It’s great to be ambitious. It’s awesome that you’re a go-getter. Those lofty stretch goals? Excellent pursuits. But when your drive goes into overdrive, it can sometimes become counterproductive. That’s when it’s time to reassess.
“So many people today are pushing themselves to the limit,” says Kim Lyons, NASM, owner of Bionic Body Gym in Hermosa Beach, California. “Ultimately, if you don’t give yourself permission to take a break, you’ll end up overtraining.”
Simply put, overtraining is an imbalance between work and recovery: You are continually pushing your body beyond its capacity and are not giving it time to recover before you nail it with the next workout. Here are five of the red flags your body waves when it needs a break.
Overtraining Sign #1: Never-Ending Soreness
It’s one thing to have delayed-onset muscle soreness from a hard workout or long run. But if that soreness does not abate within a few days—or you feel chronically exhausted and beat up—you’re overdoing it. “You may experience a decline in physical performance, and might stop making gains,” says Lyons. “You may feel weaker, slower, less connected to your training than you used to be.”
Overtraining Sign #2: Sleeplessness
Overtraining often leads to insomnia, which can be debilitating for athletes in particular. “Sleep is when you produce the hormones that facilitate muscle building and recovery,” says Lyons. “Inability to sleep or poor sleep quality means your body produces fewer recovery hormones and instead produces stress hormones like cortisol.”
This can inhibit sleep further, adds Lyons, and slow lipolysis—the breakdown of fat as fuel. What’s more, insulin rises with cortisol, which increases your craving for carbohydrates, which then get stored as fat, which … well, you see the cycle.
“Over time this can lead to insulin resistance, adrenal fatigue, and an increase in stored body fat,” adds Lyons.
Overtraining Sign #3: Personality Changes
Overtraining is not just physical. There is a dramatic mental and emotional component as well. “Some people feel grumpy, depressed, anxious, or have a hard time focusing,” says Lyons. “If you’re constantly annoyed by small, insignificant things you might be overtraining.” And if you’re having trouble sleeping, you’ll be doubly fun to be around.
Overtraining Sign #4: Extreme Thirst
Because your body never has a chance to catch up and properly repair itself, you could be cannibalizing your quads. “Continual training could put you in a catabolic state, where your body is using muscle tissue as fuel rather than carbs or fat,” says Lyons. This has a dehydrating effect and could be causing insatiable thirst.
“You could also develop an electrolyte imbalance due to excessive exercise and loss of fluid through perspiration,” adds Lyons. And since your muscles need sodium, potassium, and magnesium to function properly, you’ll hit the wall more quickly during training.
Overtraining Sign #5: Racing Heart
Overtraining can cause your sympathetic nervous system—which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response—to go into overdrive, elevating heart rate and releasing adrenaline. This is because exercise is, in effect, a stressor that your body reacts to in the same way it would an emergency.
“Your heart rate may feel elevated even when you’re not working out, or when you’re just waking up in the morning,” says Lyons. “Post-workout, it might take longer for your heart rate to return to normal than it should.”
The 5-Step Solution to Overtraining
- Stop. Take some time off from your training schedule. “That could be a week or a month, depending on your level of fatigue and exhaustion,” says Lyons.
- Look at your training program and, every month, cycle in a deload period—a week or so where you still work out but with a recovery mentality. That means using lighter weight, doing slower cardio, and training for shorter sessions. “You can also alter such variables as volume, time, reps, distance, and the like,” says Lyons, “to allow your body to recover properly.”
- Regularly practice foam rolling or trigger-point therapy with a lacrosse or tennis ball, or even treat yourself to a professional massage now and again. “This helps break up knotted tissue and fascia,” says Lyons,” while also flushing toxins from your muscles, promoting healing and fighting inflammation.”
- Make sure you have at least one day of complete rest or active rest per week. Schedule a Netflix and chill session, or take a yoga class for mental and physical restoration.
- Eat clean, healthy foods to facilitate the repair processes and drink plenty of water. “You wouldn’t expect your Porsche to run properly when fueled with soda,” says Lyons, “so why would you expect your body would do so?”