Whether you’re new to the gym or a barbell veteran, you expect your hard training efforts to be rewarded with better physical and mental performance. But what if your workouts haven’t been delivering the goods? What if, instead of mad gains, you’ve been dealing with poor performance, low energy levels or uncharacteristic mood swings?
There’s every chance you’re suffering from overtraining syndrome. Formerly a condition reserved for the elite athlete, overtraining is becoming more prevalent among active working professionals as we burn the candle at both ends. Gentleman’s Journal fitness editors, Tom Cleminson and Paddy Colman of FITcademy, give us the lowdown on what to look out for.
What is overtraining?
Overtraining syndrome 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 career and happens when training efforts exceed the body’s ability to recover, resulting in a sudden drop in physical and mental performance.
Worryingly it’s on the rise thanks to the ‘professionalisation’ of the amateur athlete – where everyday people, with everyday responsibilities, expose themselves to the intensity and volume of training usually reserved for the pros. On its own this doesn’t pose an issue but, if you’re also simultaneously managing the stressors of a full-time career, mortgage/rent and family commitments, you’re potentially putting yourself at greater risk of overdoing it than an elite athlete who can focus entirely on their sport.
And the cruel twist? Many gym-goers interpret the symptoms as stagnating progress, so they train even harder, locking themselves into a vicious circle that only exacerbates the problem. Unfortunately, often the hardest part of training is knowing when to rest.
Signs to look out for
Fortunately, overtraining syndrome is easy to identify when you know the five key signs:
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 (you may have had a bad night’s sleep or worked late), two or three bad workouts on the trot are a big warning sign 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 – especially if you’re new to exercise or are doing regular resistance work. If you train regularly and your muscle 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. Sufferers of overtraining syndrome often report feeling aches in their legs and hips, even when they haven’t directly worked those areas in the gym.
3. Elevated resting heart rate
While the healthy resting heart rate range is anywhere from 60-100 beats per minute, many athletes and fitness fanatics have a resting heart rate in the 40-50s when fully fit. During periods of overtraining, you’ll notice your waking or 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. Wearable tech, like the Apple Watch Series 4, are excellent for tracking details like your resting heart rate.
If you’re going to bed tired but can’t get to sleep, while also working harder in the gym, chances are the added intensity could be leading to overtraining. The best practice is to take a few days away from the gym to let your hormones and central nervous system restore equilibrium. Supplements, like ZZZZ’s from Form Nutrition, can also help improve the quality of sleep.
5. Emotional changes
Because of the tax overtraining syndrome 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 friends and family start noticing a change in your mood – take note and seriously consider an extended period away from training. It’s also wise to track your food intake to manage your recovery in the shortest possible time.
Why not play it safe and undertrain?
Given the many pitfalls of overtraining, understandably, some would assume that undertraining is a much safer option. However, maximal training, like over-reach training (a period of forced overload followed by programmed rest) is often necessary for an athlete to reach their fullest potential.
Here’s how to push yourself as hard as possible in the gym, without suffering the pitfalls of overtraining:
1. Avoid sudden increases in training load
As tempting as it can be, especially if you’re trying to shed the final few pounds before going on holiday, 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. Weigh up the intensity of your training vs. the intensity of your work
Keep a check on the number physical and psychological stresses you’re currently exposed to, especially if your training favours high intensity, high volume, or high-frequency workouts. When you’ve got a lot going on at home or in the office, dial back slightly on your training to account for it. When you’re going through a quiet patch, dial it up a bit.
3. Manage your food intake
When you want to change your body composition or performance, calorie intake seriously matters. Like, really matters. Start by making sure you fully understand what you want to achieve. If your goal is to lose weight and get a six-pack in time for summer, then make that your sole focus. If you want to run a blistering 10km time, make that your focus but avoid doing both at once.
4. Use a pro
One of the best things you can do for your physical development is to hire a professional coach to manage the process for you. Most clubs or sport-specific magazines will be able to make recommendations depending on your area, or you can work with a trainer online. Gentleman’s Journal Clubhouse partner FITcademy provides an end-to-end online personal training service, with Clubhouse members getting 15% off the Premium Package.
Think you’ve got your training under control? Here’s how to eat yourself healthier this summer…