For most of us, exercise gets our blood pumping, those feel-good endorphins rushing, and tires us out enough to enjoy a decent night’s sleep. But for those who take their exercise regime very seriously, there’s a risk of overtraining. This can have some surprising physical and emotional symptoms and the balance between hard training and resting is a tricky one to navigate. We asked Andy Steele, a personal trainer and ultramarathon runner about overtraining: “The trick is to recognise the symptoms of overtraining early and notch back before it becomes a problem,” he says.
These six signs will help you recognise when you might be overtraining and avoid the pain and fatigue caused by exercising too hard or too often.
1. You’re underperforming
You feel that you’re working as hard as you can, but your exercise tracker says something different: you’re not keeping up your usual pace and your tracked times are getting slower and slower. “Assuming your tracker isn’t faulty, these are signs that you need to be honest with yourself and either go for easier exercise or take some time out to rest,” says Andy.
2. You’re abnormally tired
Being tired after a training session is one thing, but feeling drained, lethargic and perhaps unable to finish your usual run or workout, are signs you may be suffering from fatigue. “Giving your muscles and body time to rest and repair actually improves your performance as well as your general wellbeing,” says Andy. If fatigue doesn’t lift after a week’s rest, it’s worth having a chat to your doctor.
3. You can’t sleep
Instead of sleeping soundly, are you waking in the night or tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep? Sleep disturbance may be a sign that you’re overtraining. Some people find that evening exercise makes them too pumped with adrenaline to sleep immediately, while others have no problems dropping off as soon as they hit the hay post-workout. “Know what’s normal for you – if you usually sleep like a baby after exercise, then experience disturbed sleep, consider overtraining as a possible cause,” says Andy. Exercise earlier in the day if you can, and make sure you take at least one full rest day a week to recover. It’s also important to wind down before sleep – a warm bath, reading or relaxation techniques all help.
4. You feel emotional
Exercise is supposed to make us feel good, and doctors recommend it to help manage depression. If you begin to feel your motivation or self-esteem is lacking, or experience low mood associated with your exercise, it could be a result of overtraining. “If you’re feeling unusually down after exercise, it can be a sign that you need to rest up and take it easy for a while,” advises Andy. It may be that non-training stresses such as work or family pressures are affecting you as well; address these before you put yourself under more pressure to train as well.
5. Your muscles are sore
It’s normal for muscles to ache for a couple of days after exercise – this is DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) - a ‘good pain’ and nothing to worry about. When, however, aching does not go away with rest, it gets worse, affects your everyday movement or it’s in muscles you haven’t recently exercised, these may be signs that your body needs to recover by taking a training break. Similarly, if injuries take longer than usual to heal, you may be pushing your body too far and you need a complete break to recuperate.
When any ache bothers you, you can take what you normally do for pain relief: tablets or rub in a pain-relieving topical gel such as Voltarol.
6. You have a persistent cough, colds or a slow-healing injury
Exercise might boost your immune system however research has shown that overtraining can make you more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections. If you find yourself catching frequent viral infections, or ones you get seem to linger, it may be that you’re not taking enough time out of your training to recover fully.
“It’s important to listen to your body” advises Andy, “it’s not a weakness to step back and give yourself more recovery time if you need it. In fact, it’s a strength.”
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