Can you work out too much? We tend to think more is better when setting fitness goals. Log more hours at the gym, schedule two-a-days, burn an extreme number of calories. While working harder may make sense logically to see results, there’s a danger that comes with consistently overworking muscles to the point of exhaustion. Fortunately, there are signs and symptoms you can become aware of to know if your body is experiencing “overtraining.”
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is a condition that occurs when the body experiences decreased performance and plateaus in progress as a result of consistently working the body harder than it has time to recover. It can also be brought on by not fueling the body relative to its energy expenditure. Exercise can be thought of as a “dose-response relationship,” meaning more effort equals more pay-off, but only to a certain point. The body is made to move and can handle a substantial amount of physical stress, but it also needs time to recover and the right fuel to continue to function properly. It’s important to learn how to spot OTS and intervene if necessary. According to the American Council of Exercise, there are major signs to look out for:
Signs of Overtraining Syndrome
Even with an increase in training variables (frequency, intensity, etc.) there is a decrease in overall performance when the body is overtrained. This can result in lower reaction speed, agility and flexibility.
Increased perceived effort
Workouts that once seemed manageable are now more difficult and/or it may become harder to regulate heartrate after a workout or throughout the day.
Fatigue is more than general tiredness after a longer-than-average workout. A major sign of OTS is long-lasting and “heavier” than normal tiredness due to the body’s inability to recover after previous workouts.
When the body experiences overtraining, cortisol and epinephrine become unbalanced, which can cause irritability and trouble concentrating.
Insomnia and poor sleep
Hormone imbalance can also affect sleep by causing restlessness in the body. When stress hormones affect sleep over time, it can cause chronic fatigue…and even more moodiness.
While it may seem counterintuitive (more exercise usually increases appetite), a symptom of OTS is actually loss of appetite. This is due to – you guessed it – hormone imbalances that affect hunger and satiation cues in the brain.
Chronic injuries or illnesses
The body does not want to be injured: it is built to repair itself. But when it is under constant stress, it cannot heal inflamed muscles or joints, or protect against invading pathogens. This can lead to nagging injuries or sicknesses that you “just can’t kick.”
Other signs of OTW include metabolic imbalances, psychological stress, depression, extended muscle soreness, frequent sickness, personality changes, decreased motivation, and insatiable thirst. One of the most obvious effects of OTS is a halt in progress. Because the body is under constant stress (i.e. muscle fibers are torn and re-torn), it does not have time to recover and rebuild, which stops progress in its tracks.
What can you do to prevent and reverse OTS? Build recovery days into your workout schedule that include foam rolling, stretching, massage, and hot or cold therapy (sauna, cryotherapy). Most importantly, listen to your body (and mind) and learn to associate rest days as an equally important factor to your health as a workout.