The Real Dangers of Overtraining

Every day, thousands of people put themselves in harms way by doing something healthy: exercising.  They hit the track, gym, court, or pool with such determination they hurt themselves, burn out, or simply stop making progress.  Overtraining is just as big a risk for seasoned athletes as it is for people new to exercise.

What is overtraining? Overtraining means that a person exercises at an intensity, quantity and duration that is more than his body can recover from.  It can cause a syndrome of physical, mental and psychological symptoms that reflect an imbalance between training and recovery. It's more than just one extra-tough workout.  Overtraining happens when there's a pattern of repeated, excess exercise without proper rest intervals.  You don't have to be a marathoner to make this mistake.  It can happen to the average fitness buff too.

How do you know if you're overtraining?

Obvious signs are abrupt injury like a sprain or damaged knee.  Less obvious physical symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • Chronic muscle and/or joint pain
  • Frequent musculoskeletal injuries
  • The perception you're working harder than usual when you exercise
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Fatigue or tiring easily
  • Elevated resting heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Excess weight loss
  • Appetite loss

Behavioral symptoms may include:

Impaired athletic performance

Poor sleep or insomnia

Lost enthusiasm for exercise

Depression, anxiety or irritability.

What happens when you overtrain?  The goal of progressive exercise is to stress muscles enough to make them stronger.  If muscles aren't allowed adequate recovery time though, they rebel with fatigue, pain and poor function.   Tendons and ligaments that are put through too many repetitions or exposed to too much weight become inflamed.  Not only is this painful, it can cause such serious injury that it can shut down an athlete's career.  For less serious athletes, it can result in weekend warrior-type injuries that reduce your enthusiasm and capacity for future exercise.

How do you avoid overtraining?

  • Use the rule of ten - only increase distance, intensity, weight, speed or length of any exercise activity by no more than ten percent per week. 
  • Schedule rest days - Five days of exercise per week is substantial.  If you're exercising more than that, make sure some days are easy days and be sure to take at least one day off per week.
  • Skip a day - Don't lift weights or do resistance exercises on the same muscles two days in a row. Weight lifting causes tiny tears in muscle fibers.  They get stronger from healing.  If you don't take a rest day between training sessions, those muscles won't heal properly.
  • Cross train - Playing the same sports, using the same machines or doing the same old routine can overtrain some muscles and leave others at risk for injury.  Strengthen all muscles by varying your routine, and cross training with different sports.  For example, if you're a runner, spend some time on a bike or swimming. 
  • Train for seasonal sports in the off-season. Don't hit the slopes with a body that hasn't exercised since last snow season or try to play a soccer tournament when you haven't trained all year.  Cross train, exercise regularly and play it safe.