There’s no way to be strong, agile, fast, or otherwise physically fit without moving. In today’s world, where physical prowess is no longer earned through the hard labor of daily life, that means training—on the road or bike, in the gym, dojo, or pool. I’ve devoted many posts to the dangers of moving too little, bemoaning how sedentary the average person is. But there’s another group of people we need to worry about: those who do too much.
Many ardent fitness buffs and athletes take a more-is-better, go-hard-or-go-home, I’ll-take-a-day-off-when-I’m-dead approach. I’m here to tell you that’s a mistake. Sure, you’ll see gains for a time, and you might look and feel pretty great doing it. Eventually, though, you’re going to end up on the path to burnout, aka overreaching and overtraining.
Overreaching and overtraining are no laughing matter. They can take you out of the game for weeks or months. Severe overtraining has ended athletic careers. Yet, far too many self-identified “health nuts” don’t take this threat to physical and mental health seriously enough.
Whether you have general fitness goals, longevity aspirations, or you are training to be competitive in your sport, it’s imperative that you take care to avoid overtraining. Learn to recognize the symptoms, and know what to do when they appear.
But First: What Is Overtraining?
To get fitter, you have to challenge yourself. Do things that are harder than the things you can comfortably do today, then up the ante.
When you increase training stress—volume, intensity, and/or modality—in a strategic and smart way, you’ll sometimes dip into functional overreaching territory. Functional overreaching is purposeful and beneficial, as the name implies. You might experience a slight performance decrement in the day or two after a breakthrough workout, but you’ll quickly bounce back better than before.
However, if you push too hard too often, you’ll veer into nonfunctional overreaching. This doesn’t make you stronger, fitter, faster; it just makes you tired and causes performance to plateau or decline.
Ignore the signs and symptoms for long enough, and you wind up with full-blown overtraining. Now you’re in real trouble. Your hormones, neurotransmitters, and metabolism will be seriously out of whack (scientifically speaking). Whereas nonfunctional overtraining can probably be resolved by taking a couple of weeks easy, overtraining can take months or longer to recover from.
Where’s the line between overreaching and overtraining?
The thing about overtraining is that it exists on a spectrum, without clear-cut rules or boundaries. The difference between overreaching and overtraining is one of duration and severity—how big a hole you dig yourself into.
At first, things just feel off. You’re not yourself in or out of the gym. Eventually, if you don’t heed the warning signs, you’re barely functioning. Even in retrospect, though, it might not be clear where you crossed the line from overreaching into overtraining.
The best and safest course of action is to stay far away from that nebulous tipping point by training wisely and making adjustments when symptoms first appear.
How to Avoid Overtraining
Outright avoidance is the most prudent policy, of course, but it’s easier said than done for people who want to maximize their potential and see what their bodies are capable of—or for those with too much ego wrapped up in their athletic accomplishments. The human body is resilient, but there are limits. I’ve learned that, when in doubt, less is often more; but it takes a disciplined athlete to honor that.
Here’s my best advice for preventing overtraining:
Set reasonable goals
What constitutes “sufficient training volume” is entirely subjective. It depends on the individual. Still, I’ve yet to meet someone who can train to excel at Crossfit, crush a three-hour marathon, and reach the Ironman podium all at the same time. Something always has to give.
And what you have to give is constantly changing depending on your life circumstances, nutrition, sleep, and health. What worked well for the last three months might prove to be excessive if you come down with a nasty case of bronchitis. A particularly stressful stretch at the office could undo a heretofore steady strength progression.
Dream big and aim high if you want, but recognize that there are times and seasons for everything, including taking it easier. Along these lines…
Don’t play the comparison game
What’s good for your training partner, the athlete you follow on social media, or the guy at the gym with quads the size of kegs might well be bad for you. They might be genetic superfreaks—or they might be hurtling down the road to burnout and dysfunction themselves.
Keep your eyes on your own paper and respect your personal limits.
Eat enough food.
Sometimes, what looks like too much training is actually just too little eating. Food is fuel. When you’re training, whether with resistance or sprints or HIIT or long distances, that fuel becomes absolutely vital. You may need more of it. Thankfully, the body has a natural tendency to feel ravenous hunger after heavy training, but we can foul things up by forgetting to eat or by actively avoiding food (in a misguided attempt to increase leanness).
Eat 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. (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 who don’t have the winds of genetic good fortune at our backs.)
While experts aren’t entirely sure about the physiological root causes of overreaching and overtraining syndrome, a leading hypothesis is that inflammatory cytokines build up when you work too hard with inadequate recovery. It’s the build-up of chronic inflammation that starts the overtraining tailspin.
Eating Primally is a great start. (In fact, following all the tenets of the Primal Blueprint, including the couple mentioned below, will set you in good stead.) Eating an inflammatory diet increases the inflammatory load on a system already “burdened” with intense training. Bad idea all around. The harder you train, the more you’ll want to be conscious about making anti-inflammatory food and lifestyle choices.
Avoid too much stress.
Exercise is a form of stress on the body, and the body responds by repairing the “damaged” muscle. If all goes well (that is, if there wasn’t too much stress, and you allowed enough recovery time), the repaired muscle will be stronger than before. Stress can also heighten your senses and even increase your physical performance in the short term.
Too much stress has the opposite effect. Your body doesn’t distinguish between the (usually beneficial) stress of exercise and the stress of long commutes, caring for aging parents, worrying about bills, or dealing with a toxic boss. It all goes in the same pile, and the bigger that pile gets, the more you’re at risk for overreaching and overtraining—especially when you throw even more exercise on the heap.
Get plenty of sleep.
I won’t belabor this point since you already know that sleep is precious, but most people don’t get enough of it. Lack of sleep increases cortisol production, an excess of which increases body fat, eats lean mass, and knocks the all-important testosterone:cortisol ratio out of balance. Immunity suffers, and systemic inflammation increases. Sound familiar? These are all hallmarks of the overtrained individual.
I prefer an intuitive training approach, one that allows me to align my daily workouts with my motivation, how good I feel, whether I’m nursing any niggling aches and pains, and what else I have going on in my day. I’m also not training to run an ultramarathon (thank goodness) or crush a high jump world record. The more intense your goals, the more intentional you have to be about periodizing your training, building in rest and deload periods, cross-training, and so on.
Intuition is still important, though, for avoiding overtraining. You must check in with yourself regularly and honestly appraise how you’re doing. Blindly following a one-size-fits-all training plan, putting your head in the sand when trouble arises, or otherwise taking a mindless approach to training is a surefire way to overdo things.
Have more fun.
Focus less on formal goals, meets, and races, and try to find more intrinsic pleasure in exercise and sport. Take a less rigid, less structured approach to training regimens. Whatever the issue, more play is almost always a good answer.
These are simple best practices for all active folks, and they become obligatory when you recognize the early signs of nonfunctional overreaching. But even the most well-intentioned athletes can find themselves on the slippery slope from functional overreaching to overtraining sometimes. So what should you do once you’re exhibiting the signs of overtraining?
How to Recover from Overtraining
Take a week off. Maybe two. Maybe more.
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 (to start).
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 in nature, but nothing more. I sometimes take a few days off for rest and recovery when I travel as a “prophylactic” measure to avoid overtraining.
Now, I know that you’re not going to want to hear this, but a week or two is the minimum. If you’ve let the problem get really bad, you might need rest period lasting a month, a season, or longer to achieve full recovery. It’s hard, but it’s your only option.
Learn from your mistakes.
The best way to respond to an episode of overtraining is to understand exactly what you did to prompt it. 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. 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? 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, sleep, and stress. Identify any potential loose ends, 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. Try out different training regimenss. Incorporate different types of exercise. Find ways to incorporate play.
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.)
This seems like common sense, and most people who overtrain pay lip service to not making the same mistakes over again. Where many fall short is in their dedication to one particular brand of training and most importantly, their ego, which stands in the way of doing anything easier or otherwise “less” than they were doing before.
Can You Really Prevent Overtraining?
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, but you can fall just as hard. Devising a training program—one that allows you to achieve high highs while avoiding low lows—is always a mix of art and science. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong. You can’t know where the edge is unless you go over it once in a while. 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.
Still, it’s a challenge. I’ll admit it.
What lessons have you learned, maybe the hard way, along your journey? Is there more to recovery than rest, learning, and ego-busting? Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything.
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 more than three decades 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 flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.