With so much emphasis these days on the importance of exercise, overtraining often gets overlooked. But pushing yourself too hard or doing too much can be just as harmful as not doing enough.
Perhaps you’re training for a race or working out to get in shape for a wedding or high school reunion. Whatever your motivation, it’s important not to do too much, too soon.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” says Lori Incledon, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Tempe, Ariz., and author of Strength Training for Women.
When you over-train, you push yourself beyond your body's ability to recover, Incledon says. To improve in your sport, you may put in extra hours or miles to train. But you also need to include periods of rest and recovery. This balance between hard training and recovery is called conditioning. When that combination is out of balance, you may end up with injuries or other symptoms of overtraining.
Mechanical overtraining leads to an overuse injury. This type of overtraining can occur when you increase the intensity or length of your workout too quickly. To avoid this, follow the "10 percent rule": Don't boost your workout by more than 10 percent a week. If you have an overuse injury, ease up on your workouts until the injury has healed.
Metabolic overtraining occurs when you exercise so hard that you exhaust any stored glycogen (your body's fuel), and then don't allow yourself to recover. You can end up feeling fatigued before the end of a workout and disappointed in your performance.
Overtraining syndrome is a condition that develops over time. It is marked by fatigue, poor performance, frequent infections, and depression. It can develop if you train and compete hard without allowing yourself time to fully recover.
These are possible symptoms of overtraining:
A feeling of heaviness in your muscles
Poor competitive performance
Problems with sleep
Loss of sexual drive
Anxiety or irritability
Recurrent infections, particularly those of the respiratory tract
A treatment program for overtraining emphasizes rest over a six- to 12-week period, with activity gradually resumed, Incledon says. You shouldn't focus just on your sport, but cross-train with other activities, building up to an hour of exercise a day. Be careful not to return to your full workout too quickly. Even after you are back to your full workout, take at least one day of rest each week.
Here’s what Incledon recommends for an exercise routine that won’t cause injury or mental burnout: While you are training, record your heart rate at a specific exercise intensities and speeds. Also keep track of how you feel about each workout. These are warning signs that you may be developing overtraining syndrome: Your pace starts to slow down, your resting heart rate starts to increase and your enthusiasm begins to lag.
Establish reasonable exercise goals that will push you physically but also allow you to recover.
“Rest is just as important as your workout. If you don’t rest periodically, your muscles won’t have a chance to repair themselves, which is when more muscle tissue gets generated,” says Incledon.
You can’t always go by how you feel or use soreness as a guide for when to rest, though. If you’re particularly athletic, in fact, you may just ignore overtraining symptoms.
As a general rule, you should alternate intense exercise days with active rest days, in which you’re doing a different activity from your normal training. If you lift weights, for exercise, for example, on an active rest day, you might play tennis or swim.
Besides your workout plan, pay attention to your diet. To build muscle and have the energy you need to exercise, your diet should include adequate amounts of lean protein, such as skinless chicken breast or turkey; complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread; and good fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat.
Timing your meals also can help minimize signs of overtraining. You shouldn't, for example, go into your workout hungry.
“If you eat before working out, not only will you be less apt to be starving when it’s over, you’ll have greater stamina and endurance for the activity,” says Incledon.
She suggests eating a 300-calorie mini-meal—a banana with peanut butter, a bowl of cereal, or an energy bar—up to two hours before your workout. Ms. Incledon’s personal favorite mini-meal is a protein shake.
Finally, she says, “while you’re working out, be sure to drink water. You’ll lose water through perspiration, so drinking small amounts while you’re exercising can boost your performance.”