Overtraining: too much too soon?

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What exactly is overtraining?

It’s an often misunderstood topic. Despite the name, it isn’t really about training too much but a lack of recovery – there’s a big difference. What we call ‘overtraining’ is what happens when there is inadequate recovery between workouts. It means your training isn’t at an optimal level and you aren’t making the gains you should be.

How do I know if I’m overtrained?

There are a number of symptoms: constant fatigue, otherwise inexplicable drops in strength or performance, insomnia, depression, loss of libido, chronic muscle soreness and an increased susceptibility to illness. Once it has happened to you, it’s likely to derail your training for weeks or even months, and battling through the symptoms will only make things worse. This is one case where prevention is far better than cure.

How do I avoid it?

The first key to avoiding overtraining is what you do in the gym. Learn to manage and control your intensity. All-out 100% effort every time you hit the gym is not recommended. Going to failure or trying to hit a PB every time you’re in the gym will crush you eventually. Make sure you follow a structured plan that includes recovery days (or weeks).

It’s crucial to find a balance. If every time you don’t feel like going to the gym you take that as a sign that your body has had enough, you’ll end up rarely going to the gym. But at the same time, it isn’t smart to push through anything and everything. Learn the ways in which your body is warning you it’s had enough – and learn to listen to it.

How do I know when to back off?

If you find yourself feeling lacklustre day after day, the time has come to back off the training. There are a few options when it comes to doing this. You can try cutting down on volume and/or intensity for a week or so, a practice known as a ‘deload’ week. Alternatively you can take a complete rest, particularly if your overtraining symptoms are severe. Don’t underestimate the full rest option – more often than not you’ll come back stronger.

What else can I do?

Make sure there’s variety both in the type of workout you do and in how you approach your workouts. For example, in strength work many people regard constantly adding weight as the only way to progress. This isn’t true – there are plenty of ways to make sure you are continually getting better, including increasing reps, increasing sets, decreasing rest and improving form.

What can I do outside the gym?

Make sure you’re eating enough to sustain your training plan. Getting plenty of vitamins and nutrients from fresh sources – which should include plenty of vegetables – will help, as will eating protein at every meal. And make sure you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re training hard, eight hours a night is the minimum.

What if the worst happens?

If you are completely drained and can’t face another squat, take time off to rest and recuperate. Treat yourself to a sauna or a massage, and do some foam rolling. And in the future, make sure you take your recovery just as seriously as your training. It’s how you get better.