What is Overtraining?

Per the ACE (American Council on Exercise), overtraining is defined as constant intense training that does not provide adequate time for recovery.

Do a search on Google for “symptoms of overtraining,” and you’ll have no shortage of resources. The symptoms most commonly stated are:

  • Halted progress and/or regression in training
  • Lowered self esteem
  • Decreased motivation or apathy towards training
  • Increased injury
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss of coordination
  • Frequent sickness/illness
  • Personality changes
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Extended muscle soreness or perceived lack of recovery
  • Insatiable thirst
  • Loss of appetite
  • GI issues
  • Altered resting heart rate
  • Fatigue

Sources for the above include:

  • American Council on Exercise (ACE)
  • Men’s Journal
  • Runners World
  • Wikipedia (which had over 30 cited sources, one of them being the ACE)

The big takeaway is that overtraining symptoms manifest both physically and psychologically. Don’t view it as a checklist (I doubt that all of these will manifest in every instance of overtraining). View them more as road signs while traveling your fitness highway. If you start to feel that something is “off,” you need to trust your intuition that something might be “off.” Absent any other exogenous causes, you may need to look inward at your own training routine, and see if you are doing too much “something” and not enough “nothing.”
The key is recovery.

Just as you are mindful about programming “push” days, “pull” days, “agility” days, “metabolic” days, etc…, you also need to program RECOVERY days. You aren’t being lazy, you aren’t slacking off, you are programming an essential piece of your overall training program.

MUSCLE IS NOT BUILT IN THE GYM. In fact, muscle is broken down in the gym. That curl you just did – it tore your muscle fibers. When the muscle heals itself, it will grow back with a little more muscle fiber. But, you have to stop lifting for that to happen. Once you stop lifting weights that day, the magic can begin. The recovery process is fueled by proper nutrition, proper hydration, and REST. Your body can’t repair the damage your workout causes, or build new muscle to adapt to a new load if you don’t get proper rest. Hard workouts do trigger an inflammatory response in the body. If this keeps happening day in/day out with no relief, you are putting yourself in a bad position. Simply stated – your muscles can’t fix themselves if you are using them. As a matter of fact, you can not only disrupt the rebuilding effort, but also contribute to the deconstruction of your muscles if you don’t provide adequate rest.

The type of overtraining that I’m talking about isn’t the “I did biceps curls two days in a row,” it’s the, “…I just worked out for 30 straight days, and I’m exhausted…,” type of overtraining. The former might end up just being wasted time and sore biceps. The latter could manifest in the symptoms stated at the beginning. The problem is that there is no magic 8-ball that tells you when you are drifting into overtraining territory. It’s a very personal experience. You need to be dialed into how you feel and how your body/psyche usually respond to training. If any of those indicators starts to deviate in negative way (using the list above as warning signs), you should consider taking a break.

This doesn’t mean packing yourself in bubble wrap, and laying in bed for the next week. I’m talking about taking a break from your current exercise program, and not being afraid to stop lifting weights or doing hardcore HIIT for a week or so. You can still move around – go for walks, do some low impact yoga, or just general movement. BUT, you should take a very deliberate break from the exercise patterns that got you here in the first place.

An article on bodybuilding.com suggests that you should consider a recovery week after 8-10 weeks of focused training. I don’t think that message is just for the folks that have an interest in bodybuilding, are aspiring bodybuilders, or are professional bodybuilders. I think that message can apply to anybody that engages in fitness multiple days per week.

The proliferation of programs such as Insanity, P90X, Daily Burn, and the like have taught us how to cram a lot of training into a short period of time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of these programs under the right circumstances. I’ve done the 60 days of Insanity, and its intense. I mean INTENSE. Even that program recommended a solid week off before considering one of its Insanity/P90X hybrid workouts. Whether its fully packaged programs like the ones I mentioned, or a personalized “boot camp” style program that is hardcore HIIT many times per week, we might falsely conclude that such a pace is sustainable for a long period of time.

It isn’t. Even elite athletes need a break.

Don’t be fearful of losing the body-type that you’ve worked so hard for, and don’t be fearful of losing reps at the gym. You can take a break and come back just as fit/strong, and put yourself in a position to be stronger. The other option is less appealing. You can try training through the warning signs, but they won’t go away. They might get worse. You might get worse.

My own personal experience inspired this post. I’m currently taking a good solid week off of my program. I’ve noticed a symptom or two recently. So, I checked my workout calendar, and I’ve probably been going too hard. In the month of April, I worked out 26 of the 30 days that month. In May, I wasn’t quite as hard, but still only averaged about 1-2 days rest. Going back even further, February and March were hard training months. That was a response to my first couple of weeks in January being light (due to the birth of my son – I wanted to get back on the horse quickly). In any event, I concluded that I ramped up and hit kind of a breakneck pace. My sleep was really starting to suffer. And, my performance wasn’t trending the direction I like. The final determinate was my kettlebell workout on Sunday. After my 14th set (I was trying to get to 20 sets), I felt a little “off,” so I stopped immediately, rehydrated, ate something, and just relaxed the rest of the day. That is when I started thinking about my training behaviors for the past few months.

It felt like time for a break. So, I’m going to enjoy this next week off, and let my body have an extended period to take a breath and repair itself.

Have you ever “overtrained?” If so, what was your experience, and how long did you take a break? If you enjoyed this post, please be sure to “like” and “share.” Thank you.


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