To say exercise is beneficial is an understatement. A consistent workout routine helps you lose or maintain weight, improves cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, reduces disease risk, and is linked to longevity. These benefits occur when you follow a regular workout schedule, consisting of exercise sessions followed by rest periods, so your body can refuel its energy stores and allow the muscular and cardiovascular systems to heal and repair. But what happens if you start to work out increasingly hard? Do you see more benefits and an even lower risk of disease?
Unfortunately, there is a point of diminishing returns with exercise, and if you are overtraining and not resting enough, you may begin to experience different types of signs - ones that indicate you’re working out too hard. Here’s what to look for.
What is overtraining?
Overtraining involves exercising excessively and frequently and not resting enough between sessions. Your body uses the time away from the gym to replenish energy stores, rebuild muscle fibers, and rest and repair. As you increase your exercise intensity and decrease your rest periods, your body becomes increasingly fatigued. Overtraining can occur with almost all types of physical activity, including cardio, weight lifting, HIIT, and all sports.
A study on the dangers of overtraining found that over-exercising can eventually lead to overtraining syndrome. Research shows overtraining causes issues with your adrenal gland due to increased physical stress resulting from over-exercising. As your stress levels rise, the hormones that the adrenal glands produce deplete, which causes chronic tiredness and feelings of burnout. Severe overtraining can lead to Addison-Type overtraining syndrome when the adrenal glands can no longer maintain proper hormone levels.
This leads to myriad negative symptoms that can take a toll on your mental and physical health. Here are 5 signs to look for.
As your body has less time to recharge between challenging workout sessions and as it begins to take a toll on your adrenal glands, constant fatigue is a clear sign you’re working out too hard. If you’re exercising too hard, you may begin to feel tired and run down constantly.
Research shows that fatigue symptoms associated with overtraining include:
- Low energy throughout the day
- No motivation
- Decline in workout performance due to feeling overtired
2. Trouble Sleeping
Despite feelings of fatigue, those who are over-exercising may experience poor sleep quality or insomnia at night. This can occur as the body's stress hormones your adrenal gland produces become depleted, and your hormones become disturbed. Poor sleep quality then makes it harder for your body to repair, which further leads to feelings of fatigue.
3. Mood changes
Research shows that as your hormones can be thrown out of whack when your over-trained body becomes tired, you may notice the following changes in your mood:
- Easily and more frequently agitated
- Quick to anger
- Lack of focus and an inability to concentrate
4. Higher incidence of illness and health concerns
Overtraining can wreak havoc on your immune system as your body is in a state of stress from hormonal imbalances and feeling overworked. The following health concerns are associated with over-exercising:
- An increase in colds and respiratory infections
- Menstrual changes, including irregularity or stopping completely
- Decrease sex drive
- Decrease in appetite
- Increased thirst
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Increase in blood pressure or resting heart rate
- May lead to adverse cardiovascular effects, according to research
- Noticeable changes to skin, hair, and nails, including acne and hair loss
5. Injury and Slow Recovery
- A decline or plateau in workout performance
- Overheating quickly, accompanied by excessive sweating
- Muscles that are unusually sore, stiff, or heavy
- Muscle strains
- Never feeling rested and refreshed after a rest day
- Lack of enjoyment during exercise
- Chronic or recurring injuries, including muscle, sprains, tendonitis, stress fractures, and chronic joint pain
Tips for Recovering from Overtraining
Most importantly, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you must speak to your doctor. They can rule out other causes and help you craft a personalized treatment plan. If you have determined you work out too hard and have one or more symptoms discussed above, the following recommendations can help.
If you suspect you’re overtraining, taking time off to let your body recover is crucial. Experts recommend taking at least a week off entirely. If you’re an athlete with an upcoming event, research suggests reducing your training to 50 to 80% may be beneficial. Again, consult your healthcare practitioner to determine a personalized time frame.
Experts recommend adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. And if you’re overtraining, your needs may be even more significant than this. Sleep is crucial to your body recovering from exercise, so target at least 8 hours each night until your energy begins to return. If you’re struggling with insomnia due to fatigue, you can begin to train your body to fall asleep by starting a nighttime routine. Go to bed at the same time each night, avoiding phones and TVs beforehand.
If you are cutting your calories in addition to overtraining, part of the issue is that your systems and muscles aren’t getting enough energy in to help them recover. Muscle protein synthesis is incremental in rebuilding muscle damaged during exercise, but it’s unable to do that with adequate protein intake each day. Alternatively, if you are performing aerobic exercises, like running, for long periods, your body needs high levels of carbohydrates to replenish its energy stores. If you’re not eating enough, your body is working in an energy deficit. In addition, it’s important to ensure you’re drinking enough water, as dehydration can worsen your overtraining symptoms.
How to Prevent Overtraining
Giving your body enough time to recover in between exercises is crucial for preventing overtraining. If you regularly strength train, ensure you never do the same body part on back-to-back days; allow 24-48 hours of rest between working for the same muscle group. If you go on a particularly long run, build a rest day followed by a shorter, lighter workout, so your body has time to recharge.
Eating enough is also essential, as this plays a vital role in replenishing your body’s aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. And finally, build regular rest days into your routine. This doesn’t mean you can’t be active. Active rest days are great, which can include things such as long walks, yoga, or low-intensity biking. Yoga is also great for keeping your stress hormones in check, so you’ll be helping your adrenal gland out simultaneously.
Brooks K, Carter J. Overtraining, Exercise, and Adrenal Insufficiency. J Nov Physiother. 2013 Feb 16;3(125):11717. doi: 10.4172/2165-7025.1000125. PMID: 23667795.
Grandou, C., Wallace, L., Impellizzeri, F.M., Allen, N.G., & Coutts, A.J. (2020) Overtraining in resistance exercise: An exploratory systematic review and methodological appraisal of the literature. Sports Medicine, 50, 815–828. https://doi.org/10.17605/osf.io/5bmsp.
Kendall-Reed, P., & Reed, S. (2020). Overtraining syndrome—2020 update. Sports & Exercise Medicine Institute. https://www.semisportmed.com/overtraining-syndrome/.
Kreher, J.B., & Schwartz, J.B. (2012). Overtraining syndrome: A practical guide. Sports Health, 4(2), 128–138. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177%2F1941738111434406.
National Sleep Foundation (NSF). (2020, July 31). How much sleep do we really need? https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need.
O'Keefe JH, Patil HR, Lavie CJ, Magalski A, Vogel RA, McCullough PA. Potential adverse cardiovascular effects from excessive endurance exercise. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 Jun;87(6):587-95. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2012.04.005. Erratum in: Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 Jul;87(7):704. PMID: 22677079; PMCID: PMC3538475.