January is well behind us, soon to be followed by February already, and we can finally start to see the signs of warmer weather and longer days. However, as personal trainers, this is the time of year where we see an increase in injuries and symptoms of overtraining.
The cause for this upward trend is of course the valiant efforts of the ‘New Year Fitness Revolutionists,’ who haven’t exercised in a good few years but suddenly decide it’s a great idea to jump straight in and go hell for leather – the result? Three weeks of hard work in the gym with little to show for it in the way of results, apart from a sprained muscle and/or the feeling of exhaustion and change in mood. If you’re sat reading this and thinking to yourself “this could possibly be me…” then don’t panic, as this blog is the spoonful of medicine you’ve been waiting for.
Injuries usually occur when the amount of stress being placed upon the body outweighs the body’s ability to handle it. In the case of training and exercise this usually occurs when we place too much load or work (stress) through the body or working muscle, expecting it to cope when in reality, the body just isn’t ready.
It’s funny, we never start out with the intention of injuring ourselves, but the mind’s incredibly resilient, tough and driven, and although it may seem like we’re able to handle the stress psychologically, physiologically, we’re not at all ready and the mind ‘tricks’ our body into thinking it is.
So, how do you know how much stress to take on, and whether you’re doing too much?
Well, how much exercise should you be doing?
The definition of “too much” exercise will vary from person to person. For instance, a weekly 10k run may be a walk in the park for someone who runs regularly but, could spell disaster (and a possible knee injury) if you’re the type of person who’s left gasping for breath when running for the bus.
If you’re new to exercise or have taken a break, it’s wise to start out slow with an aim of training twice per week, for a maximum of an hour at a time and then build up from there.
It’s important to note, for anyone starting out or getting back into training, frequency (amount of sessions in a week) is far more important than volume (the length of a training session).
For some, beginning with a full hour may feel a little too strenuous and so we would recommend beginning with thirty to forty-five minute sessions several times across the week. Continue with this at least until you begin to notice improvements in recovery, both between exercises but also sessions; as well as an improvement in your capacity to handle more load and exercise volume throughout your sessions too. Monitoring both of these would be good start in helping to track improvements in fitness levels.
But how do you know if you’re doing too much exercise?
Our body isn’t daft and will try to warn us when we’re putting too much stress on it. Early signs of stress can be subtle in the ways they present themselves, however, they’re important to look out for as if ignored more obvious signs will present themselves the way of injuries.
The first couple of things to look out for include sleep and heart rate.
Your ability to fall asleep, and your ability to stay asleep are both tell-tale signs. If you struggle to fall asleep more than normal, it could be a sign that your volume of exercise is too much and you’re spending too much time training and/or not taking enough rest days. If you’re struggling to stay asleep, it could suggest that you’re training too aggressively and may need to back off slightly from the weights you are lifting or the type of cardio you’re doing. Typically, ‘night time wakers’ are the type of people who love doing a load of High Intensity Training or heavy strength training session on session.
Another simple thing to measure is your morning heart rate. Most phones and fit-bits are now equipped with heart-rate sensors. Testing your resting heart rate, ideally upon waking can be a value tool. We recommend testing it each morning for a week to establish what’s a ‘normal’ resting heart rate for you! Once you’ve established this baseline you’ll be able to see any abnormalities in your waking heart rate. If your morning heart rate is raised, this could suggest that you’re overtraining. If you’re training too hard, your body will be working overtime to help you recover and to meet the new demands you’re placing on it, causing an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn triggers your heart rate to elevate. If you find this to be case, try backing off or resting up until for a day of so until it’s gone back to its baseline.
Lastly, a really easy sign to look out for would be your overall performance. If you’re suddenly surprised to find yourself having to drop the weights that you would usually lift or, unable to keep up your regular pace during those HIIT sessions then this sudden, unexplained drop in performance could be the body’s way of telling you “hey buddy, I’m all out of gas and need to take a break.”
What damage can you do by exercising too much?
If you ignore these early signs of overtraining, I can assure you the later signs will be far harder to ignore. If you’re overreaching then you’re far more likely to be triggering old injuries to reoccur, or even gathering new ones. You’re also at greater risk of becoming ill if you’ve worked your body into an over-trained state, as your immune system won’t be working as effectively as normal ,as the body musters all of its resources and energy to try to repair the damage that’s occurred through exercise.
There can also be dangers to your mental health. A lack of sleep can lead to depression and mood changes, which can then be aggravated by feelings of failure or low self-esteem if you’re not managing the workouts that were easy for you a couple of weeks ago. Exercise should be a positive experience, so if it’s something you once enjoyed and you’re now dreading, it may be a sign that you need to take a break. Try taking a few days off or supplementing in some light based aerobic work or stretching and breathing work, and then return back to your workouts again after that.
Why is rest important?
When you ask people why they are exercising, it’s usually because they want to be healthier. It’s not uncommon to hear that people are going to go from nothing to hitting the gym or pounding the pavements five-to-seven times per week. However, rest is a crucial tool in the journey for health and its vastly underestimated. Rest is important for recovery and repair. When you’re working out, you’re actually breaking down muscle tissues, not growing them. It’s the rest time in-between workouts which allows the muscles to repair and grow. If you over-train then you hamper the body’s ability to recover, leading to the symptoms listed above.