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Signs of Overtraining & What to do About It

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

My dietitian is not a "normal" dietitian. She doesn't tell me what to eat, and we've never created a meal plan. She teaches intuitive eating, which is essentially eating like a child: listening to your body's hunger cues and giving your body the nourishment it needs, sans judgement. One of the things we've been focusing on lately is how to eat for ultra marathons. It is a complex thing to battle residual disordered eating habits while simultaneously competing in ultra endurance sports, which by nature, require a high degree of nourishment. Nutrition is only one thing we talk about though. Lately, I've been feeling highly fatigued and she has kindly suggested, more than once, that I take a break. Give my body some rest. After training hard for about a year with little to no break, I finally hit a point of undeniable fatigue. Instead of saying, "I told you so," my dietitian simply outlined some steps to help me feel better. I'm going to break down the who/what/why/where/when of over-training so (hopefully) you avoid it.

How to Tell if You're Over-Trained

1. High resting heart rate

This is the easiest way to tell if you're over trained. Take your heart rate every morning and notice if it rises or falls. An increased restring heart rate is the result of an increased metabolic rate to meet the demand of training. To get the most accurate day-to-day measure, take your resting heart rate before you get out of bed. If you notice it starts creeping higher than normal, take a few rest days to nip over training in the bud.

2. Extended muscle soreness

It’s normal to have sore muscles for a day or two after a workout. But, if you’re still sore past the 72-hour mark, be sure to schedule a break and rest. Extended soreness is a sign that your muscles aren't recovering. If you continue to train you'll essentially tear down your muscle fibers and your performance will suffer.

3. Insomnia

Mike Duffy, a personal trainer and holistic nutrition consultant, says that insomnia during intense training is a sign of nervous system and/or hormonal system overload. People who over train often have spiked levels of cortisol, which can keep you awake even when you feel exhausted. Duffy stresses getting to bed by 10 p.m., because the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. window is when the bulk of physical restoration occurs.

4. Increased injury

This seems like an obvious sign, but if you're noticing nagging pains that won't go away, you should probably take a step back. Sometimes, it's difficult for athletes to rest, and many have an inclination to push through little injuries. To prevent over training injuries, build rest into your normal training routine, cross train, and incorporate low-intensity active recovery days (such as swimming, yoga, or hiking).

5. Decreased motivation

It’s not unusual to occasionally want to skip a workout. But, if you're usually pretty motivated and suddenly feel no inclination to run or work out, you're probably over exerting yourself. Instead of pushing through this feeling, take a full week off or greatly reduce your training volume, rest, eat well, and ramp up your training when you feel ready again.

6. Reduced sex drive and/or general irritability

It seems pretty logical that you’d be less interested in sex when you’re exhausted, and research has shown that increased training intensity and duration can have a negative affect on libido – for men and women. Some of this may be due to hormonal changes, including an increase in cortisol. Cortisol can also make you more irritable, so if you notice yourself snapping at you partner or loved ones, you might benefit from some rest.

7. High perceived exertion

Not only will your power outputs be lower, but you’ll also feel like it’s more difficult than normal to produce those diminished results. This can be a sign of acute fatigue that’s perfectly normal during a training program. You’ll often see it the day after a particularly hard workout, or at the end of training blocks. If you go back to feeling normal within a day or two, your probably not over trained. However, if the fatigue lasts longer, it's a cause for concern.

What To Do if You Are Over-trained

If you're exhibiting the aforementioned symptoms, the following steps can help you get back on track quicker.

  1. Rest and Recover: Take a hard step back. I reached the point of not even wanting to run because I was just that tired. (Don't be like me, rest before you get to that point). Halt hard physical efforts and only engage in very low effort activity, like walking or yoga.

  2. Hydrate and Eat Well: Drink plenty of water, along with some electrolytes (I like Nuun and Skratch Labs). Focus on eating whole foods, cut out processed garbage, and think about nixing alcohol for awhile. I committed to abstaining from alcohol for at least a month, and less than a week in, I already feel better.

  3. Begin Cross Training: This can help you if you're overworking certain muscles or suffering from mental fatigue. Keep the cross-training at a low-to-moderate intensity level. I started practicing yoga and *finally* set aside time to swim.

  4. Supplement: I'm not a doctor or dietitian, but I was advised to take an adrenal support supplement like this one as well as Glucosamine and Colostrum, which help with muscle generation and can boost the immune system. I was told to take these for 4-8 weeks, but consult a healthcare provider you trust before starting any supplement regimen.

How to Prevent Over Training

The most important way to prevent over training is to listen to your body. Develop and follow a training plan that incorporates periodization (blocks of both high and low-intensity training). Incorporate recovery into your training routine by practicing yoga or foam rolling. Taper up training volume appropriately; a good rule of thumb is to increase training load by no more than 10 percent per week. And finally, sleep well, eat healthfully, hydrate adequately, and try to remove unnecessary stressors from your life.

P.S. Check out The Physical Therapy Adviser for all things athletic recovery. He has millions of articles, videos, and resources that will be helpful. Read Geoff Roe's personal account of over training here, or read some varied theories about over training here.


Sarah Rose

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