The Signs of Overtraining
Training consists of stimulus and adaptation. When the first is too strong and the second too weak you run into overtraining. When you are overtrained, you’re going backwards. If your body doesn’t have the resources to repair the damage done by training, all you have is damage and no progress.
Now I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into fitness to get less fit and have my body in a permanent state of stress and disrepair. I got into fitness so I could get ze abs just like the rest of you.
Training is like medicine. Dose is important. 1 paracetamol might help you get rid of that headache but it doesn’t follow that 100 will do the job better. Instead, you’ll end up dead.
A lot of us exercise not just for the objective benefits but for the feeling and the experience. Believe me, I get that. But it’s the same kind of reason that people have for going out to get shit faced. Now, overdoing the squats isn’t as bad drinking a bottle of whisky but it also isn’t good for you. You need to exercise (excuse the pun) moderation and understand your own motivations for training. Don’t be the Britney Spears of fitness.
Moving on to the main subject of this article, how do you know if you are overtrained? I split the indicators into two groups: the intuitive and the objective. Both are useful.
You should always keep an eye on the intuitive variables, day to day. Not only will this help you work out when you’re overdoing it but it will also allow you to learn about your own body.
The objective indicators tend to require a bit more effort on your part and so they are things you might track a little more sporadically or you might look at them when the intuitive variables indicate that you are straying into overtraining.
Below are the 5 intuitive and 3 objective indicators I have found to be most important.
The Intuitive Signs
1. Excessive Tiredness and Fatigue
If you’re getting at least 7.5-8 hours of sleep a night and you’re still tired then your body is struggling to keep up with recovery demands. Sleep is the primary engine for recovery, so if your body is telling you it can’t get enough sleep, then it’s telling you it can’t get enough recovery.
2. Joint Soreness
Soreness is part and parcel of training. But if your joints are hurting, particularly if they hurt when you’re actually training, then you most likely have a problem. The pain indicates excessive inflammation in the joint. Knees, shoulders and hips tend to be the most common places to experience this.
3. Dropping performance
Everyone has good days and bad days. But if you’re having many more bad days than good and you’re performance is measurably lower than normal then you need to be careful. If you’re scoring 10-15% lower than usual on more than 40-50% of tests, then this is you. This is also why it is so important to track your workouts so that you know when things like this are going on!
4. Poor Quality Sleep
This is different to (1) and just as important. If you’re feeling restless at night and can’t seem to fall asleep this is a sign that your sympathetic nervous response is dominating and your parasympathetic nervous response is blunted (more on this below). In lay terms, this means your body is excessively stressed and can’t switch off. This is a sign that you’re overtrained.
5. You’re getting sick
Look out for signs of a depressed immune system. If you are getting lots of colds, sore throats, coughs, ulcers, cold soars or spots and your sleep, nutrition and stress management is on point, then you’re probably looking at overtraining. Training places a stress on the immune system (this is linked with the inflammation it causes) and so excessive exercise can prevent your body from fighting infections.
The Objective Signs
1. Elevated Resting Heart Rate
You should get in the habit of recording your resting heart rate first thing in the morning, before you get out of bed because you need a baseline for this test. If your RHR is 5 beats or more above your normal rate for a 3 or 4 days in a row, you need to cool off a bit. The increased heart rate shows that your body is working harder than normal to recover from training and is struggling to keep up with the demands.
2. Hear Rate Variability
When you breathe in your heart rate increases and when you breathe out your heart rate decreases. The difference between the two rates is your heart rate variability and this measure is now used widely as the most accurate indicator of overtraining. Heart rate variability is positively correlated with recovery so if your HRV drops, it is a sign of overtraining. This again has to do with the different nervous system states. A low HRV indicates that the sympathetic nervous response (the fight or flight response) is dominating and this in turn indicates that the parasympathetic response (the rest and digest response) is depressed. The body is overstimulated and therefore cannot recover. How do you measure this? The best way is to get an app like OmegaWave. This app records your HRV and uses the data to tell you what kind of training you should be doing on that day.
3. Seated box jump
Many sports coaches have found that decreased performance in plyometric exercises is a good predictor of overtraining. Box jumps require full engagement of the central nervous system. When you are overtrained, your CNS will already be overstimulated and so it will not be as readily available for things like box jumps. I recommend doing seated box jumps once every week or two and backing off a little bit if your max drops by more than 5-10%.
Start paying attention to all these variables and use them as a guide. If you have some indication that you’re overtrained then either (i) you need to back off training or (ii) you need to step up your recovery game. Because overtraining is the same thing as under-recovering. We’re going to be addressing this in the next two parts. Next time we are going to talk about how you can limit your risk of becoming overtrained. In the final part in this series, we will specifically address nutritional strategies for staying recovered.
BJ & Tom