Training too much? Me?

I’ve always been a big believer in the Inertia law: “A body in motion tends to remain in motion; A body on the couch isn’t going anywhere.”

For years I have embodied both sides of that deal. I’ve had long periods of regular activity, and equally long periods of couch time. As I was ready to finish my certification and begin my career as a personal trainer this summer, I decided that couch time was over for good. I would just keep training no matter what!

I did well too! I lifted weights regularly, I trained for and ran my very first 5K, I did a boot camp twice a week followed by a swimming workout. I had a lot of fun really… until the last week of August.

The previous week I was particularly tired, I did have trouble sleeping and decided that it was nothing to worry about, I would just pull through it. My hip was also sore a lot, which was new, but I had added uphills to my runs, so I figured I was adapting to the new terrain. I pushed through the week, telling myself that next week was to be better. How wrong can one be?

Monday morning, I dragged myself almost walking backward to the gym, I didn’t want to, my knee was hurting for the first time in months, I hadn’t slept right I just felt like a mess. Halfway into my workout I just walked out and went home. I didn’t run that day, I felt like walking was just too much. Tuesday, I skipped boot camp. I just couldn’t get up, I was hurting again, but more than anything I was sick of it. I didn’t want to work out. Finally Thursday I dragged myself to boot camp and realized that I physically could not keep up. I didn’t not have the energy to do the workout, I did about half of it, hating every second of it. Afterward sitting in the car I realized that the very thought of going for a swim was making me feel nauseous.

WTF? I absolutely love to swim! It’s not a workout to me, it’s moving meditation. As I sat in the car, everything around me seemed to close in. “I can’t keep up, I can’t work out, I’ll never be a trainer, I can’t even train myself!” I just sat in the car crying, total melt down. Sometimes letting it out is needed I guess, I don’t know that the parking lot at Crissy Field is the ideal place but… Finally I calmed down, drove home sniffling, and sat back down to study.  As it turned out, the chapter I was starting talked about over training.  Isn’t it funny how things happen sometimes?

What is over training? 
Basically over training is something that “commonly occurs in athletes or fitness enthusiasts who are training beyond the body’s ability to recover” (NASM Essential Personal Fitness Training Manual p. 286). I like that description because it really seems to encompass all the factors at play in what happens there. It answers this simple question: How come athletes who train for the Olympics train 6-7 days/week at a lot higher intensity than I do, and yet they don’t end up sitting in their car at Crissy Fields crying their eyes out? Because their body have a recovery capacity that far out perform my own. Duh! right? Well yeah, but there is more to it than that.

Athletes do over train sometimes, and funny enough, so do beginners! For competitive athletes, it’s easy to understand that with a lifetime of achievement being at stake, it’s easy to lose one’s focus and to overdo it in the hope of bringing greater results. It’s not wise, but it’s understandable. Every Olympics we see a few examples of athletes who had great potential, but show up for the games burned out from their training and sadly crash during competition.

Ok, athletes I get, but newbies like me? Really?
It’s not so easy to understand how somebody who’s just getting started could over train.  I think there are two sides to this:

First, we tend to want to start training today and see results yesterday. We watch the biggest loser, and other such fantasy shows and think we can just go from hours on the couch to hitting the gym for hours every day, and go from flab to fab in a nano second. The problem with that is that the body recovers during rest, the more work is imposed on the body, the more rest it needs. Of course, the better conditioned the body is, the faster it can recover, needing a shorter rest period for a bigger training volume (but rest is always needed!). When you hit the gym for the first time in 10-15-20 years, your ability to recover is on slow motion for a while. The idea is to start slow, give the body sufficient rest time, and progressively increase the training volume as you become more conditioned. The same is true when you start a new sport since you are often working new muscles, or working them differently, and your body needs time to condition itself to the new pattern of movement to improve its recovery ability.

The other side of this issue is that we “know” that to lose weight starvation is required (please note the sarcasm in here). Unfortunately, starvation and training do not go well together. Truth is that you have to eat to lose weight, and that to work out, your body needs fuel (carbs, proteins, fats, a slew of nutrients) to keep going, and help recovery. Oh wait! There’s that word again, recover!

Insufficient food intake inhibits the body’s ability to perform (because it doesn’t have the fuel to power up) and to recover, making over training more likely.  There is a fine line between eating little enough to lose weight, but enough to be able to power through one’s work outs. Sometimes that line is hard to find because really, it’s in a different spot for everybody. The bottom line is that you will not be able to eat little enough to lose 2-3 lbs/week, and still have enough fuel to power through a high intensity work out every day and recover fast enough to keep the pace without feeling the symptoms of over training. Balance is the key, and having a clear view of your goals.

What to look for?
As I am writing this I realize that in mid August I decided to lose a few lbs because I thought it would make me look more “like a trainer”. So I added to my work outs, and cut down my food intake. Oops! Vanity is a b…There are tons of factors that can make a difference in your ability to recover. Sleep is certainly one of them, stress level is another. The best way to keep yourself from over doing it, and maximize your body’s ability to recover is to make sure you eat enough varied healthy foods , that you build your work out volume progressively, and that you remember that rest is a huge part of working out.

Here are some the symptoms that might be a clue that you are over training;

  • Decreased performance
  • Fatigue
  • Altered hormonal states
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Decreased immunity
  • Loss of appetite (if only!)
  • Mood disturbances
  • Lack of enthusiasm for training (abnormal lack of enthusiasm that is)
  • Altered immune system ability
  • Altered resting heart rate
  • Pain/ongoing soreness

So what do I do?
What do you do if you suspect that you might be over training? First, check with your doctor to make sure it is not something more serious, you can never be too safe! Then, take a few days off from training, see how that helps. I do mean days off, not “oh I’m getting burned out from running so I’ll swim for a few days” (not that such thoughts would ever occur to me…:oD). More importantly, take a good look at your training routine, your food log and your sleeping patterns, and make the necessary adjustment so that it doesn’t happen again.

Lets not confuse the soreness of a new routine with over training. Those are two different issues, the first week or two you are supposed to be sore, but weeks into it if you still are abnormally sore, tired, if it affects your every day life, then it’s time to think about it. Of course, chances are that you are either not eating enough in general, not eating enough of certain nutrients (cutting the carbs too much?) or need more sleep. There’s also the possibility that you have been too ambitious in your work out planning and need to step it back a little. It’s ok, don’t worry! You will get there, you just can’t run before you learn how to walk right?

Nobody said it would be easy, but I’m saying it can be so much fun!!

NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training