How to know if you’re ‘overtraining’ (and what to do about it)

Despite what you might think, when it comes to the gym, there is such a thing as too much…

How hard have you been working at the gym? Could it be too hard? If, despite your ever-increasing efforts, you’re still seeing poor performance, low energy levels and uncharacteristic mood swings, you could be suffering from ‘overtraining’ syndrome.

Formerly rarely seen outside of elite athletic circles, this condition is becoming more and more prevalent among active working professionals. So, if you’re struggling to build muscle, feeling fatigued and being confronted with minimal gains for your hard work, here’s how to sort things out…

But first, what exactly *is* overtraining?

In simple terms, overtraining is the athletic version of chronic fatigue. Its prevalence varies from sport to sport, but it is experienced by over 60% of endurance athletes at some point in their careers. It occurs when training efforts exceed the body’s ability to recover — resulting in a sudden drop in physical and mental performance.

And it’s on the rise. Due to the ‘professionalisation’ of amateur athletes – where everyday people, with everyday responsibilities, expose themselves to the intensity and volume of training usually reserved for the pros — many men are potentially putting themselves at great risk.

And the most dangerous part? Many of the most enthusiastic gym-goers interpret the symptoms of overtraining as plateauing or losing progress — and so they begin training even harder, locking themselves into a vicious circle that only exacerbates the problem.

So what signs should you look out for?

#1: Poor Performance — The easiest way to spot overtraining syndrome is in consistently poor performance. While it’s entirely possible to have an ‘off day’ in the gym, two or three bad workouts in a row may be a warning that it’s either time to start following a new training plan, factor in a rest week, or both.

#2: Muscular Soreness — It’s natural to feel some muscle soreness for a couple of days after training. But, if you train regularly and your pains are lasting three or four days, or if you’re aching in places you haven’t trained, this can be a signal you body hasn’t been able to fully recover and you should take a break.

#3: Elevated Resting Heart Rate — During periods of overtraining, you’ll notice that your resting heart rate will be 10-15 beats per minute higher than usual. Interestingly, this also happens when your body is starting to fight off an illness. So, any time you detect a few days with an elevated waking heart rate, take a rest.

#4: Insomnia — If you’re going to bed tired, but you still can’t sleep, chances are you may be overtraining. The best practice is to take a few days away from the gym to let your hormones and central nervous system restore balance. Supplements, such as ‘ZZZZs’ from Form Nutrition, can also help improve the quality of sleep.

#5: Emotional Changes — Because of the strain overtraining puts on your hormones, it isn’t uncommon to encounter severe emotional changes, such as a lack of motivation, lower self-esteem, or irritability. If you start noticing a change in your mood, take stock and seriously consider an extended period away from training.

How do you avoid overtraining?

With the many pitfalls and problems associated with overtraining, you may be tempted to ‘undertrain’. But this, too, is counter-productive — as if you don’t push yourself in the gym, time spent training has gone to waste. Instead, there are steps you should take to make your workouts safer. Here are four steps to help you exercise hard in the gym — without risking your health…

#1: Avoid sudden increases in training load — As tempting as it may be, avoid randomly and suddenly increasing your training load for a prolonged period. Training every day, or even multiple times a day, may seem like a good idea — but your body will benefit much more from adequate rest than excessive stress.

#2: Consider stresses in your wider life — Keep tabs on the number of physical and psychological stresses you’re currently exposed to, especially if you favour high intensity, high volume, or high-frequency workouts. If you’ve got a lot going on at home, or in the office, dial back slightly on your training to account for this.

#3: Manage your food intake — When you workout, calorie intake seriously matters. So start by making sure you fully understand what you want to achieve. If your ultimate goal is to lose weight or build muscle, make that your sole focus. If you want to run a marathon, make that your focus. But avoid doing both at once.

#4: Use a pro — If all else fails, hire a professional. An accredited coach will be able to safely manage the training process for you, and most gyms or sport-specific magazines will be able to make recommendations depending on your area. This way, you’ll be in safe hands — and you’ll probably benefit from the extra motivation, too. 

Want more fitness tips? Here’s the best gear if you’re running through winter…

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