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:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Wow, this is me this past summer and fall (BP – Before Primal). I was eating rice and beans for lunch every day, pushing grains; running a fast 5.5 miles while my little girl rode along on her bike, even though my left hip muscles were hurting;sleeping 6 hours a night… I came down with a monstrous respiratory infection that required 18 days of antibiotics, ending with Cipro. Right at that time, I’d started learning about the Carb-Craze lie I’d bought fully into via Wheat Belly, and then a link to your site about “Chronic Cardio”. I’m on lesson 6… and after 32 years as a runner, my little mind is being blown by how I’ve had it all wrong… I feel incredibly better and LOOK more fit with just 45 days of no grains and slowing the heck down.

    Joy Beer wrote on December 25th, 2011
  2. Trying to figure out currently if I am overtrained or my issues are due to the weird auto-immune issues i’ve developed

    Melissa wrote on January 12th, 2012
  3. I have been feeling extremely rundown and tired and not wanting to do anything – kinda hard when I have an 8 month old to take care of.
    I started Primal a few weeks ago, I do cardio on my exercise bike 5-6days a week 45-90mins a day depending on how I feel.I strength train 3x/wk and I have been feeling so sleepy lately – not wanting to get out of bed or wanting to clean and not looking forward to working out like I used to.Now I have to force myself to do it because I want to lose 80 pounds (more like 70 probably because I think I’ve gained muscle).
    The sad part is, I’m so tired&feel weak sometimes but this whole time I feel like I haven’t been doing enough, ya know? Like I could always do more or else I’ll seem lazy or useless

    Can anyone tell me what is wrong with me?? Am I training to hard or not enough or what? I’m so frustrated about it. I just want to lose weight and feel better but most of all I want and NEED more energy.

    Before you ask, I have like 6-10 servings of veggies a day (usually green beans because I’m really into them right now) and a hamburger or porkchop 3x/day plus a tbs of mayo 2x/day
    I snack on a handful of almonds (and I have little hands – I’m only 4’9″)

    I don’t eat very much because I’m usually not that hungry except lately I feel ravenous but I don’t know if it’s because of my exercise or if I’m PMSing

    I’m so sorry it’s such a long post but I have no idea who to ask anymore.Doctors never did anything to help, my holistic nutrition had me try adrenal supplements but they’re not doing anything anymore.

    So my basic schedule
    Every day – 3 beef patties or pork chops,6-10 servings of green beans,2 servings of almonds,
    Strength training days – above plus 1 serving egg protein powder+1 banana+1 serving almond milk just to get more protein in after strength training

    Mon,Wed,Fri – Strength Train can vary from gym weights (leg press,shoulder press,chest press, fly, pulldowns) to workouts I find on youtube or simple things like lunges,squats,pushups,crunches

    Mon-Sat at least 45 mins cardio

    Sun – rest day which doesn’t seem to come quick enough lately

    Every day I also clean and take care of&play with my 8 month old son who is a workout all by himself lol

    My husband thinks I work too much but I think I work too little since he’s the one who goes&earns money&stay at home

    Anyway, if anyone could help me, you would be everything I’ve ever asked for.


    Rachel A wrote on January 19th, 2012
  4. I also feel exhausted some days, like I’m getting sick, never feel rested and I feel like I need to eat less because we can’t afford much as far as meat goes which is a real bummer but I just need to deal with it

    Rachel A wrote on January 19th, 2012
  5. I also feel exhausted some days, like I’m getting sick, never feel rested and I feel like I need to eat less because we can’t afford much as far as meat goes which is a real bummer but I just need to deal with it

    Oh and the beef patties I eat are like 1/2C of meat when it’s raw

    Rachel A wrote on January 19th, 2012
  6. This is a very interesting read! About a year ago I was in very good shape, doing Krav-Maga (like kickboxing), crossfit, weights, and riding my bicycle with ease, etc. I did something different each day and never really felt “overtrained” or had issues like that. Then, (for lots of reasons), I stopped working out and lost all muscle definition (and strength) that I had worked for 2-3 years to gain!

    So I’ve started working out again, using primarily body weight with some resistance training 3-4x a week trying to build my strength back. I’ve also started some light running 2-3x a week and a good walk or work on the heavy bags on days I don’t run. Since I started working out, I have GAINED 6 lbs… of FAT! My pants hardly fit anymore! (and I already eat the primal way so that’s not my issue) I wonder if throwing myself into a workout routine has sent my body into stress-mode after being completely sedentary for so long? I didn’t need to lose any weight, just wanted to tone up. Now I need to lose weight AND tone up! :( Maybe I will take a few days off and see what happens… ?

    Jessica wrote on January 19th, 2012
  7. Is sooo essencial this topic. I had cronicaly pain in my legs, becouse of overtraining. Last weeks I fill much more better, couse I give place also to a good rest. Thank you Mark !

    Jano wrote on February 3rd, 2012
  8. I’ve been training more than ever this last year and have made great gains. However, these last 3 months I’ve gotten sick twice – 3 times this year now after not being sick for over a decade. I have’t been sleeping well either and rarely get 7 hours. My last 3 workouts have been difficult, but I did just recover from a 2 week bad cold.

    I have a feeling I’m overtraining, I just don’t want to admit it to myself for some reason. It’s biceps/triceps/rowing day. I want to workout now, but I’m so tired. I think this also means I’m crazy. Huh, well I’ve learned something about myself here.

    Jack wrote on March 1st, 2012
  9. Dad’s fat and it bothers me to hear him weeze and get tired fast with simple things like jogging or briefly lifting something heavy. I try to encourage him to eat better and work out. At least he is trying that herbalife stuff and he’s lost 15lbs+ so im happy in the food side of things but he still nags at the thought of even working out.

    So here’s the thing, his excuse is that he’s heard stories of people die because of over working which he did exagerate..
    and now the question? are exercises like the “INSANITY WORKOUTS” safe? I want to try it out because i don’t need equipment, just my body so this seems to justify the intensity. But more importantly what can my dad do for someone in his 40’s and still a bit overweight, cuz he wants greater endurance but seems petrified at the idea of things like running.

    Carlos wrote on June 11th, 2012

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