Many of us fitness-crazed adults have surely been on the receiving end of some mixture of astonishment, confusion, intrigue, befuddlement, skepticism, and judgment from friends and family members who question what would ever possess anyone to exercise at such an intense level. This reaction may, in part, help to explain the explosion in popularity over the previous five to ten years of boot camps, runners’ groups, master’s swimming classes, CrossFit, “hot box” gyms, P90X home exercise DVD programs, and on-line fitness chat-rooms where the fitness-crazed not only connect with like-minded individuals but also receive ample doses of motivation and inspiration to push harder. While participation in the aforementioned groups is, in my mind, entirely positive in manifold ways, there may also be risks associated with that nagging and discomforting question raised by our more sedentary friends and family members: are we training too much?
Stated more precisely, are we at risk for overtraining as a direct result of our zeal for and dedication to intense training? Overtraining occurs when we exercise beyond our body's ability to recover. But here’s where it gets tricky—in order to make athletic and performance-related gains, it is necessary to push our limits. The more fit we become, the harder it is to reach beyond our limits. In short, we must place increased stress on our body’s muscular and cardiovascular systems in order to improve. But without enough rest and recovery, our body does not get an opportunity to heal and grow, and our strength, stamina, and performance may thereby suffer.
The line between intense exercise and overtraining presents a difficult and vexing problem, one that deserves serious consideration and attention. I think one reason this problem is so vexing is that it contrasts so much with what we train our minds to overcome related to increasingly intense forms of exercise: fatigue, doubt, fear, laziness, muscle burn, and, yes, even pain. Ask personal trainers about the difficulty they experience in talking to their clients about the pain associated with intense exercise. Many of them will probably tell you that there’s “good pain” and “bad pain”; the first is a natural consequence of pushing muscles to their limit of strength and endurance and the second is an indication of injury to a muscle, bone, and/or soft tissue. But how do we know which is which? Many of us strive for the first and go to great lengths to avoid the second. For better or worse, distinguishing between “good pain” and “bad pain” is not something anyone can really tell us but something that we have to learn on our own, many times as a result of getting injured.
Although injury is not the only sign or indication of overtraining, how do we minimize the risk of injury? First of all, we need to realize that if we choose to train at an intense level, the risk of injury always increases. Warming up and cooling down properly, maintaining good form throughout an entire exercise movement, and avoiding overexertion of an exhausted muscle are all important. We need to exercise intelligently. This starts with being informed.
For starters, here’s a list of common indicators of overtraining, which I believe is one of several factors (including age, health status, training protocol, etc.) that is at the root of injuries sustained from intense training:
• Disrupted sleep, including initial insomnia (getting to sleep) and terminal insomnia (getting up too early)
• Excessive and prolonged aches or pains in muscles and/or joints
• Dizziness and lightheadedness
• Increased susceptibility to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
• Excessive and unremitting fatigue
• Frequent headaches
• Elevated morning pulse
• Sudden inability to complete workouts (or completion only with great difficulty)
• Decreased energy
• Feeling unmotivated
• Increased susceptibility to colds, sore throats, and other illnesses
• Decreased appetite
• Decreased physical/athletic performance
• Decreased libido (i.e., interest in sex)
To be sure, various items from this list can also signal that we may be struggling with other problems and if anyone experiences any of the above signs for longer than a couple of days, particularly if the pain and/or discomfort worsens, it’s probably a good idea to consult with a health care professional.
With respect to the topic of overtraining, suffice it to say that we ignore these signs at our peril. After all, why would anyone not listen to his or her body? We might even say that one of the indicators of fitness pertains to increased body awareness, such as in yoga and barre workouts. However, if it becomes necessary to over-use pain relievers just to make it through a workout or to stick with an intense training block, this indicator is lost. Of course, one reason for a reluctance to listen to physical messages of pain has to do with an athlete’s devotion —or what others might call addiction—to exercise. Like anything else, too much of a good thing is, well, not so good. Staying in a healthy training zone—whether this is measured by heart rate at rest or during training*, identifying appropriate exercise goals, and/or forming realistic and achievable expectations related to physical appearance and performance—is key to getting the most from our exercise routines. It also happens to be the best way to avoid the pitfalls of overtraining.
* There are numerous Internet resources to assist in calculating the best range for heart rate during exercise. One of my favorite sites is www.teambeachbody.com/get-fit/fitness-tools/target-heart-rate, which provides information across five levels of exercise intensity.
Tim Zeddies has a private practice in clinical and sports psychology. He has been the consulting psychologist for the University of Texas Football program for the last eight years. Recently, Zeddies won the 40-49 male division of the 2012 AFM FITTEST presented by Nexersys and won the 2012 Austin's Fittest Doctor competition, a division of the Fit Company Challenges