The Truth About Overtraining
If you’ve been working out for awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “overtraining” before.
And even if you don’t know exactly what it means, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not a good thing.
To put it in the simplest possible way, overtraining occurs when your workout routine is too much for your body to handle properly.
For this reason, many personal trainers and fitness experts (including yours truly) have assiduously warned people not to over train.
That is, not to do too many sets, too many reps, or work out too many days in a row.
Or to limit the intensity of your workouts, avoiding frequently maxing out on compound exercises, or doing too much high intensity cardio.
And while these warnings are made with the best of intentions – and serve as good, general guidelines – the truth is that the whole overtraining thing can be a bit overblown.
From my experience as a trainer, overtraining is actually pretty rare – at least in the strict sense of the word.
What’s more, a workout routine that causes overtraining for one person won’t necessarily cause it for another person; indeed, there are many factors that contribute to how susceptible each of us is to actually overtraining ourselves.
To clear up some of the confusion, in this article I’m going to get to the bottom of what overtraining really is, and what factors tend to contribute to it.
What Overtraining Is (And What It Isn’t)
Overtraining is a funny concept…
Most people who work out kind of know what it means, but would probably have some trouble defining it more precisely.
Is it when you’ve had a brutally hard workout, and feel kind of tired and shitty afterwards?
Is it when you feel really sore for a couple days, and find it hard to get to the gym?
Is it when you’ve been to the gym every single day for the last several weeks without a break?
Well, the truth is that all of these can contribute to overtraining, but none of them are overtraining in and of themselves.
To be clear, overtraining is a state, not an action.
It is the state of overtraining, and becoming overtrained, that you want to avoid; however, the actions and circumstances that trigger that state vary considerably from person to person.
Now to be overtrained in the strictest sense, you have to have pushed yourself to a point where it starts to impact one of the 3 main systems that your body relies on to function properly:
- The nervous system
- The immune system
- The hormonal system
If your workouts are causing any one of these systems to be noticeably impacted, producing one or more of the overtraining symptoms I wrote about in this article, then you can say that you’ve overtrained.
That said, there are a great many things that people worry indicate overtraining that are actually nothing to worry about.
This means that you shouldn’t take every ache or pain to be a sign of overtraining, nor should you assume that just because you’re feeling a bit depressed for a couple days that you’ve overtrained.
Again, overtraining is reasonably rare, so don’t hastily jump to conclusions unless the symptoms are sufficiently intense and persistent.
What Factors Contribute To Overtraining?
Now I as I mentioned before, a workout routine that might cause one person to become overtrained will be completely fine for someone else.
So you could have 2 people following the same workout plan, with the same training frequency, the same volume of sets, and the same level of intensity, and they could both respond very differently in terms of overtraining.
This is because aside from the particulars of the workout routine itself – such as its frequency, volume, and intensity – there are many other factors that can make you more or less susceptible to overtraining.
Now let’s quickly go through some of these factors, so you can get a better sense of what I mean.
All things being equal, you are more susceptible to overtraining the older you are.
A 20 year old weightlifter is typically going to be able to train with greater volume, frequency, and intensity than a 50 year old weightlifter, without as much risk of overtraining.
Your diet is a major factor that contributes to the likelihood of overtraining.
If you aren’t consuming enough calories and the right macronutrients to properly recover from your workouts, it’ll be easier for you to overtrain than if you were eating appropriately.
If you’re under a lot of stress, you run a greater risk of overtraining.
This can be any kind of significant stress – work-related stress, relationship stress, financial stress, etc.
Most of us don’t sleep enough, as I’ve discussed in a previous article.
If you don’t regularly get enough sleep for your body to recover from your workouts, then this opens you up more to overtraining than if you were sleeping adequately.
Alcohol and other recreational drugs can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to overtraining.
On the other hand, performance enhancing drugs, like steroids, can allow you to recover faster, making overtraining less likely.
Experience & Conditioning
Last on our list of overtraining factors is how long you’ve been working out, and how physically conditioned you are in general.
If you take someone who has never lifted weights before, all other factors being equal, they would be able to tolerate less overall volume and intensity than someone who was more experienced and used to a certain volume of training.
The One Time That I Overtrained
OK, so we’ve been over what overtraining is, and some of the factors that make you more susceptible to overtraining – but I can understand if you’re still not clear on what overtraining is like if you haven’t experienced it for yourself.
So, let me tell you about the time where I overtrained.
It was about 4 years ago. At the time, I was going through a period of being looser with my diet and less consistent with my workouts. I was still going to the gym regularly enough, but I definitely wasn’t pushing myself.
I was also very stressed about work – to the point where I could feel that stress weakening my body.
Then one day I decided that I wanted to get back into better shape, and that I should correspondingly jack up the intensity of my workouts.
But I didn’t ease into it slowly; nope, I decided to throw myself into full-scale training again.
I started lifting every day for several hours, and doing intense sessions of HIIT cardio almost every single day.
And this is coming from a point of not having done any cardio, at all, for maybe 2-3 years.
I also cut my calories significantly, compared to what I had been eating before.
I kept this up diligently for about a week, proud of my determination – but was increasingly feeling run down and not quite myself.
Then one night after dinner I was walking into my bedroom when, completely out of nowhere, I suddenly felt like I was hit by a brick wall.
My body instantly drained of energy, and I had to immediately lie down. It felt like my nervous system had overloaded, and then completely short-circuited on me!
I lay there for hours, shivering, not sure what was wrong. I had felt pretty much fine before it happened – maybe a bit rundown, but not sick – and then bam, instantly knocked out.
I felt pretty terrible for a few days – almost like I had the flu, but with no upper respiratory symptoms.
After 2 days in bed, and about 1 week completely off from working out, I was able to get back to the gym – but with a more sensible workout schedule and level of intensity.
In the end, it was no great surprise that I ended up overtraining.
I was stressed out, had a poor diet, was drinking more than I should have been, not sleeping enough – and then decided to suddenly jack up the intensity, frequency, and volume of my workouts, without being conditioned enough to handle it.
So I overloaded my CNS, made myself sick, and learned a valuable lesson about working out and overtraining.
And that is while you should try to push yourself hard with your workouts, you shouldn’t push yourself harder than your lifestyle, age, and current level of conditioning will support.
So How Do I Know If I’m Actually Overtraining?
This is the big question.
How do you know if you are overtraining, or just training really hard?
How can you tell the difference between those aches and pains that don’t really mean anything, and the ones that indicate you’re pushing yourself too much.
Well, the short answer is that it isn’t always easy to tell – at least not in isolation.
This means that you should always look at any symptoms of overtraining in conjunction with how likely you are to overtrain in the first place, before jumping to any conclusions.
You should also be aware of potential overtraining risk factors when deciding on what type of exercise program to follow.
That is to say, if you’re really stressed, not eating well, sleeping 5-6 hours a night, and in your mid 40s – now is probably not the best time to jump into training for a marathon, at least until you start addressing some of those risk factors first.
Finally, you should be careful when making large, sudden increases to your training intensity, frequency, or volume.
If you suddenly decided to go into overdrive with your workouts, like I did, then any overtraining symptoms you notice will be more likely to indicate that you’re actually overtraining, and that you should probably slow things down.
What you shouldn’t do, however, is listen to random people or articles that tell you that you’re overtraining when they’re not aware of your specific situation.
Instead, you should use your best judgement, be mindful of overtraining symptoms, try to control the overtraining risk factors as much as you can, and increase the intensity of your workouts at a steady, sensible pace.