The body has to be pushed and challenged in order for it to develop. Every training program that promises to deliver results needs to be based on progressive overload. This same progressive overload rule applies whether the goal is to get stronger, gain muscle, or improve conditioning.
Are you training hard enough to worry about overtraining?
Often trainees fail to see any results from the time and sweat sacrificed for training because most don’t know how to push themselves. It’s not that there is not enough time spent in training, but rather that the time spent is not high quality enough. It’s not intense enough to lead to an overload.
As the body loves homeostasis, it does whatever it can to maintain its current state of “comfortable”. When the training stimulus is not sufficient enough to provide an overload the body doesn’t have to adapt and results won’t happen.
Overloading the body, or the lack of it, is by far the number one principle dictating the results that you’ll get, or don’t get, from the time you put in your training.
But, you can’t just go hard all the time
This progressive overload needs to happen gradually. Everyone who wants to get amazing results with their strength or body composition has to have the patience and appreciation for the long game. Overtraining can become an issue when the body is consistently pushed against its limits without allowing enough time for recovery and adaptation.
We live in a world where people have the tendency to take something that is great in moderate doses (i.e. overloading) and over do it. The “if moderate is good then more must be even better” is often wrongly utilised in both resistance training, and conditioning circles.
It’s in the state of overtraining that illnesses, injuries and fatigue are more likely to spike.
Signs of overtraining
Persistent muscle soreness
Persistent fatigue. Not only after a training session, but also after a prolonged rest
Resting heart rate that’s higher than usual, a reduced heart rate variability (taking longer to recover back to the baseline)
Poor immune system function and higher chance of injuries
Irritability, depression, burnout
Poor performance in training and competition
Poor recovery from training
Abnormal hormonal output: drop in sexual desire, irregular menstrual cycle in females
How to get results and reduce the odds of overtraining
These guidelines are important to keep in mind in both resistance training and in conditioning work.
Use a periodized training plan
A successful, result driven plan intervenes easy, medium and hard phases. The hard phase overloads the body and easy phase allows the body to recover from that same overload. The medium phase acts as a stepping stone between easy and hard.
Depending on the trainee, and the goal of the program these different phases of stimulus can be based around volume (the total weight lifted e.g. reps x sets) or intensity (the relative percentage of the lifters maximum strength e.g. 90% of 1 repetition max). Or a combination of both by dropping volume while increasing intensity, or the other way around.
Because there is so much unused capacity in the body of a novice trainee they can progress quite rapidly, to a point, by adding more weight to the bar or by increasing reps and/or sets. And often these initial fast gains are mostly neurological as the nervous system is rapidly responding to the stimulus.
But for anyone training beyond the initial novice (or training-honeymoon) phase the body has to be challenged to a point that truly testes its current limits. When either the intensity or the volume gets high it takes longer for the body to recover. That’s when the easy training phase kicks in allowing this recovery to take place.
Don’t chase fatigue in every training session
Most novice, and even intermediate trainees, use tiredness as the ultimate measuring stick for a successful workout. Chasing soreness and fatigue in every training session is a sure way to limit or even regress your progress in the gym. Chasing exhaustion can have a negative effect on your physical and mental wellbeing.
Focus on the program, not on a individual workout.
Be comfortable taking time off
Depending on your training history be comfortable taking a complete week or two off from training once or twice a year. As you get older it might be worth taking a whole month off each year and focus on other aspects of fitness.
As life often gets in the way of training, most non-athletes get this rest without too much of planning. Think holidays, getting sick, and all the rest that comes with life.
Include “active-recovery” days in your training routine
Work on mobility, soft tissue and breathing patterns, go for low intensity walks.
Aim for 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night
Just because you are in bed sleeping doesn’t mean that you are getting the much needed REM, or rapid eye movement sleep. This deep sleep is needed so the body can recover both physically and mentally.
Activities such having a boozy night and using electronic devices before sleep can limit how much REM sleep you get. You know when you’ve spend the whole night sleeping but wake up tired.
Be proactive about managing your stress
We know that training is good for us. But at the same time the body sees it just as a another form of stress. When the stress input from other aspect of life (i.e. work, family, money) is high the last thing that the body needs is more of it.
Be on top of your nutrition
Eating a diet low in nutrients or unnecessarily low in calories (even in fat loss) doesn’t support your strength and physique goals.
Match your eating to your training. This allows you to get the proteins, carbohydrates and fats to recover from sessions. But also the important micronutrients that help the body to keep operating at a optimal level. Both in recovery and in rebuilding.
How to recover from overtraining
This is a tough to answer since different levels of overtraining require different levels of intervention. Some low level overtraining can be solved relatively quickly by taking time off from training and emphasising the recovery protocols. Whereas severe overtraining state might require medical interventions and extensive recovery and rest. In the most serious cases we could be talking about years, not just months.
Don’t be afraid to train hard
But at the same time, become a master of recovery. Don’t be afraid to make your easy sessions easy to allow your body to grow and develop.
And if you notice any of the aforementioned overtraining symptoms in yourself, take a look at your recovery methods, nutrition, sleep and overall training volume and intensity. If you are unsure of what to do, seek help.