Are You Overtraining?

By Sadie Flynn – June 1, 2021

In the fitness world, there’s a subjectively thin line between what is lauded as a healthy relationship with health and fitness and what would be considered a dangerous obsession. And I don’t use the phrase “dangerous obsession” lightly, as I’ve witnessed firsthand the kind of damage that compulsory dieting and exercising can do to a person. 

I’ve seen a competitive dancer and runner suffer from shins-down stress fractures all throughout her college career because she preferred to be fueled by diet pills, energy drinks and Lean Cuisines for fear that food, water and rest would derail her dancing dreams. 

I’ve watched the painful recovery of a twenty-something CrossFitter whose patella snapped clean in half because her body — under-nourished, over-trained and extremely fatigued — had entered into a survival-based premenopausal state, causing her bones to become weak and brittle. 

I’ve listened as friends bemoan endlessly about how their bodies can never recover from a workout, yet they refuse to rest or eat the necessary amount of food their bodies need in order to sustain their hyper active lifestyles. These are the same people who hit a progress plateau and then hop to the next gym, race or challenge to avoid confronting their pain — chalking it up to the type of sport they were practicing instead of listening to their depleted bodies. 

The tough part about having a preoccupation with health and fitness is that it’s a sneaky snowball. What began as an honest hobby, slowly over time grew into a lifestyle, then devolved into an addiction. So, what are some signs that you or someone you know might be snowballing their way into stress fractures or snapped knee caps, and what can you do to help thwart physical and psychological damage? Grab an ergonomic chair and let’s discuss. 

Overreaching vs. Overtraining

Before we get to the state of overtraining, there is something called overreaching. Overreaching is a temporary condition that occurs in response to heavy loads or high-intensity work performed more frequently (and longer) than appropriate and without adequate rest. Signs and symptoms of overreaching are things like poor sleep, generally feeling under the weather and moodiness. What makes overreaching tricky is that it often does not have any significant impact on athletic performance. So, if undetected or unaddressed, overreaching can quickly spiral into overtraining. 

Overtraining is a chronic condition of extreme fatigue that can result in serious disorders involving the nervous and hormonal systems. Overtraining builds on overreaching and is induced by prolonged, high-volume, high-intensity exercise repeated, again, without adequate rest. Signs and symptoms of overtraining include poor sleep or insomnia, increased anxiety and/or depression, muscle and general fatigue, constantly being sick, loss of menstrual cycles in women, appetite loss and more.

Dr. Roman Fomin, a senior research scientist and associate professor of physiology, compared overreaching and overtraining to traffic lights: “If you see the yellow light, slow down and be alert. If you notice a red light, stop and help your body recover without delay.” 

Say you’ve been unknowingly overreaching, and you’re on the brink of overtraining — how can you proactively and productively pause at the yellow light so a temporary condition doesn’t become chronic? Here are three action steps:

  • Seek counsel. I am not a therapist, but I love mine. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from him over the years, it’s that if ever there is a habit or circumstance of yours that begs for change, and you experience anxiety from the mere thought, it’s likely that too much of your worth and value are being poured into something that can’t (and shouldn’t) fulfill or sustain you. I highly recommend finding someone who can help unpack why you are putting so much of yourself into health and fitness, so you can restore and strengthen your relationship with it.
  • Introduce (and prioritize) active recovery. At our gym, we’re constantly telling our members to take time to rest and recover appropriately. We believe it’s important for our people to know that it is unwise to work out hard six days a week for months on end — no matter your experience level. For some athletes, a three days on, one day off cadence works well. For others, five days on, two days off works better. Regardless of how they slice it, they’re resting at least two days a week, and on those days we encourage them to engage in some sort of active recovery. Active recovery can include long walks with your dog, leisurely bike rides, an easy hike, a casual swim, yoga, extended mobility sessions — anything low intensity that can work out soreness without adding load or volume.
  • Check your nutrition. Food truly is fuel. It’s fun, yes, but it’s what makes our bodies go and do. Proper nutrition is the most important factor to our well-being. Without it, we break down. And in the case of overtraining, it is highly likely you are undernourishing your body. There are a million and one ways you can go about buttoning up your nutrition, but I’d first and foremost recommend working with a nutrition coach who can help guide you through refueling yourself appropriately and effectively. The Refuel program at Renew is pretty damn good, if I may say so myself (as a client and staffer). 

So, if right now you’re readying your nightly ibuprofen and popping the cups off your IT bands, going on day five in the gym and feeling generally unenthusiastic about your next workout — perhaps it’s time for a priority shift.

About the Author
Sadie Flynn is a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer and former collegiate athlete with a penchant for power lifts. As a new mom, Sadie is deeply passionate about pregnant and postpartum fitness and wellness, and she works hard to help women take care of their bodies before, during and after birth. When she’s not coaching at CrossFit Renew or forcing her 90s alternative music beliefs upon you, you can find her somewhere outside with a beer, her husband, two dogs and their rambunctious toddler.  


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