all of the time. In fact, I thought that I needed to do even a little more. Longer workouts meant more results, right? Wrong.
When I started working out in a gym instead of my home a typical workout for me was 90 minutes of weightlifting and 30 minutes of cardio. 2 hours of working out. Everyday. My brain and body were trying to tell me that this was too much, but I was under the old mentality of “no pain, no gain.” My knees and back hurt, I constantly felt fatigued, and I even though I had already put in 2 hours I was always checking myself while I walked out the door wondering if I should have done just 10 more minutes or one more set. Push, push, push.
This mentality bled into my eating. Losing weight is a simple enough equation….move more, eat less. And in my mind, eating less equated to hardly eating at all. 2 hours of working out a day and eating three “meals” a day that I cut in half oughtta do it. And just to give you a clearer picture, a “meal” to me at the time was half of a veggie burger, 5 french fries (yes, I counted them) and half a cup of soup. Oh, I was getting results alright. I was also spiraling into a sick, dangerous lifestyle.
One night I sat straight up in my bed. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t remember having had a bad dream. What was this? I got up and walked around trying to get my heartrate to slow down. I sat on my couch and practiced deep breathing. I tried to go back to sleep. Nothing was working. My heart pounded away. Should I go to the hospital? I wasn’t sure. This went on for nearly 2 hours. I eventually fell back asleep. A few hours later I was on my way to my job as an alcohol and drug counselor. I started crying in my car. I pulled into the company parking lot and couldn’t figure out why my car kept moving. It was because I hadn’t put it in park. I walked silently to my office, shut the door, looked at my schedule and started crying harder because I had one more thing on my calendar for that day that wasn’t there the day before. I could not work that day. I went to see my supervisor and he could see that I was visibly shaken. I told him about my heart palpitations the night before. He suggested that I go to urgent care and get checked out, just in case.
The on-call doctor said that it seemed that I had a panic attack. What? No way. Surely she was mistaken. I managed my stress with exercise and dieting. It had to be something else. What I realized later is that my exercise and dieting habits is what was making my brain and body stressed out! Overtraining and undereating was literally killing me.
With a little help from my family and friends, I took a few steps to get out of this destructive pattern:
1. I got help
I started working with a mental health counselor to treat my eating disorder. It took a long time for me to even come to terms with calling “not eating very much” an eating disorder. Once I acknowledged it for what it was, I was able to start changing it. I stopped cutting out food in order to punish my body and started eating real, wholesome food in order to fuel my body.
2. I got a trainer.
I wanted more guidance with my workouts so I called up my local gym and got hooked up with a trainer (spoiler alert: it was Cara). She had me perform a Functional Movement Screen and something came to light fairly quickly: while I was working out on a near daily basis, I was weak. I started working on my asymmetries and imbalances by performing corrective exercises, I increased my core strength, and I started getting stronger where it mattered by training movement patterns as opposed to muscle groups. I started changing the focus of my workouts, decreasing the frequency and duration of my weight lifting days, varying my physical activities on other days to include short conditioning workouts, walks, or hikes and taking rest days. Making these changes along with working on my nutritional habits helped me decrease my overall level of fatigue as well as make strength gains on a regular basis.
3. I got other support.
It took awhile for me to stop feeling guilty about not pushing my body to its limits every single workout. I overcame this by surrounding myself with like-minded people who knew what healthy nutrition and proper training were. We encourage each other to work hard where we should while reminding each other to listen to our bodies when it’s time to stop.
So, as you can see, overtraining can have some pretty detrimental effects on our system. I find it important to point out that while overtraining in general is not good for us, over-loading for a short period of time can help us get out of plateaus. This is called overreaching. However, overreaching can easily turn into overtraining, so plan carefully, or if you’re unsure how to do this, get with a trainer to help you make a plan. Once you start to experience the signs of overtraining, it’s time to back off. (For more on overtraining vs. overreaching, click here.)
Many people fall victim to over-exercising and undereating. While this may offer you some short-term gratification, I guarantee you that it is not sustainable and can lead to injury, plateaus and depression. Take care of yourselves. Remember, training is about work and rest. Now, go take a nap.