You love to exercise, push yourself and you appreciate the exhaustion that comes from a high-intensity workout. However, you don’t always get the results you want, you feel like your battery is drained after a few days of hard workouts.
Whether you are training to achieve success in a specific sport or workout toward a specific fitness goal, it can be easy to get carried away with exercise.
Exercise is physical stress imposed on the body. When the body is stressed consistently without appropriate time to allow the body to rest and recover, it could result in overtraining syndrome (OTS).
Exercise can help you add lean muscle mass to move faster or lift more weight. It can also increase aerobic capacity to improve your overall endurance. However, if you perform high-intensity exercise too often without proper rest, rehydration, and refuelling between exercises, OTS can occur.
The Purpose of Exercise
You may not compete as a professional athlete, but your ability to recover completely and effectively affects your training and how you feel before your next workout. Exercise disrupts homeostasis, which is the process when your body tends to maintain its internal stability while adjusting to changing external conditions. The recovery process is the complete return to homeostasis and is when physiological systems adapt to the exercise performed during the workout. Disrupting homeostasis by exercising to a point of fatigue can be the most effective way of making the desired changes to your body. Fatigue indicates that muscles have used all available energy and require a rest period to replenish energy so exercise can continue.
When Fatigue Becomes a Bad Thing
Exercise should be performed to a point of fatigue to change your body. But exercising at that level of intensity more than four times per week may not allow enough time between workouts for optimal muscle recovery. Doing too many high-intensity workouts in a row without proper time to fully recover and refuel can result in acute fatigue, the initial phase of overtraining.
Overtraining syndrome is a buildup of stress and fatigue that occurs as a result of repeatedly exercising to the point of physical exhaustion without allowing enough time between training sessions to completely rest, repair, rehydrate, and refuel. Overtraining syndrome can be difficult to identify because there is no individual indicator. It is an accumulation of various stressors. If you feel stale or tired and cannot improve your running times or add weight to your lifts, or if you lie in bed at night unable to fall asleep even though you are exhausted, you may be experiencing overall fatigue, which could evolve into OTS if not addressed with appropriate recovery strategies.
For example, bodybuilders know that exercising to the point of fatigue is the most effective means of enhancing muscle growth and definition, but they use split routines that focus on only one muscle group, which is then allowed to recover and grow during the next workout while other muscles are being used. As a different example, strength and conditioning coaches design workout programs for athletes that feature variable levels of intensity to initiate the desired adaptations but allow time to completely recover before a competition. Whether your goals are for physique or performance, the approach to making adaptations and achieving the results you want should be the same: Exercise to the point of momentary muscle fatigue that does not let you perform another repetition, allow an appropriate recovery period, and repeat.
How to Identify Overtraining Syndrome
Inadequate rest between high-intensity exercise sessions or working out too many days in a row are the most likely causes of OTS, which could lead to chronic fatigue, reduced physical performance, mood changes, neuroendocrine system imbalances, and frequent illness. The challenge with identifying the difference between being fatigued from a single workout or overtrained from excessive exercise is that there is not a single physiological marker to indicate OTS.
Common Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome
- Reduced immune system function.
- Chronic muscle soreness.
- Disruption of the normal sleep cycle, despite feeling physically fatigued
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Cognitive decline that can affect mood, the ability to process information, and decision-making.
- Weight gain despite regular exercise
- Changes to overall mood, increased irritability, and an elevated risk of depression
- Lower performance in routine training activities
Developing a Recovery Mindset
Some workouts should be challenging to produce the desired changes you want to make to your body, but the idea that all workouts need to be extremely hard or strenuous is a fallacy. Yes, harder workouts are necessary to stimulate adaptations in your muscles and physiological systems; however, lower-intensity workouts have an important role too as part of the postexercise recovery process to help alleviate discomfort the day after a really hard workout (1). Instead of pushing yourself to the point of discomfort with every workout, learn how to use lower-intensity exercise to recover from more challenging training sessions or to reduce stress by staying active when your schedule becomes busy. Exercising too hard during a single workout produces temporary soreness, while too many high-intensity workouts in a row without a day or two of rest could result in OTS.
Whether you are an enthusiast who exercises to look better, a weekend warrior who wants to beat the other people in the ladder, or an athlete working toward a scholarship or professional contract, understanding your recovery needs in your workout program could help you achieve your goals.
Your mindset should be that tomorrow’s workout begins at the end of today’s. Hydration to restore fluid levels in muscle and connective tissues, healthy nutrition to replace spent energy, and adequate rest (specifically sleep) are critical during the post-workout recovery process.
- Hausswirth, C., and I. Mujika, eds. 2013. Recovery for Performance in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Header photo by Cottonbro Studio