“No pain, no gain.” This is a phrase all too familiar to people who exercise. From the cycling instructor asking you to push harder, to the commercial trying to sell you the next best fitness equipment, the idea that you have to push your body beyond its limit is ingrained in how we understand fitness today. However, is it possible that this infamous idea is actually harming us? Truth is, too much of a good thing can actually be bad.
We at Wild.AI are all about pushing ourselves as active women. However, we also are huge supporters of rest and recovery so that we can be our best selves. In this article, we emphasize the importance of balancing hard sessions with adequate rest as we explore the world of Overtraining.
How do our bodies respond to exercise?
While the basis of how our bodies get better, faster, and stronger is complex, it all boils down to a simple principle: compensation. Our bodies respond to exercise by building stronger systems to limit the damage that could happen from future sessions of the same magnitude. Think of it this way, if you build a house and it gets battered by hail, you’re going to rebuild your house stronger the next time to limit the amount of damage that future hail storms could cause. The same is true for your body! Creating micro-tears in your muscles, depleting energy stores, and overall challenging your body, you are demanding that it responds by building a stronger house.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is your body’s ability to recover. If you do a very challenging workout, it can take up to 48 hours for your body to rebuild its home (we’re talking muscle rebuilding, not the other physiological recoveries going on) (1). If you ask too much of your body too soon after causing such destruction, you are causing more wreckage. In our house-building analogy, imagine that a second hail storm comes just days after the first one. You might have been able to repair a few holes in the ceiling, but overall you haven’t accomplished much in terms of mending the damage to which this storm is only creating more.
Instead, if Mother Nature gives you a month to rebuild your house, you might be able to install some extra support so the next hail storm causes less destruction. The same is true for our bodies, if you give your body more time to recover, it is going to better repair muscle, replenish important energy stores, and build an overall stronger system!
That’s cool and all, but what is Overtraining?
Now we get to the important stuff, but In order to understand overtraining, there are three terms that we need to define: Functional Overreaching (FO), Non-Functional Overreaching (NFO), and Overtraining Syndrome (OTS).
In terms of our body, this is when we are not primed to perform (because we're recovering!) so we might experience a slightly declined performance, but are likely to bounce back in a couple days stronger (2).
This is the scenario when Mother Nature gives us adequate time to recover and rebuild our house. We have holes in our roof, and it’s going to take us time to have a beautiful house again, but we are only going to build something stronger.
In this instance, we have slacked on the recovery front. Instead of letting our energy replenish and our muscles rebuild, we continued to tear the muscles, and deplete our energy stores. Not only is performance going to suffer, but it’s likely that mental health and some hormones might be affected as well (2). If we take a few weeks off, though, we are probably going to recover fully.
In this instance, we got hammered by more hail storms than our house was able to take on (maybe even a rain storm that caused some more damage). It’s going to take us more resources to repair, and it’s likely going to take us longer to rebuild.
Mother Nature really hammered us this time. After the hail storm, we got hit with severe weather for months, totaling the house. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild this one. If we’re lucky, it might be as strong as it once was.
To fully reach an overtrained state, we had to push through an enormous amount of biological signs telling us that it was time to take a break. Not only are we going to experience continuous underperformance, but we’re going to be chronically fatigued, we probably lost our period, we’re going to be constantly sick, among other symptoms listed below. Recovering from this is going to take weeks to MONTHS, and we might never reach our prior levels of fitness (2).
Lost or irregular period
Mental health impacts (anxiety, depression, irritability)
High resting heart rate and heart rate during exercise
High blood pressure
Lack of concentration
Chronically sore muscles
Lack of motivation
Constant decreased performance
Weakened immune system
How do I avoid becoming overtrained?
In the simplest answer, OTS can be avoided by resting your body. But, as we all know, the body is anything but simple. Overtraining is complicated because everyone responds differently to exercise. What I mean by this is that you and your friend could do the same training program, and your friend could be overtrained while you are totally fine.
What makes overtraining so difficult is that it is extremely hard to diagnose. In most cases, people will not know they are overtrained until they experience the symptoms listed above.
Another complicating factor, overtraining is not only due to overexerting your body physically. Mental stressors like work, school, or relationship troubles can contribute to an overly stressed system, increasing the severity of overtraining (3).
Ok, but what can I do, though?
I’m going to lay out a blanket statement that is going to, no-doubt, make you a little annoyed: listen to your body. I know, I know, that’s what everyone says, but that’s because it’s true! Your body is always sending you signals about how it’s feeling. If you wake up one day and you’re supposed to run 5 miles, but your head hurts and you are tired, that’s your body telling you to take a rest day.
And I am going to say something controversial here, but hear me out: if you are not motivated to workout that day, don’t do it. Unless of course it's just because your 6 am alarm went off, it’s cold outside, and leaving your bed is the only thing holding you back, then you might just want to push through that. BUT, if you haven’t had quality sleep in the last month, haven’t taken a rest day this week, and the reason you aren’t motivated to workout is that you’re so sore you don’t think you’ll make it through the workout, then maybe take the day off! That long used societal trope that you have to push through your pain, is actually the same thing that is going to end up hurting you. You are not any less of an exercising queen because you decided to have a rest day. In fact, it makes you stronger that you can acknowledge when it's time to take a break.
If, like me, exercise is essential to your mental health (those little endorphins do so much), then on the days that you feel more meh, just do something a little calmer (think yoga, a long walk, etc.) to give you a little boost, while giving your body some more rest.
Tracking subjective symptoms like fatigue, soreness, and session quality, while also tracking physiologic symptoms like resting heart rate, sleep quality, and presence of your period are all great ways to make sure you are not overly stressing your body. Using Wild.AI’s daily and post-workout check-ins can be extremely helpful in not only giving you recommendations about training, but also checking in with yourself to make sure you are giving your house enough time to rebuild after the storm.
If you do find yourself experiencing some of the symptoms listed above, it's probably time to visit your primary care physician. Not only can they do further testing to assess whether you are overtrained, or not, but they can help you create a recovery plan (like architects to your contractor!).
- Pareja-Blanco, Fernando, et al. “Time Course of Recovery From Resistance Exercise With Different Set Configurations.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 34, no. 10, 2020, pp. 2867–76, https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002756.
- Kreher, Jeffrey B., and Jennifer B. Schwartz. “Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide.” Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, vol. 4, no. 2, 2012, pp. 128–38, https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738111434406.
- Hackney, A. C., & Koltun, K. J. (2012). The immune system and overtraining in athletes: clinical implications. Acta clinica Croatica, 51(4), 633–641.
- Infographics taken from: Schaeufele, Britton. “What Is Overtraining?” The National Sports Medicine Institute, 23 Feb. 2021, https://www.nationalsportsmed.com/what-is-overtraining/.