What Overtraining Does to Your Body and How to Prevent It
Overtraining—it doesn’t just happen to endurance athletes, it can happen to anyone. You might know someone you suspect is overtraining—like the guy who spends 2+ hours at the gym but doesn’t seem to make progress. Or you might know someone who uses the potential of overtraining as an excuse to not work out as much. The reason behind both is lack of understanding about training and how it affects results. So, without further ado, let’s set the overtraining record straight today.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining is like eating Oreos while brushing your teeth—the results aren’t pretty. That’s what happens to your body when overtraining—it gets all jacked up. The more you train, the more counterproductive it is to attaining results.
It’s confusing because you’d think the more you work on your body, the better and faster the results, but it doesn’t work that way. Why? Because recovery.
The body actually grows during recovery. If you aren’t providing it with the time it needs to repair and rebuild, it will break down, or even worse—it’ll turn on you. It’ll hoard fat, eat muscle and pout until you treat it right.
You might even have some of the symptoms of overtraining but you attribute them to ‘progress’ or ‘hard work’. Try destruction and a stagnant state.
Symptoms of Overtraining and What is Happening to Your Body
Main symptoms include fatigue and reduced exercise performance. But there are other subtler symptoms that may act as red flags to prevent a full on diagnosis of overtraining syndrome.
Michelle Lores, certified personal trainer, nutritionist, author and owner of La Tigresa told MaxQ Nutrition that among others, some symptoms of overtraining include, “elevated resting heart rate, elevated resting body temperature, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, fatigue, irritability, failure to progress, amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) and excessive soreness.”
There are other symptoms you may not associate with overtraining that could clue you in on whether you’re overtraining or not.
Let’s tell on them so they can stop ruining results, shall we?
Weight Gain from Overtraining
You have been working your ass off, but your mirror says that ass is bigger. Your parasympathetic nervous system is on overdrive. This leads to hormonal disruptions. What is that? It’s ugly.
Overtraining can cause the release of more cortisol.
- Redistribute fat to the stomach.
- Causes muscle loss or other catabolic effects.
- Prevent the use of fat as an energy source.
- Lower white blood cells (immune system strength).
Restricting calories can cause the same cortisol response.
In addition to these hormonal changes—it also has a domino effect. As the body’s hormones are thrown out of whack because of stress and overtraining, water retention will also join the depressing fat party. Increases in progesterone, estrogen, decreases in testosterone and overworked adrenal glands lead to water retention.
As a result, you’re not only holding onto fat, you’re holding onto water. Water retention can cause an increase in weight by as much as 5-10 pounds and make you feel like the Michelin man.
New Aches and Pains from Overtraining
This may seem like a no-brainer. Pain=overtraining? No. This isn’t regarding sore muscles from working out. These are usually new joint pains that aren’t connected to an injury or advanced age. Muscle contraction and repetitive joint action cause microtrauma to tissues. The body tries to adapt to this naturally through inflammatory responses which is aided by cytokines. The body’s goal is healing and strength–hence why results happen OUTSIDE the gym.
When the body is overtrained this normal healing response is exacerbated. The inflammation is amplified and pain is chronic.
Brain Fog, Energy Depletion and Heavy Legs
These symptoms can be trigged by overtraining because reduced glycogen stores can be created by cytokine induced anorexia/decreased food intake. The cytokines act on the hypothalamus to reduce hunger and they interfere with glucose transport to muscle cells. This may be the body’s attempt to re-route energy to the brain, rather than muscles, to survive. Heavy legs and fatigue are usually the result.
Depression Linked to Overtraining
In addition to brain fog, overtraining causes an increased uptake of tryptophan into the brain which causes enhanced sensitivity to serotonin. The result of reduced tryptophan is fatigue and depression.
Overtraining Puts You Under the Weather
You might notice a friend who starts a new diet, or if you have increased your own time spent at the gym—you get a little sicker. While it can be from a multitude of reasons, overtraining and decreased nutrition can both lead to a reduced immune system. Mainly because of glutamine depletion.
Glutamine is the immune amino of the body and responds to stress, trauma and infections. It does the following:
- Helps repair wounds.
- Helps boost the immune system.
- Provides nitrogen and carbon to cells.
- Is used as a fuel by some cells.
- Helps produce glucose.
- Keeps your big ol’ brain functioning normally–well, define normally? 😉
During times of heavy exercise or stress, the body uses more glutamine than usual. Levels deplete and the body then seeks energy from the muscles instead of glutamine. The immune system is compromised, the body is prone to more infections and muscles can start ‘wasting’ lending to fatigue, weakness and catabolism.
With that bit of info, how can we ensure we don’t overtrain?
How Much Training is Too Much?
Everyone is different. From body composition to fitness level. That’s why there cannot be a universal marker for ‘too much training’. Lores told MaxQ Nutrition, “I provide my clients with cyclic training that forces them to work smarter and not harder. It’s important to set short term goals for each day, week and twenty-eight-day cycle.” Lores said it is equally as important that the training goals be attainable but still out of reach. She said in this way, you must push yourself to achieve them. Lores offered an additional tip, too, stating, “Changing the specificity of the workouts allows your body to be confused, therefor garnering a better result without having to exert yourself to the point of overtraining.”
What is the Proper Rest and Recovery Between Exercises?
Now that we know how to identify overtraining and what it does to our bodies, let’s chat briefly about how to prevent it with proper rest and recovery times:
Rest between sets:
Muscular endurance training: 30 to 90 seconds
Hypertrophy training: 1 to 2 minutes
Power training: 3 minutes
Muscular strength training: 3 to 5 minutes (depending on fitness level).
Rest between sessions: This is dependent on the intensity and duration of the training session. The greater the recruitment of overall muscle, the greater the muscle damage, soreness and recovery. Types of sessions matter, too. Cardio, HIIT and strength training all effect the recovery period, and training style—such as ground based, can tax muscles more than other exercises. That being said, the ‘average’ rest period is as follows:
- Strength training should be carried out 2-3 days per week per muscle group, which requires 1-2 days’ rest per session.
- Other studies recommend for muscle groups to sufficiently recover, a 48-72-hour rest is necessary.
This isn’t possible for many athletes, and because of this, supplementation is often sought to increase depleted aminos and nutrients, expedite recovery and stave off overtraining.
This is crucial to their success, because overtraining can become a diagnosable syndrome and athletes may need to stop training for 2-3 months to recover fully.
Recall that types of training and goals impact these recommendations, so in our opinion, this suggestion cannot be universal.
Lores describes the need for recovery as instinctual, “Listen to your body, if it asks for rest, then rest. The amount of recovery time is dependent upon age, genetics, level of fitness and lifestyle among other factors. Everything in life has a rhythm, it’s a matter of finding your own rhythm and remaining there,” she told MaxQ Nutrition.
Lores takes a holistic approach to fitness and is a Transformation Specialist. With a background as a trained dancer, stunt woman and an author of a book triology set to be published later this year.
She says, “Training the body is only a tool I use to help people to step in their purpose and have physical, systemic and spiritual success. To prevent overtraining have a plan and stick to it, create feasible yet challenging goals and reward your efforts by nurturing your body and your spirit.” Lores said with this approach, “You can decrease the possibility of overtraining while still increasing your physical fitness and the strength of your inner forces.”
So, there you have it, what overtraining is, what it does and how to prevent it—with a side of Zen. Now, hop off here and go hit some weights before you overtrain that buff brain of yours, fit friend.
***Michelle Lores is a MaxQ Nutrition expert contributor. She is a certified personal trainer, a nutritionist, business owner of La Tigresa and author of a trilogy called “The Method” set to be published later this year. If you’re a fitness fanatic always looking for inspirational stories of triumph her books are right up your alley. Her series is based on her life story involving brushes with death, living in “Communist Cuba,” surviving an abusive relationship and being called to fulfill a mission—which you’re part of right now—just by reading this written ‘trailer’. Lucky you.
When her series releases, we will update this article with links to her books. In the meantime, feel free to stop by her site here.