The Reality of Overtraining

Is there such a thing as too much exercise? When it comes to fitness, we may be tempted to think that no duration is too lengthy, no frequency is too common, and no intensity is too excessive for physical training. But consider the reality of overtraining, a phenomenon in which an individual trains too much, bringing about weakness, decreased functionality, exhaustion, muscular and cardiorespiratory regression, and even psychological malaise.

Categories of Overtraining

It is possible to fall into one or both of the following overtraining categories:

  • Muscle Group Overtraining– Individuals who focus disproportionately on a specific muscle group or anatomical area can put themselves at a higher risk for overtraining. How does this happen? Consider the following scenario. You would like to improve strength and muscle mass in your lower body, so you focus excessively on strength training techniques such as squats, lunges, calf raises and stairs. You believe that training for two hours is better than training for one, training 6 days is better than training 5, and doing 7 sets is better than doing three. In sum, you have bought into the philosophy that more is always better. So you perform lower body exercises on consecutive days, for lengthy gym sessions, at a relatively high intensity.

Of course, the aforementioned exercises (squats, lunges etc.) are beneficial. But

think about how a muscle group responds to a sustained challenge with little to no rest and recovery. We know that bouts of intense activity will leave muscles torn down, depleted of energy stores, and in need of nutrition and rest. After an exercise session, the body begins two distinct phases, healing and growth. Once muscles and connective tissue are taxed in a bout of physical activity, muscles are repaired, connective tissue is strengthened, and the body returns to its pre-workout condition. Body systems then begin a process of compensating for workout trauma by increasing tissue in the targeted area, thus increasing strength and readiness for the next bout of exercise. To engage the recovering area in exercise prior to full recovery is to short-circuit this process of healing and growth, leaving the area unready and vulnerable for the next challenge.

  • Generalized Overtraining– When the entire body is driven to exhaustion, overtraining is a more systemic problem. This kind of overtraining is often a corollary to muscle group overtraining, but often comes as a result of training that is more comprehensive in its approach. Both cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal systems are depleted of energy and given inadequate time for recovery.

Awareness of Overtraining 

Though overtraining is a common syndrome, it is fairly hard to pinpoint and detect. Since it often results in decreased energy and performance, athletes often redouble their training efforts, a choice which in turn which further inhibits their progress and perpetuates this downward, cyclical spiral.

To avoid overtraining, consider incorporating some of the tips below:

  • Take a periodic week-long respite. It may be difficult to convince yourself of the benefit of this, but your body will thank you. I have found that a week off gives me renewed vigor and vitality when I return to exercise.
  • Get enough rest each night. Your body uses this time to rebuild and renew itself. Do not discount the importance of a good night’s sleep.
  • Vary the intensity and duration of your sessions. The body responds well to challenge and variation, so don’t be afraid to change it up.

Sources:

NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training

Originally posted 2013-10-08 12:17:54.