How to Deal with Overtraining

The thing about overtraining is that it exists on a spectrum, without clear-cut rules or boundaries. As I said last week, sufficient training volume is entirely subjective, and it’s constantly changing depending on an individual trainee’s goals, nutrition, sleep habits, stress levels, and injury status. What worked well for the last three months might prove to be excessive if your diet gets disrupted. A particularly stressful stretch at the office could undo a heretofore-steady strength progression. The human body is resilient, but there are limits – and the limits aren’t always clearly delineated. To divine them, it takes finesse and thoughtful tinkering at the edges. Sometimes you have to fall off the edge to know where it is. It’s more art than science. There are some solid, basically objective ways to deal with it, though, even if you’re not sure what constitutes overtraining for you.

Outright avoidance is the most prudent policy, of course.

If you take the necessary steps to prevent overtraining before it happens, you’re good to go. I’ve learned that, when in doubt,  less is often more.

Don’t try to be an elite hybrid marathoner/powerlifter/metcon superhero.

Most performance-oriented people will have to choose between running mega miles each week and hitting heavy compound lifts. You can’t do Stronglifts, drink a gallon of milk, and go run a half marathon. I mean, you physically can and I want you to be fit enough to do so, but training that way would be so entirely counterproductive as to be absurd. Your running would suffer, your lifts would be weak and unimpressive, and you’d probably injure yourself. You’d be way overstimulated, cortisol would flow like desiccated gluten through a leaky gut, and you wouldn’t know whether to burn fat or burn sugar. Lift heavy and run the occasional long distance event? That’s fine. It’s what being Primally fit is all about. But it’s the regular training of both that will confuse your body and mess you up in the long run.

Don’t train specifically to run marathons, for that matter.

I know I’ve got a fair amount of endurance athletes reading this, and I don’t want to rub them the wrong way, but this is simply my honest opinion. Unless you are among the elite few, running marathons and engaging in high intensity endurance training on a regular basis – Chronic Cardio – is the quickest way to overtrain. It’s what led to my perpetual state of fatigue, inflammation, and system stress back in my endurance days. I’ve made overtures in the past to PBers who refuse to give up endurance work, and last week a good friend gave his take on endurance training the Primal way, but, as a general rule, don’t train for marathons, triathlons, or any other extreme endurance event if you’re worried about overtraining. Yes, I encourage you to be fit enough to be able to run one, but you can achieve a level of proficiency simply by training PB-style. (In fact, I tell people, if you absolutely decide you need to train for and run a marathon, I’ll let you run two. The first is to finish. The second is to better your time from the first one. If, after that, you haven’t broken three hours, it’s clear you are not a marathoner. Find another, “funner” pursuit.)

Eat enough food.

Food is fuel. A good meal can be a pleasurable, even transcendent experience, but in the end, it’s simply how we provide the body with the energy it needs to function and the organic building blocks it needs to repair itself. When you’re training, whether with weights or sprints or HIIT, that fuel becomes absolutely vital. You may need even more of it. Thankfully, the body has a natural tendency to feel ravenous hunger after heavy training. It’s a pretty good system – lift heavy things, get hungry, eat, refuel/refill/replenish, repeat – but we can foul things up by forgetting to eat or by actively avoiding food (in a misguided attempt to jumpstart weight loss). Sometimes, overtraining is actually just under eating.

Eat only Primal foods.

It’s not just the amount of food you take in that matters. The quality of food matters just as much. You don’t fuel a jet engine with lighter fluid. This stuff is important. Now, I know we’ve all known elite athletes who subsist on Slurpees and fast food, but that doesn’t negate the importance of proper nutrition for the rest of us. If you don’t have the winds of genetic good fortune at your back (as most people definitely do not), fine tuning your caloric quality is a sure fire way to avoid overtraining. Eat plenty of protein and fat to fuel your efforts and repair your body, along with (only) as many added carbs as you need to replenish glycogen. In addition to providing proper fueling, eating only animals, plants, fruits, and nuts, while avoiding grains, sugars, legumes, and industrial vegetable oils will reduce or negate systemic inflammation; eating an inflammatory diet increases the inflammatory load on a system already “burdened” with intense training. Bad idea all around.

Avoid chronic inflammation.

It may be that overtraining is just another form of inflammation. We already know that small servings of stress and inflammation are normal (exercise provides the right amount of stress and inflammation required for muscle repair, recovery, and ultimately progression), and that a health body is adequately equipped to deal with exercise induced stress and inflammation. Problems arise when chronic inflammation disrupts the body’s regular stress response. As Matt Metzgar points out, chronic inflammation can block the body’s anabolic hormones. Without sufficient anabolic hormones, the body cannot recover from exercise, which is the main thing we are trying to do here (recover, that is). In a state of chronic inflammation, then, almost any attempt to exercise results in classic overtraining symptoms.

Avoid too much stress (but not all of it).

As I said earlier, stress is good to a point. For one, it enables the repair process. Exercise is a form of stress on the body; our muscles exert themselves, which is a type of stress, and the body responds by repairing the “damaged” muscle. If all goes well (that is, if it wasn’t too much stress and you allowed enough recovery time), the repaired muscle will be stronger than before. Stress can also heighten our senses and even increase our physical performance in the short term. A bit of simulated, perceived danger pre-workout (visualize facing down a big wild cat before a sprint, or lifting the backside of a Volkswagen off your friend before deadlifting) can actually kick start a small stress response that increases physical strength, reaction time, and focus. It’s interesting, vital stuff, stress, but chronic levels are unmanageable and actually reduce our physical performance and ability to recover from training.

Get plenty of sleep.

Sleep is precious, but we generally don’t get enough of it. Anabolic hormones important for muscle repair and recovery, especially growth hormone, are released during sleep – poor sleep curtails that, cuts it short. Lack of sleep increases cortisol production, an excess of which increases body fat and eats lean mass. Immunity suffers, and when you don’t sleep, systemic inflammation increases. Sound familiar? These are all hallmarks of the overtrained individual.

I’m beginning to think of overtraining as a set of symptoms – as a general descriptor of chronic overexertion, rather than a clinical affliction with a defined cure. And these symptoms are all interconnected and essentially inseparable from each other. They either pop up in pairs, or in an incestuous orgy of systemic inflammation, poor sleep, bad diet, chronic stress, and excess exercise. But they always show up together. It’s one big chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, which makes it difficult to figure out. What’s causing what? Does it really matter? I think we know what to do – inflammation seems to be key (as it often is in general health), and avoiding the things that cause chronic inflammation generally seems to take care of many of the symptoms of overtraining. So does avoiding overtraining mean avoiding all the risk factors of inflammation, too? I think so. You can’t really separate them. Letting even a single one slip can snowball and reduce the effectiveness of your training.

It’s a challenge. I’ll admit it. Most people who embrace the idea of exercise want to believe that more is better. It’s tough to simply read the aforementioned list of things to avoid and check them off, especially when performance goals have been set. Plus, we’ve all got work to attend, financial issues to hash out, sleep to get, food to prepare, and workouts to follow, all while keeping stress and inflammation low to avoid overtraining – and we only have 24 hours a day to do it. Is overtraining inevitable?

You certainly can’t avoid it forever. I’m not even sure you’d really want to, if only for the reality check. Reality checks are useful; it’s how we learn. They let you know what to watch out for in the future. You can’t know where the edge is unless you go over it once in a while.

So what should you do once you’re exhibiting the signs of overtraining?

Take a week off.

You’re not going to waste away. You’re not going to gain ten pounds of belly fat. You’re not going to forget how to squat or how to run. It’s just a week. Purge all guilt from your system (seriously, it’s okay) and understand that continuing to train through a classic case of overtraining will only set you back even further. Your body is trying to tell you something, and I’d advise that you listen up. Enjoy your week, eat good Primal foods, take a lot of walks, or even a hike, and focus on learning from your mistakes and retooling for the next seven days. I sometimes take a few days off conveniently when I travel as a “prophylactic” measure to avoid overtraining.

Learn from your mistakes.

The best way to respond to an episode of overtraining is to understand exactly what you did to prompt it. That way, you can avoid them in the future. This seems like common sense, and most people who overtrain make an attempt to understand what went wrong. Where we fall short is in our dedication to our particular brand of training, a commitment than can border on religious fervor (if you think nutrition discussions can get heated, just check the comments section on any controversial fitness blog). If you’re overtrained, something about your regimen isn’t working out. You know it, your body knows it, your muscles know it – all that stands in the way is your ego. Brusquely rebuff that cocky bastard and look deep and hard at your schedule, because something is wrong. Were you going too heavy, too fast? Are you forgetting to warm up? Maybe think about dropping the sprints down to once a week instead of twice? Do you think you should de-load the weight and work back up? Maybe a 3 on, 1 off schedule is a bit too much for you to handle? Perhaps a half-marathon is a more realistic training goal for you? The same goes for nutrition, or any of the other risk factors for overtraining; take a long, objective look at your diet, your sleep, and your stress, identify any potential loose ends (Dairy? Late nights? Sprouted grains?), then tie them off.

Reset. Redesign. Retool.

When you do come back, back off a bit. Change things up. Don’t resume your previous training volume – you know, the volume that got you in this mess in the first place? Instead, tinker. Play with different training schemes. If you were supersetting on your strength training days, try rest-pause singles. If you were going high-rep, low-weight, try low-rep, high weight. Incorporate weekly sprints instead of nightly jogs. I wouldn’t necessarily lower intensity, because intensity is rarely as much an issue as volume. As I always say, make your short, intense workouts even shorter and more intense, and your long, easy workouts even longer and easier. You might have to lower the weights used. Or add another rest day to your HIIT schedule. Whatever you do, do not go back to doing everything the same. An alcoholic doesn’t take a few months off and go right back to the bottle (well, he might, but he wouldn’t be dealing with the real problem).

Overtraining is a bitter reality for most people who train with any sort of intensity or drive. If you’re pushing yourself, you stand to reap immense rewards (that’s why we do it, eh?), but you can fall just as hard. Luckily, eating a Primal diet and following the Primal prescription of low stress, low inflammation, adequate sleep, and proper amounts of exercise will both cushion the impact of your fall and trampoline you back into action.

Notice any glaring omissions in the avoidance tip section? Is there more to recovery than rest, learning, and ego-busting? Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything.

About the Author

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.

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73 thoughts on “How to Deal with Overtraining”

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  1. This is a very timely post for me. After eating Primal for 8 months and CrossFit training for 3 months, I’m gearing up to train for my first competitive event (Tough Mudder, for those of you on the East Coast). I have a long way to go to catch up to the fitness level of most of my team, but I’ve been concerned about overtraining and actually setting myself back. After the holidays (and the sugar comas), I definitely experienced fatigue and fewer gains. Since then I’ve cleaned up the diet and things have progressed beyond my expectations. Just this morning, I upped my Push Jerk PR by 20 pounds…from just a month ago! And last week was a rest week for me! It really drives home the importance of:
    1. Listen to your body
    2. Don’t feel guilty about it!

    1. Sorry for off topic…but that race caught my eye. I’d be interested to hear how you are training for it…other than X-fit.

      1. Tough Mudder is a 7 mile obstacle race. I’m definitely not a runner, so I’ve started going for jogs once or twice a week, 2 – 3 miles each. Plus, on the recommendation of this blog, I’m sprinting once a week. I figure CrossFit will help with the obstacles.

        In addition, our team is going for practice runs through the woods and water. We have our first 4 mile practice this weekend…wish me luck.

    2. Hey Kristen I’m a P90X fan but have been thinking of doing Cross fit, any suggestions or web sites I should check out . My e- mail is [email protected] . Thanks so much :))

    3. Hey Mark, Great aticle. I am currently traing to run the Boston Marathon, just over 1 month to go. I was absolutely demolished last Sunday when I finished a 17.1 mile run. Overtraining was the first thing that came to mind, as I have not crashed this hard throughout my training process. I think you touched on most everthing I have been experiencing the 2 weeks prior to my meltdown.
      I must say I was very relieved to see that you sugested to take 1 week off, that is exactly what my Body was telling me to do. But my Brain is telling me .. No you only have 4 weeks to go..Train. Train.. Train. I have added a couple of dietary supplements to my daily to include potassiun citrate and calcium citrate. Hopefully the rest and added supplemental help will get me back on track.

  2. The timing of this is spot on, as I’ve recently started to bring more science to my workouts. Embracing the notion of low heart rate training has forced me to adjust to much lower intensity levels. An interesting dichotomy – the notion of getting more overall health benefit from lower intensity workouts.

  3. Overtraining can be such a temptation when you start to reach and exceed your goals. It makes you want to push harder and harder, get leaner and leaner, etc. One thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that more is not necessarily better and, in fact, it can hinder your progress. Also, sleep is crucial. As Mark mentions, taking time off is so critical to recharge, reset, and refocus.

    1. Agreed. As I’ve reached new leanness and strength goals, I’ve found myself needing to cut back on workouts in order to continue progress. As the lifts get heavier, we really do need more recovery time. It’s OKAY. 😉

  4. Thank you for this, I had not been very active for 5 years since an injury then last summer I did
    P90X. In January I had worked out over 170 days straight. The last 3 Months doing doubles 3 days a week. Then in February I got sick and spent a week in bed. I have been feeling crummy, guilty and down since then. Still not feeling 100%. This article helps me start fresh.

  5. You wrote: (In fact, I tell people, if you absolutely decide you need to train for and run a marathon, I’ll let you run two. The first is to finish. The second is to better your time from the first one. If, after that, you haven’t broken three hours, it’s clear you are not a marathoner. Find another, “funner” pursuit.)

    I have run 4 marathons now within 4 years, among a lot of half marathons and I still havent broken 3 hours and NEVER will. That doesnt meant I am NOT a marathoner. I dont think you should put it that way…i absolutely LOOOOOOOVE running and LOOOOOOVE training for marathons, and obviously want to qualify for Bost (which my time has to be 4:00:59)…

    but just because someone cant break 3 hours doesnt mean they arent a ‘marathoner’…there are MANY reasons why people run marathons, and breaking that time barrier isnt hardly one of them for most people.

    1. Junie, first, congratulations on your running accomplishments. I didn’t mean to belittle that. I am more concerned about the lifestyle that focuses on training for and racing these events over the years and the damage that can accumulate from chronic cardio. And, yes, once you have completed one marathon (any marathon) you can rightfully call yourself a marathoner. What I meant was, if you lack the body type or speed to race these events, you are probably not doing anything to advance your health or fitness that couldn’t be better accomplished with far less work, strain, pain and injury. In fact, I’m working on a training program specifically for endurance “junkies” who want to use all PB methods and diet to enhance their performance when they do enter those once-in-a-while races. Just following the PB exercise pyramid can improve your endurance running substantially.

      1. thanks for the reply; however since i have gotten faster with each race, marathon or shorter distances since i started in 2006, arent i improving? Once I quit improving or reach my peak, then would you say its not chronic cardio? i might lack the body type and ‘speed’ of an elite…i dont know, i just disagree with you :o) but i still love the blog :O) and will continue to read…thanks.

        1. Junie, I think you missed the point Mark raised. Just because you could finish a marathon and keep running more, doesn’t mean you are doing your body a favour. In fact, you are probably accelerating your aging with free radical and oxidative stress, not to mention loss of muscle mass and fast twitch fibres which keeps you young. Dr. Ken Cooper who coined the term ‘aerobics’ concluded that your heart stops conditioning after 22 minutes. I’m sure you won’t finish any marathon in that time frame.

        2. Jumping in a couple of days after and inspired by the P90x versus CrossFit offer. I totally agree with Junie about the joy of running – ala Tarahumara! We were born to run.

          I’ve run 17 marathons and don’t plan to run many more – my goal is to get to Boston, qualify this year into early 2011. My training and speed plateued until my crosstraining, core/pillar repair mission in October. Though I had reached PR times from the mid 90’s my body

          I have scaled back my running and incorporated CFEndurance, swimming, cycling. So instead of over training, I’m running 3-4 times a week. 2 speed workouts, 1 longish run and an easy recovery jog with my dog friends.

          So agree that a 50 state marathon is not in my bag. I do love mountain races such as Pikes Peak.

          But I do want to wrap up my goals.

          So Junie – let’s make Boston ASAP…=]

    2. Hi,
      Your comments are indicative of a person whom hasn’t understood the point.
      Some people are made for Marathons, some are not.
      Simply, if you are not don’t kill yourself trying !!!!
      Leon Karl

  6. Greg,
    I completely agree with you that reducing the intensity of the work out is “mentally” difficult to convince yourself to do. I feel that for so long I’ve seen working out as a waste of time if i’m not pushing it 110%. But I decided to give it a try and I’ve noticed that after reducing my intensity and really focusing on staying in my fat burning zone, I feel better during the training session, I can exercise for so much longer, I feel better afterward, and I actually look forward to working out! Can’t get any better than that!

    Grok On!!

  7. Marathoning is an amazing pursuit to me, one i dont fully understand after all the original greek that did it, died upon completion. If you think about distance running in the context of grok he most likely didnt run far (26 miles) far i mean because the composition of a predator animals body doesn’t allow it to run full bore for long long distances. Being a hunter i have chased deer and they only make it just short of two miles before they either stop or slow down due to an inability to cool themselves and breathe effectively at high speeds…alot of what i am saying was covered in Born to Run. However an event like a triathlon seems to be more of grok speed to me, I may be misunderstanding. but the swimming and running, and jogging(cycling) would simulate a pursuit for grok. Mark if I am wrong here in my assumptions please correct me..

  8. I really appreciate this post! I have had a rough 2 years as I overtrained and seriously under ate. I have never been sicker in my life. I ended up with such bad mono I was in the hospital. Sure enough as soon as I was out I started running again…not learning what so ever. My body was not done with me yet as i ended up having to drop out of university for the rest of the year while I lay on the couch with zero energy for 3 months. My body was so inflammed my skin turned orange and broke out into a weird rash. My body developed allergies to everything. It has been a long recovery road but I am doing great now. I am following PB and I refuse to run anymore. Sometimes I get a strong desire to and I pay for it. My body just can’t do it. I feel so much healthier and happier on the PB. Thanks Mark!!!

    1. Ally, that dosn’t sound like overtraining, but possibly something more serious (jaundice?). Please be careful.

      1. Agreed. I’m writing this almost a year after the post, but wondering how you’re doing? Your symptoms suggest a much more serious disorder than what could be attributed to running.

  9. great post, one quote I have heard that always sticks with me is “there is no such thing as overtrained, just under recovered”

  10. Great post, as always. I remember when I use to overtrain almost everyday. This was when I first fell in love with fitness and basically had no idea what the hell I was doing.

    I would run a mile, do a set of lifting, run a mile, set of lifting, run a mile, set of lifting… 3 times a week. On the other days I would run and just complete exhaust myself everyday.

    Thankfully I am much smarter today then I was 3-4 years ago and rarely exhaust myself. I love 5K runs and can’t wait to compete in them this year.

    Awesome stuff Mark!

  11. As I mentioned last week, I am recovering from overtraining- I think lack of sleep, extensive allergies (for which I just started getting shots), and personal life drama which I was not confronting at all for quite some time (as in, why do the hard thing of calling someone on their BS and making them take responsibility in a long term issue- well, it’s much easier to be constantly in the gym, sweating out my stress there, right?) Ugh. Funny how working out as stress RELIEF actually made my body even more stressed.

    Of course, escaping never works. During my week off, I had oodles of time to reflect, (made me realize just how much time I was training, and escaping) and upsetting conversations have been exchanged. Not easy, and my emotions are ready to get shoved back down with a good heavy deadlift and then a long pissed off bout on the rower. This is very hard for me- instead of punishing myself, (the easy way) I am facing this thing head on. Hard, but should be satisfying when it’s done.

    I am planning on doing the Philly Woman’s Tri this July, my 8th tri, with zero tri specific training. Nada. No distance stuff. Want to experiment and just see what the heck happens on just CF/PB. Did this one already, so it should fun.

  12. I think fitness and overtraining is a moving target. As you become more fit, your body may adapt to that level of training and become ready for more. But if you rush it, overtraining can result. If you’re coming from a couch potato/desk jockey lifestyle, your body just isn’t ready for ramping up hard training with constant progressive overloads. Most of the coaches I’ve read advocate a training and resting pattern where you allow the body time to adapt and recover. If you’re throwing in weight loss/dieting too, that’s another stress on the body that you should allow for. But for many of us, exercise is more of a mental health issue, and we may trash our bodies at times as a way of dealing with stress (better than becoming an alcoholic or binging on junk food!). This is of course unsustainable, but doesn’t mean that occasional overload isn’t of benefit. But I think you’re right that people need to back off the intensity much more than they do.

  13. Based on some of the posts I have seen here over the months, it looks to me like overtraining (and some of the other behaviors like trying to eat less than 20-25 carbs/day which must take a major effort to achieve while getting ample nutrition) is simply compulsive behavior. So we can all stand up and tell them that balance would serve them so much better but until some life event occurs, it is likely falling on deaf ears. Love the site, keep up the good work.

  14. On the question of getting enough sleep — I just completed a 30-day experiment in which my wife and I didn’t use any artificial light after dark, including computers and TV — just candles. It’s amazing how it improved both the quality and quantity of our sleep.

    I’ve tried to just “get more sleep” before and I find it nearly impossible to do with just willpower or good intentions. I just don’t get sleepy enough to go to bed appreciably earlier. Artificial light (except for red light) blocks melatonin production. With the lights off, we would sometimes go to bed as early as 9pm (otherwise it’s usually around midnight). “Catching up” on sleep when we needed was much easier. Sometimes I slept seven or eight hours, sometimes ten or eleven.

    Another thing to consider in the “primal” lifestyle — I think artificial light can be as disruptive to health as artificial food (and it’s even harder to avoid).

    1. Gah. I don’t even know where to start! First, candles ARE artificial light. If it’s not sunlight, then it’s artificial. Second, more importantly, Grok did NOT have candles.

      1. Well, hold on a second. Grok definitely had fire, and the odds are high that the fire was kept lit overnight because starting fire was such a cumbersome affair. As such, I think natural firelight (which means candles, too) was probably pretty comfortable for Grok, even at night time. Additionally, Grok had to worry about predators. Most predators are nocturnal. Most predators don’t like firelight. So, either way you look at it, switching to combustion sources of light rather the filament sources makes some primal sense.

        1. Whoa, whoa, whoa there Speed Mickey… I never said Grok didn’t have fire. There’s nothing wrong with spending the night beside a wood fire, or even a peat fire. I’m saying that Grok didn’t have CANDLES, so you won’t catch me using candles or oil lamps. Period.

        2. Jack, by that logic, you shouldn’t be posting on here because Grok didn’t have computers.

          Last I checked, candle light is fire…

        3. Hi,

          fire was not kept on – even here in Africa where I happen to be living now) it is embers which remain “alive” covered in ash and can be used to rekindle the fire in the morning.

          w greetings

    2. 🙂 i’m with you — i think artificial light (esp. fluorescent) is “one of the enemies”! and here we are with “green people” trying to make us use them even more….

      1. I doubt they had 100 candles alight though which is the equivalent to just one regular lightbulb! Sounds more like a twilight zone for a few hours before sleeping, I like the idea, very romantic too, perhaps that was an added contributory factor to the more relaxed and longer sleep 🙂

    3. I did this for several months, also, a couple years ago. I loved it! My kids, however, thought I’d lost my mind and complained a lot.

  15. Very thorough post about over-training Mark. Below are a couple of other things I’ve found help me recovery and train hard w/o really over-training and having to take lots of time off or screw up my progress.

    1. Use restorative techniques post-workout. This includes contrast showers, massage, naps, etc.

    2. Do something else. Instead of a total break from training working out in a different way helps. Example, doing sprints or kettlebell training outside for a month or two instead of lifting heavy in the gym.

    3. Frequent, brief workouts. When the time is available, training 2-3 times a day for 30-45 minutes a workout is a great way to be able to train hard w/o over-training.

  16. I’ve been meaning to try the no-artificial-light-experiment.

    Unfortunately I can’t. I’m in the Navy.
    It’s pretty stressful, but I’ve been trying to cope. With all of the alarms, overnight watches, poor food choices, and just the general stress of having to perform on the job, it’s not completely possible.

    When we’re out to sea, we’re basically on a 16 hour work day. Are there any primal military members out there?

    1. Living Primally in the military is hard, I basically try to follow Marks advice for cardio/strength trainers, just adapt as much as possible. I don’t know the Navy, but the Army is so steeped in CW it is sometimes impossible to be Primal.

      Every military publication I’ve seen on health pushes low cal/low fat/high carb diet. And while physical fitness is a daily part of the military life it too is based upon CW. Every meal I’ve ever eaten in the Army has been this way. Food in the dining facility, the food prepared in field by the cooks, and the MRE (Meal Ready to eat) all are like this. The MRE is actually high cal, can you imagine eating 3 of those a day?

      We do a lot of bodyweight exercises, but usually in excess. We run for almost an hour on cardiorespitory days, usually in “ability groups” and usually in formation. And thats just the normal military. Military schools can be even more extreme. From Basic Training trying to get everyone in shape to the physically harrowing Ranger School, most training can actually be very unhealthy.

      1. It is pretty distressing to see the “healthy” eating guidance when you walk into the chow hall: eat a large stack of pancakes to keep energy all day. That having been said, you can eat fairly primally if you are picky. Most chow halls you can get eggs, bacon/ham, and fruit every morning for $2.55 or free if you’re deployed.

        In terms of fitness, some conventional units are getting closer to a crossfit model that de-emphasizes traditional 100 push up, 100 sit up, five mile run pt. Check out the Ranger Athlete Warrior(RAW) program, 101st ABN adopted something close, and 10th MTN has a similar one. If you can get those resources off the net, you can use it to pitch to your CO as an alternative to steady state cardio. Also your results will speak for themselves.

        My personal Ranger School tally: cellulitis in both feet, tendinitis in both achilles, and my upper body musculature had withered away.


  17. As I am about to end my training period for the LA Marathon and head into the blessed “taper period”, I find this post and the comments quite interesting. I am a long time trail runner and have signed up for this marathon as an ode to the city I love and because I just want to try a marathon once in my life. After training for the last few months, I have zero desire to ever do this again. I eat pretty primal and I feel really good doing so. I hate having to eat more on the days before long runs. It makes me feel awful. In the past, I could easily do a two hour trail run with nothing more than a bit of protein (within 4 oz) a bunch of veggies, and some wine. Now, to get through a 20 mile trainingn run, I find myself eating alot more sugar and it pretty much sucks. I love the running, but there is a very fine line between what (most people…I know there are some amazing atheletes who don’t need the extra carbs)it fun and constitutes pushing the limits and what is just flat out not good for your body.

    1. I think Mark’s point is that if you insist on running marathons it isn’t necessary to do 20 mile training runs.

      I’m a former Ironman triathlete (that’s the first time I’ve typed ‘former’ in relation to Ironman, I must be making progress – it’s a bit like standing up and admitting you are addicted to something – and it is an addiction of I’m sure of that) and have fallen into the trap of overtraining this year following a mad training programme by my coach focussing hugely on threshold work in all three disciplines – I really should have known better but trusted the ‘professional’ I was paying.

      As a multi-discipline athlete I can vouch for the cross-training benefits achieved by mixing it up. The first year I did IM (2006) I coached myself, and it was all pretty much 70% and no higher of my Max HR, just long hours. I picked up a run injury and didn’t do any running for 7 weeks prior to the race, I continued however to cycle and swim and used the pool to aqua-run as well. I did three runs in the week before the race, 1 mile, 3 miles and then 45 mins. I clocked 3:59 (in 35 degree heat) for the run leg. I took from this that you don’t need to be doing long, long runs to do a marathon and subsequently haven’t run for longer than 2:15 (and only then once or twice) apart from when racing; the fact that I have lately run too hard doesn’t alter the fact I’ve only run 20 miles plus when actually doing the races!

      As you say, it isn’t good for you, and the more primal I become (I’ve recently stopped being vegetarian too) the more in tune with my body I seem to be and doing a training session that requires you to fill your face with sugar-based products just seems and feels plain wrong!

      Looking forward to seeing the Endurance training PB advice Mark is working on.

      This post was very timely, as usual, how do you do that Mark (!) as I’m now returning to some structure and under pressure already from those around me to do more or harder than I was planning! I must be strong now and keep the intensity down, it is a really hard mindset to adopt, I couldn’t believe how slowly I had to run yesterday to keep my hr where it should be and that in turn made me panic about how high it must have been these last three months, no wonder I was totally fried.


      1. Kelda, you should cycle both volume and intensity. Intensity usually stresses the nervous system more and volume stresses muslculature. It’s an inverse relation, either higher volume with lower intensity or vice versa. Never both.

        1. I was following what my coach prescribed – long intervals during long sessions at threshold – he is now my former coach LOL!

          What I’m aiming to do now is follow Mark’s theories of low level aerobic (ie not chronic cardio) with weekly short proper-hard sprint work. That doesn’t really fit with what you’ve just said about doing either intensity or volume because over a week I will do both, just not in the same session, or perhaps that’s what you meant?

        2. I meant not both in the same session. You can sprint for 200 metres, not 26 miles, but can run slowly for 26 miles.
          If you can sprint for 26 miles, well, you might be from a different planet!

  18. Mark I think you are spot on with your point of breaking the 3 hour barrier. Yes millions of people enjoy running and training for very long distance events, but that does not mean that it is good for them. The constant pounding and sacrifices needed for these events can take a massive toll. Other forms / methods of training may be better for these people if their goal is health and fitness.

    However, the carrot at the end of the race, etc. is a big reason some people train at all, and if they don’t have this, then it may well be couch potato time. In this context the running may not be a bad option if the alternatives are not really viable (although they should be viable).

    It really really depends on why the athlete is doing it and what are the other options. Great points on everything being highly individual, and the mindset of people is perhaps the most individual of all.
    It does pain me to see runner after runner pound the pavement through London though. It would be like me doing 10,000 depth jumps everyday!

    I enjoyed the series on overtraining and am sharing them with the folks on my blog.

    1. 99% of people who are marathon addicts look like crap with bad posture, pale skin and no muscle mass. Sometimes you need to look close to see if it’s a man or a woman.

  19. Hey Mark,

    Off topic, but i saw your article on Lew this morning. A long with an article by Bill Sardie.

    Bill Sardie claims that it’s the iron additives in the processed flour that is causing insullian resistance and the up tick in metabolic syndromes.

    Could you comment?

    1. Mark, iron/IP6 might have a bit to do with it, but I honestly think it’s much simpler than what he describes there. Too much starchy carb that converts to glucose and too much trans/hydrogenated fats combine to increase insulin resistance/

  20. Mark,
    Very nice article stimulating a much improved understanding of what makes our bodies work well, and what are the limits.
    I’m an electronics engineer who spent many years trying to keep up with the best in 10Ks, half marathons and triathlons of various distances. I never could understand why I spent so much time feeling tired & getting colds easily (let alone not achieving athletic greatness!).
    I stumbled across some articles on the autonomic nervous system and discovered there was a whole scientific branch measuring heart rate variability (HRV) that can really help detect the onset of overtraining as well as improvements in basic aerobic fitness. Trouble is there was no easy to use measurement device for us all to access. So I decided to create an iPhone app ithlete, that has really helped me, not only to avoid overtraining but also to observe what my body thinks of training frequency, intensity, food, sleep, and the other factors you describe. I would recommend listening to your body via this scientific tool. The reaction from users is very good, so I expect there will be other products that use HRV in the near future.

  21. Good Article makes sense.

    Im 18 (5’7 175lbs 9% bf) i have been bodybuilding for 4 years, i have gained 55lbs since i started lifting but now gains are coming really slow and my workouts have been weak. I workout 6 days a week and eat 3500 cals a day (i dont drink or smoke)…i recently changed my routine up to confuse my muscles but still no improvements. Am i overtraining? should i cut my routine down to 5 days a week?

  22. i am suffering from overtraining(weakness sleeping disorders) almost a year,i used to run and swim.
    i changed my diet couple of times to large amount of protein and decreased.
    even if i eat a lot of carbs i dont have energy, i must use sugar (i didnt use before)

  23. There have been several times that I have overtrained. No more long or every day of the week workouts for me. Longest workout is 1 hour and 3-4 times a week. It’s not just your muscles that need to rest it is your nervous system as well.

  24. Your posts re over-training were also very timely for me. Just this week I went to my amazing Chiropractor/Kineseo practitioner. I have been doing CrossFit for 7 months, and Paleo for 4. He was super happy with all my progress and general health. When I mentioned to him that I had felt more fatigued than usual he said I was working out too much. Saying many of the same things in your posts, he explained that the more muscle mass I gain, the less I need to work out, and over training would lead to burning of lean muscle. He suggested the same number of days off as work out days, for example two on two off, as opposed to my three on, one off, two on, one off of recent months. Later in the day, I talked to my coach about this and he agreed fully, having not realized just how many CrossFit classes I was doing each week! I couldn’t quite convince myself to take all this week off, but have rested the past two days and will try the two on two off and see if it solves the issue. Thanks again!

  25. I think I may try the week off and see what happens. My issues, including the high cortisol very well may be overtraining. Having a CT scan tomorrow to see if it’s my adrenals or something else

  26. Take 1 week off? That could just be the start, if you are seriously overtrained. I had no idea about overtraining a few years ago. I was out of a job and thought, “oh boy, I can workout every day and get back into shape!” 6 months later I was seriously over trained and didn’t know it. I accidentally read an article on over training. When I got to the symptoms section I realized that I had every symptom! The prescription was: take a week off, then do a workout. If tired after workout, take 2 more weeks off. Then workout. If tired after workout, take 3 weeks off, etc.. After 8 weeks of rest, I was finally recovered and ready to start training again. I started slow and eventually got into a workout pace that is very similar to what Mark advises here. But if you are seriously over trained, you may have to take a couple of months off for your system to recover.

  27. I’m overtrained now and came to that lat year after trying to do the same kind of mileage I did 30 lb lighter. I’m 26 years old and have ran over 28000 miles since starting as a teenager; best I have done is qualify for Boston. I am definitely not built like a marathoner, even at my leanest I had a larger, muscular frame, just low body fat. I am short and sturdy… but still, after I kick this (it’s been 2 months already, it might be a while; doctor said 6 months because I kept pushing for 2 months after I realized I was overtrained until my body absolutely gave out on me)- I will be back to the frequent marathons and ultras, chronic cardio or not. It’s not about health for me. It’s about passion and love. I think it’s true of most of us. None of the ultrarunners I know think it’s a very healthy hobby. Once you pee blood you have to stop denying I guess. Most don’t end up overtrained, though. There’s a lot more to it then how much you run – I have ran the same high mileage in the past feeling better and better.

    Now, I am doing plenty of lifting, some rockclimbing, and not much long endurance cardio so that I can recover. My training hours are decimated. Maybe something will give me a more balanced perspective. I seem to have a natural talent with strength. I started off strong for a female and am gaining more strength quickly – a new experience to someone who has had to work their ass off and keep up on research to improve at running. But, when it comes down to it, my true love is running. I like running, and I like running a lot. The competition, the challenge, the long rhythmic miles. Healthy or not. In the future, I will mitigate other stresses though to whatever degree possible. I’m finally losing the weight gained now that I am running less even on the exact same amount of of food, so going in slimmer should help.

    So I won’t argue your point (though I don’t think the way most non ultra runners train is unhealthy; and certainly this isn’t anymore unhealthy than being sedentary on the coach, which many I know would be if other activities were their only choices), but the point does miss the point of why those of us engaging in “chronic cardio” do so. We’re more akin to smokers or alcoholics than health fanatics.

  28. Mark, I over trained about 6 months ago on toooo little of a diet. In 1.5 months I ran 250km, worked out 6 days a week and mountain biked and kayaked for fun. I also am a landscaper so busy busy. I have completely messed my body up. I was 108lbs of lean muscle (and so happy with my body.) In the same 1.5 months I put on a rapid weight gain of 20lbs. Now I cant get it off no matter what I do. I had a healthy hormonal balance…now I am hypothyroid, low DHEA, high cortisol and my progesterone is suppose to be at 80 and it is at 2. Please help, I am depressed because I have lost my body, and my mind some days.

  29. I am 70 yearold male train with weights 1 hour6 days week. also do the same on the tread mill 45 minutes at 90% max hearts rate. Am I overtraining what is your recomendation?

  30. I am so glad that I came across this article.

    Avoiding over training is so important. But if you find yourself indulging in weight training to the point where you are over training, it is good to know how and what to do to recover.

    Thanks for a great article.

  31. hi, i came across your article… if i overtrained for a week.. and now have an insomnia.. i would definitley stop and physical activity but do you know how long it will take to be back normal? i’ve trained only for two weeks cardio going from 15to30minutes light running but last five days in a row made 40minutes of biking with 9km/h in the gym and tonight i got the insomnia..://

    1. experience same insomnia as u. can’t sleep well this week. maybe too many day of sprint plus weight training.

  32. Very useful tips to be fit without any body crunching practice. We need to develop good habits a lifestyle to gain fitness and sustain that fitness for long. We can;t only focus on building muscles instead we need to strengthen our core strength that is very profitable in long run.

  33. Such good advice! It’s so easy to get obsessed with training and forget to keep everything in balance. One way I like to manage overtraining is with HeartMath. That’s kept me out of the hole several times. Thanks again for the great info, can always count on learning something new here.

  34. Please answer my question as Ive posted many times on MDA with no response! – I dance a lot, about 8hrs a week mostly ballet and contemporary. I do it because I love it and to keep in shape. Ive only been dancing for 2 years and am turning 27 this year but for the past six months Ive become increasingly fatigued. My muscles constantly ache despite taking days off and no amount of stretching or extra magnesium seems to work. Sleep is also difficult. Waking up during the night or getting night sweats. What doesnt make sense is that a year ago I was doing at least double the exercise -dancing as well as weight lifting, cardio and cycling and felt fine! I wanst on a strict primal diet and would occasionally eat spelt bread and rice paper rolls etc. Now that Im completely grain and sugar free I seem to be unable to handle even a bit of dance. Please help. I dont want to quit or dance less. Even not dancing for a week means you lose a lot of technique. Am I not eating enough carbs? I dont feel hungry often so Im worried Im not eating enough. More protein? Lack of sleep? 🙁

    1. You are probrably in subclinical phase of overtraining, take some off – some off mean 2weeks,month or half year to fully recover. Eat some carbs or fats if you cant to fall asleep. It helps to normalize cortisol level.Diet,sleep,and normalized stress are 3 most important factors to get healthly. And hope 😉

  35. I’ve been reading a lot about overtraining and the derived product of chronic inflammation and am definitely suffering from it. I was the biggest fan of non stop HIIT training, prolonged, very low carb intake, and little sleep. I did it for over 4 years, and my body does not seem to want to recover. I recently took a full month off and did minimal activity, mostly pilates, and some light sports. I ate freely to try and “reboot” my body, but I still struggle a lot with symptoms of overtraining, like chronic inflammation, exercise induced ammenorhea, etc. Any suggestions for other ways to remedy this or is it too little too late at this point? I’m only 26 so I’m hoping there’s a way to bounce back and any advice would be well welcomed

  36. Some serious bullshit regarding marathons in this text is on the move. Like, don’t be a marathoner when a human is purely designed to run? G’ah, I don’t even want to get constructive about this!

  37. I need advice as I’m freaking out. I spent months overtraining and took a break but dropped to about 60 pounds. I know I need to gain weight but As soon as I stopped exercising I swear all I do is look at food and put on weight straight to my belly in the form of visceral fat and it’s freaking me out. All I do is light walking and I feel too weak and in motivated to start lifting again but my body feels crappy! Even though I know I should gain weight it feels crappy not working out yet I have no energy. This isn’t the lowest weight I’ve been and yes I’ve struggled with an eating disorder in the past… I just need help and guidance on how to gain weight SLOWLY, why my body is gaining weight with barely any food now, and how to exercise! Please help!