Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
23 Feb

8 Signs You Are Overtraining

Exercise FatigueWhen you spend some time among the ever-growing circle of evolutionary-based health writers, thinkers, bloggers, and doctors, you notice a curious thing happening. Conventional Wisdom is becoming turned on its head. Saturated fat is generally healthy and excessive endurance training is generally unhealthy become the presiding narratives. Grains are either unnecessary or have the tendency to attack the gut lining, even guts with “clinically undetectable levels of sensitivity.” You don’t need six square meals a day to keep your metabolism up and running, after all; one or two a day will do just fine.

Less is more – as far as exercise goes – is becoming another accepted truth, especially when you understand that 80% of your body composition is determined by how you eat.

If you dial the diet in (Primal Blueprint, of course), you just don’t need to “burn off” tons of excess calories with a lot of hard work. Yet many people are still tied to that assumption and ride that fine line between training enough to maximize strength and unnecessarily reaching too far. Overtraining is a very real danger for those engaged in physical culture. In fact, while the majority of this country (and of many others) suffers from a massive physical activity deficit, a sizeable portion of my readers faces the opposite danger. Understanding exactly how much to exercise can be tricky. No activity is worse than some, while too much may be worse than none at all. The ideal lies somewhere in between – though not necessarily in the middle, but rather smack dab in the “just enough” section. Can “just enough” be quantified? Perhaps it could be quantified using a battery of round-the-clock tests and measurements of anabolic and catabolic hormones, various serum concentrations, lactate build-up, cortisol:testosterone ratios, etc, but that would be expensive, unwieldy, and completely individualized. These types of objective measurements, ironically, would be more subjective than anything else; you couldn’t accurately extrapolate an overtraining threshold for the entire population from a single trainee’s results.

People are unique. Sure, nutritional requirements for human physiology adhere to a set of overarching principles, yet a single, universally specific macronutrient profile cannot be nailed down for all humans. In the end, each of us must craft his or her own identity, plan, regimen, and discover his or her own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and sensitivities. In short, we must each become our own test subject (as well as astute observer) if we wish to optimize our health and our fitness. The concept of overtraining is similar. There’s a clinical definition – a state of chronic fatigue, depression, and underperformance that persists despite rest – and there’s a more general, working definition – a basic imbalance between work and recovery. Overtraining can also be highly personal and goal-dependent. Overtraining might describe anytime your training is working against you, and where adding more of it makes the problem worse. If you want to avoid overtraining, there are some grand, overarching principles to follow, but you’ll also want to pay attention to certain personal, entirely subjective cues.

What follows is my basic list of signs that indicate you may be overtraining. Some are objective measures, while others derive from my own personal experiences with overtraining. There are overlaps, and I’ve probably missed more than a few, but I’m confident what’s listed will be invaluable to anyone who trains, and trains hard.

1. You repeatedly fail to complete your normal workout.

I’m not talking about normal failure. Some people train to failure as a rule, and 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, and 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 to 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 may be overtrained.

2. You’re losing leanness 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. It’s about the hormones. Sometimes, working out too much can actually cause muscle wasting and fat deposition. 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. You’ve been overtraining, and the all-important testosterone:cortisol ratio is lopsided. Generally speaking, a positive T:C ratio means more muscle and less fat, while 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. Most people who maintain such a hectic physical schedule will not recover (especially if they have a family and/or a job). Performance will suffer, health will deteriorate, and everything they’ve worked to achieve will be compromised. Many professional athletes can practice for hours a day every day and see incredible results (especially if they are using performance enhancing substances), but you’re not a professional, are you?

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 your 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. Most PBers who overtrain will see their sympathetic nervous system afflicted, simply because they lean toward the high-intensity, power, strength side.

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. While I tend to advise against any appreciable amount of endurance training, chronic fatigue remains an issue worthy of repeating. 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.

I’m unaware of any clinical tests that can identify overuse injuries specifically caused by overtraining, but don’t you think that pain in your knee might be an indication that you should reassess how you exercise that knee? In the lifts, limb pain can either be DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) or it can indicate poor technique or improper form; DOMS is a natural response that should go away in a day or two, while poor form is more serious and can be linked to overuse or overtraining. With regard to endurance training, if you creak, you wince at every step, and you 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 over-ridden 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 (so I got that going for me, which is nice).

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, 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? Nothing too serious, mind you. A nagging cough here, a little sniffle or two there, some congestion and a headache, perhaps. These were fairly normal before you went Primal, but they’ve returned. Your immune system may be suffering from the added stress of your overtraining. It’s an easy trap to fall into, simply because it’s often the natural progression for many accomplished athletes or trainees looking to increase their work or improve their performance: work harder, work longer. 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. Exercise generally elevates mood; if it’s having a negative effect on your mood, it’s probably too much.

How about you, readers? Do you have any tried-and-true indicators that your body has had more than it can handle? Let me know, and check back next week for information on how to avoid, mitigate, and respond to overtraining.

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. You must definitely listen to your body. Craving extra sleep, not able to complete a workout, dreading training, and I really like to workout, are signs of over training. Take off enough time until your mind and body get the “gotta train itch”.

    Mike wrote on June 21st, 2010
  2. I can remain in a constant state of soreness for many days, sometimes as much as a week or two. Also associated are cramping of the lower limbs, feet, calfs, quads.

    I drink lots of water, and make it a point in consume large amounts of antioxidant rich foods. But still.

    I’m currently trying to step up my protein intake via muscle milk shakes. Approx. 6 servings or 160g on top of my normal lean meat consumption.

    C. Rauth wrote on July 2nd, 2010
  3. 49 yr.old male – Have been training intensely since 14-15 yrs old. I generally perform heavy weight workouts(squats, power cleans, bench press),weighted pull-ups and dips, plyometrics, jogging, biking,and both uphill runs using a weight vest and standard 100 yrd sprints. I try to incorporate all of these within a 2 week training period. I generally work out every week, and take only a day or two off per week.
    Based on my current condition of being highly iritable, depressed, stomach problems, headaches and feeling like crap almost constantly – I know this is severe overtraining. No more great feelings after workouts, no more skin splitting pumps. You got in right on all counts, more people need to be aware of this condition. Unless someone is using performance enhancers, you cannot continue to gain and grow at this age, Just need to accept it and maintian a good balance between health and fitness.

    Great article

    Phil wrote on February 17th, 2011
  4. 47 yo male here. Have been pushing myself with heavy weights and extreme cardio 3 times/week for the last two years. I eat healthy and get good sleep. However, I’ve had the symptoms of OT the past year, which steadily got worse as time went on. The heavy workouts, coupled with some emotional issues (family death and such), plus some intense projects at home finally took it’s tool. I was getting muscle tense and nervousness a day or two after workouts and my digestive system went to pits (bloating, loose stools, some nausea). i thought it was anxiety, but that just didn’t fit the picture. Staying off the workouts for a few days made everything go away except the digestive problems. I hear that takes much longer to fix.

    greg wrote on February 27th, 2011
  5. I have been doing CF for 3 years. It is easy to overtrain because it is such a fun activity. After reading primal blueprint I backed off on my training and have been trying to manage stress better. Low and behold; after 4 days of fishing (still eating paleo of course exept for the beer and some Jack)I thought for sure I would gain pounds. Actually lost 1 pound. Great info. Thanks

    Bryce wrote on April 6th, 2011
  6. Such a good article. I find myself reading this a few times a year..:)

    Barbara wrote on April 14th, 2011
  7. I have been limping through all of my workouts lately and it feels to my very similar to how I feel when I am anemic. I know I am not anemic now though. The main thing is the dramatic increase in running mileage for the past 3 months. I thought I could become some super “ultra” trail runner only to find that looking back, the majority of my workouts I was “over reaching” to get in the designated mileage. I am now paying the price. It takes all the energy I can muster to don my run shoes and head out the door. I know I need to stop and relax. Old habits are hard to break though. Ironically, when I had far less time I was kinda a CF junkie. And you know, back then, with so much less overall weekly training, I was absolutely ripped. Now, I am prob a pound or two more but still pretty leaned out. I think my body responds to shorter training sessions vs. these super long runs. I guess I am just not made for that kind of pummeling. But it has been nice to hit some awesome trails and get OUT of the gym. CF is great- but being outside is so much overall better for mental sanity (hence the ultra trail running focus). I guess its all just about balance- we all are made different and respond different and we need to make adjustments for our own individual responses to all external stimuli.

    Kelly wrote on May 20th, 2011
  8. the funny thing is that my prs in the mile are 4:50 2mile:10:51 and the 800:2:12 and the 3 mile:17:36 i feel like im overtrained my legs have been tightening up and my leaness is going away and after what i usually run im sooo tired and i dont feel like i run enough! soo after a season is over i suggest that everyone should be taking long period breaks like 2 weeks with no running and after the break start easily and gradually get back up to where you were.

    Billy wrote on May 23rd, 2011
  9. ^
    ps. Im only a sophomore in highschool

    Billy wrote on May 23rd, 2011
  10. Hey greg i think after 6 months of serious strength training and stuff like that maybe you should take some time off like i do maybe for 2 weeks since weights are bad for the joints

    Billy wrote on May 23rd, 2011
  11. Hi Mark. I’m a 50 year old male. I have been working on my total gym for several months and also begin working out every day on the ABS program which has you lift weights. Your Over Training article caught my attention because I recently developed shoulder R and L pain, and numbness in both hands especially my fingers. I was wondering if over training has caused my symptoms?

    Guy wrote on June 19th, 2011
  12. Hi Mark. I’m a 50 year old male. I have been working on my total gym for several months and also begin working out every day on the ABS program which has you lift weights. Your Over Training article caught my attention because I recently developed shoulder R and L pain, and numbness in both hands especially my fingers. I was wondering if over training has caused my symptoms? I would greatly appreciate any suggestions and recommendations.

    Guy wrote on June 19th, 2011
  13. Luckily I try not to do more than 3-4 times a week specially because I’m starting off and CrossFit is pretty kick ass but I really like this post. I am actually trying to work out at least half of the time while I’m on vacation and I know that time is of great value. If I feel rushed I usually don’t do it. But I think that one indication to me is limping, unfortunately I know I have a lot of issues with my lower extremities and limping means I need to focus on a stretch rather than a workout.

    Mariajose wrote on June 24th, 2011
  14. I’m just in one of these periods, just two days ago I tested myself against the chrono with my bike. 18 km in 29 minutes sharp with a great average speed around 37km/h I was feeling very good.

    Here comes the second day feeling like an old truck, I will rest for a couple days more and hope to be back on track soon. The “I’m useless” feeling could not be more spot on.

    Aaron N Lozano wrote on June 28th, 2011
  15. i train heavy everyday with both heavy cardio and weight training and I only feel poorly when I do not eat enough. If you are trying lose a noticeable portion of your gut after each workout of course you are not going to feel good if you are running on that much of a caloric deficit. I have not had a single day off in several months…I do not work the same muscles each day however but I do cardio each day…You condition yourself to be able to handle whatever workouts you do consistently. Cortisol levels do not get high in conditioned athletes as they do with novice trainers. My point is just that its all too easy to say that you are working too hard and you deserve extra off time when chances are you are not working hard enough and you are just making excuses. You can push yourself as hard as you think that you can…what about mind over matter or has everyone succumbed to being weak and are just grabbing at any excuses they can to do less and feel good about it.

    josh wrote on July 19th, 2011
    • haha!!!! that’s so true man.

      Gizzy wrote on October 10th, 2011
  16. As a stubborn hardcore trainer I have recentely paid a price for my ignorant train till ya drop attitude. After not training for a couple of months I thought I would get back into the gym and pick up where I left off, meaning 7 day training 1-2hrs per day each body part twice per week and from eating whatever I liked to a full protein diet. My immune system was obviously affected as I developed shingles(dormant chicken pox) brought on by high stress levels and low immunity. Lesson lear’nt!!

    Dale wrote on August 17th, 2011
  17. I know for a fact that I been being over trained for the past months..I play highschool football and I know my knowledge about working out and recovery, and what my coach is doing is horribly wrong.. he’s got us lifting running and hitting everyday mon-fri. the only rest days I have are the weekends. and on those days I feel horrible. before I started football I had much more cuts and muscle, looking at me now, football decreased my performance. I’m just happy there’s only two weeks left of it. I love the sport, but I just wish we had a smarter coach :/

    Gizzy wrote on October 10th, 2011

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