Overtraining: Signs You Are Doing Too Much And When To Scale It Back

'Often, overtraining is the most frustrating cause of poor results.'

We get it. Motivating yourself to workout more than once a week sometimes feels so tedious you may wonder why you ever bought a gym membership.

But - and correct us if we’re wrong - occasionally you do get that buzz and surprise ourselves by signing up to three classes a week and heading out for a run.

With January upon us, and the classic surge of people wanting to train, perhaps it’s about time we talked about overtraining.

Because whether you’re a gym lover or just starting out, it’s not uncommon to fall into the trap of not letting your body recover.

How do we know that the workouts we’re doing are a bit too much? And how do we know when to stop and catch up on that Netflix series instead?

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What is overtraining?

“Overtraining is an accumulation of training resulting in long-term decline in performance capacity,” says Professor Samuele Marcora, director of research at the University of Kent’s School of Sport.

In extreme terms, Marcora says restoring our performance capacity may take several weeks or months - and some athletes may never fully recover.

Laura Burke, running coach at Reading Half Marathon says that overtraining shouldn’t be confused with tiredness.

“Tiredness is to be expected when you have a hard training session at the gym or take on a half marathon training programme,” she says. “Overtraining occurs when the body is pushed beyond its natural ability to recover.”

What are the signs we may be overtraining?

Burke says overtraining is the “most frustrating” cause of poor results.

The main sign of overtraining is a “prolonged reduction in performance” during your workout, whether it be gym sessions, classes or runs. If you can usually nail a 45-minute cycle but, more often than not, you start to struggle to reach your PB - this might be time to scale it back.

“As well as a reduction in performance, the best signs (or symptoms) of overtraining are subjective measures like the profile of mood state or a higher than normal perception of effort during training,” explains Marcora.

“Even an easy training session may feel hard.”

As well as fatigue, Burke said you may experience irritability, low mood, poor sleep, appetite loss and a lack of enthusiasm.

What are the long-term effects of overtraining?

As well as a decrease in performance, if you’re enthusiasm to working out carries on for months and you don’t give your body a break, it could result in long-term injury.

“Excessive training may also lead to increased risk of injury and illness (especially infections), hormonal alterations, and various psychological symptoms like depression,” adds Marcora.

“'Overtraining is the most frustrating cause of poor results."”

- Laura Burke, running coach.

So how can we find the optimum amount of training?

When you bite off more than you can chew with your workouts, even an easy session will take its toll on your body.

“The first thing to do is to drastically reduce training frequency and duration, whilst trying to keep some intensity to avoid excessive detraining,” says Professor Marcora.

Finding the balance of training and resting is an art.

“Rest is an essential element of a training programme, but so many are guilty of ‘forgetting’ or not making time,” explains Burke. “Once you learn to identify the signs of overtraining you’ll be able to approach your training strategically.”

Four things you could incorporate into your training to reduce the effects of overtraining include:

1. Cross training.

Burke says cross training is a great way to vary the workload on the body, whatever your end goal might be: “It will test muscles and joints that your standard, regular training might not utilise.

“For runners, for instance, reducing the weekly miles pounding the pavements and adding functional workouts to train the core muscles and glutes, for example, will correct muscular imbalances, enhance posture and prevent injury.”

2. Low impact exercise.

“For those involved in high impact training, there are more forgiving ways to mix up the training and lessen the forces on the body’s joints,” says Burke.

Low impact exercise such as heading to the swimming pool will help keep your muscles in good condition and rid your body of toxins that build up during harder training sessions (all contributors to fatigue and muscle soreness).

3. Stretch and recover.

Burke said we must not forget finding time to stretch and foam roll!

“Both great ways to ease out tight spots and nip niggles in the bud before they develop into anything more threatening,” she adds.

4. Identify sources of psychological stress.

Marcora said: “However, we now know that the so-called ‘overtraining syndrome’ is actually a chronic fatigue syndrome experienced by athletes.

“In other words, the cause of chronic fatigue may not be just the excessive training load. We need to consider the so called “psychological load”, i.e. the various factors in an athlete life that can cause mental fatigue and psychological stress.

“Therefore, it is important to identify any source of psychological stress, remove it or learn how to deal with it better. Relaxation techniques and good sleep hygiene may also help.”

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