Most people don’t get nearly enough exercise. For them, more is better. But if you’re already training on a regular basis, “more is better” can actually get you into trouble. Overreaching and overtraining are very real dangers for people who make a serious commitment to exercise and training. You have to find the right dosage between too much exercise and none at all.
You could quantify overtraining using a battery of tests measuring anabolic and catabolic hormones, inflammatory markers, lactate build-up, cortisol, testosterone, and more, but that would be expensive, unwieldy, and completely impractical. You’d spend a ton of money on blood tests that aren’t especially targeted, and then you’d end up using subjective assessments, like the ones below, anyway.
What follows are 10 signs that indicate you may be overtraining. Most people who train consistently will experience these symptoms every now and again. When they are transient and isolated—meaning one of these pops up but quickly resolves on its own—that’s probably not a big deal. Occasionally overreaching, pushing beyond your comfort zone, is how you make performance breakthroughs. However, when you can tick two, three, four boxes, and they persist for days or weeks, that’s a problem.
If the symptoms below are uncomfortably familiar, don’t wait to act.Take steps now to avoid descending into full-blown “overtraining syndrome,” defined by having significant performance and health issues for at least two months. I’ve seen too many athletes run themselves into the ground and needing to take months off to recover their health. Believe me, it’s not worth it.
10 Signs of Overtraining
1. You repeatedly fail to complete your normal workout.
I’m not talking about normal failure. Some people train to failure as a rule, as in they can’t manage one more rep or 10 more seconds of whatever exercise they’re doing. That’s fine. I’m talking failure to lift the weights you usually lift, run the hill sprints you usually run, and complete the hike you normally complete. Regression.
If you’re actively getting weaker, slower, or your stamina is deteriorating despite regular exercise, you’re probably training too much. Note, though, that this isn’t the same as deloading. Pushing yourself with higher weights and failing at those is a normal part of progression, but if you’re unable to lift weights that you formerly handled with relative ease, you’re likely overtraining.
2. You’re not losing fat and maybe even gaining it despite increased exercise.
If losing fat was as easy as burning calories by increasing work output, overtraining would never result in fat gain—but that isn’t the case. Sometimes, working out too much can actually cause muscle wasting and fat deposition.
It’s about the hormones. You’re “burning calories,” probably more than ever before, but it’s predominantly glucose/glycogen and precious muscle tissue. Net effect: you’re getting less lean. The hormonal balance has been tipped; the all-important testosterone:cortisol ratio is lopsided. Generally speaking, a positive T:C ratio means more muscle and less fat, and vice versa. A negative ratio means you’re either training too much, sleeping too little, or some combination of the two. Either way, too much cortisol will increase insulin resistance and fat deposition, especially around the midsection.
Have you been working out like a madman only to see your definition decrease? You’re probably overtraining.
3. You’re lifting/sprinting/HIITing hard every single day.
The odd genetic freak could conceivably lift heavy, sprint fast, and engage in metabolic conditioning nearly every day of the week and adequately recover, without suffering ill effects. Chances are, however, you are not a genetic freak with Wolverine’s healing factor.
But Mark, what about professional athletes? Many professional athletes can practice for hours a day every day and see incredible results. But they also spend hours and hours every week resting, foam rolling, doing active recovery, getting daily massages. They recover as hard as they train. Do you? Probably not, especially if you have a family and/or a job that’s not “pro athlete.”
Most people who maintain a hectic and demanding physical schedule feel great in the short term thanks to all the cortisol coursing through their system, but ultimately, performance will suffer, health will deteriorate, and everything they’ve worked to achieve will be compromised. Don’t wait until you burn out to balance your workload.
4. You’re primarily an anaerobic/power/explosive/strength athlete, and you feel restless, excitable, and unable to sleep in your down time.
When a sprinter or a power athlete overtrains, the sympathetic nervous system dominates. Symptoms include hyperexcitability, restlessness, and an inability to focus (especially on athletic performance), even while at rest or on their off day. Sleep is generally disturbed in sympathetic-dominant overtrained athletes, recovery slows, and the resting heart rate remains elevated. Simply put, the body is reacting to a chronically stressful situation by heightening the sympathetic stress system’s activity levels. (If you track HRV, you’ll see low readings over time to match these subjective symptoms.)
5. You’re primarily an endurance athlete, and you feel overly fatigued, sluggish, and useless.
Too much resistance training can cause sympathetic overtraining; too much endurance work can cause parasympathetic overtraining, which is characterized by decreased testosterone levels, increased cortisol levels, debilitating fatigue (both mental and physical), and a failure to lose body fat.
I tend to advise against any appreciable amount of endurance training, anyway. Being fit enough to run ten miles doesn’t mean that you now have to do it every day.
6. Your joints, bones, or limbs hurt.
It’s totally normal for your muscles to be sore. That’s just DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. But if your joints, bones, or connective tissues are hurting, that’s more serious. Muscles recover much more quickly than tendons. That dull, deep-seated pain of a tendon tweak or strain is a strong indicator that you are not recovering from your workouts.
With regard to endurance training, if you creak, wince at every step, and dread staircases, it may be that you’ve run too far or too hard for too long. The danger here is that your daily endorphin high has overridden your natural pain receptors. You should probably listen to them more acutely. I tuned them out for longer than I should have, and it cost me my career as a marathoner.
7. You’re suddenly falling ill a lot more often.
Many things can compromise your immune system. Dietary changes (especially increased sugar intake), lack of vitamin D/sunlight, poor sleep habits, and mental stress are all usual suspects, but what if those are all locked in and stable? What if you’re eating right, getting plenty of sun, and enjoying a regular eight hours of solid sleep each night, but you find yourself getting sick over and over? Nothing too serious, mind you. A nagging cough here, a little sniffle or two there, some congestion and a headache, perhaps.
Your immune system may be suffering from the stress of overtraining. If you’ve recently increased your exercise output, keep track of those early morning sore throats and sneezes. Any increases may indicate a poor immune system brought on by overtraining.
8. You feel like crap the hours and days after a big workout.
Once you get into the swing of things, one of the great benefits of exercise is the post-workout feeling of wellness. You’ve got the big, immediate, heady rush of endorphins during and right after a session, followed by that luxurious, warm glow that infuses your mind and body for hours (and even days). It’s the best feeling, isn’t it? We all love it.
What if that glow never comes, though? What if instead of feeling energetic and enriched after a workout, you feel sketchy and uncomfortable? As I said before, post-workout DOMS is completely normal, but feeling like death (mentally and physically) is not. If exercise is having a negative effect on your mood, it’s probably too much.
9. Your grip is failing.
A common sign of overtraining (and poor recovery) is a weak grip. If you go to deadlift your normal warmup weight and your grip is already failing, you might be in an overtrained state. If you wake up in the morning and you can barely squeeze the toothpaste, you’re probably overtraining and need more recovery. A good way to check your own recovery level is giving your wrist a good squeeze or using a grip trainer that you can normally handle easily.
10. Your menstrual cycle becomes irregular.
This only applies to a subset of you, obviously, but the menstrual cycle is a good barometer for how well your body is handling the stress of training. Watch for irregular or skipped periods, but also other signs like increased carb cravings at certain times of your cycle. These can all indicate that you are pushing your body too hard and/or are not eating enough to fuel your active lifestyle.
How about you, readers? Do you have any tried-and-true indicators that your body has had more than it can handle?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.