When you’re looking to improve your fitness it’s natural to think that you need to work as hard as possible in the gym, or keep smashing tough training sessions if you want to get better at running, cycling or swimming.
However, while hard work is undoubtedly required to hit your goals, if you push too hard too often you put yourself at risk of overtraining, which will undo all your efforts to improve.
We spoke to Chris Baird, strength and conditioning coach at Loughborough University’s sports performance team, about overtraining and how you can avoid it.
What is overtraining?
When we train we impose stress on our bones, tendons and ligaments, and muscle. When we train well, that stress creates what we call an adaptation leading to progress or improved performance over time. When this isn’t managed well, it leads to maladaptation and injury.
How can you spot you’re doing it?
When we train athletes, we run tests like bench pressing a specific weight quickly, so we can make comparable measurements each week. If you start to see a decline in physical output week on week, this can be a clear sign of overtraining.
For those who don’t exercise in a professional capacity, there is a simple way that you can spot when you may be starting to accumulate fatigue and that’s by measuring your heart rate. For example, if there is a consistent element of training that you do week in week out – such as running, cycling or doing an exercise class – you can measure your heart rate during each training session. If you find that your heart rate is gradually increasing week on week, this could be a sign that fatigue is starting to set in. As well as this, if you are finding that the same exercise or training session is becoming harder every week, it could be another sign that you are overtraining or not recovering sufficiently between sessions, especially if the workout is of the same intensity each time.
Niggles and minor injuries can also be another indicator. It means the exercise is stressing the tissue beyond its ability to repair itself in time for the next session. At an extreme level it can result in psychosomatic stress, such as sleeplessness and sweats.
What are the risks of overtraining?
When people overtrain we see maladaptation, which leads to injury and burn-out. By overtraining, or not allowing your body to recover between sessions, you are not giving your body enough time to replenish the vital protein – collagen – that makes up bone, tendons and ligaments or muscle. This leads to deterioration of tissue which has a number of knock-on effects.
This is particularly problematic in ligaments and tendons, which can become injured easily but have a very long recovery period – for many athletes it can write off a whole season. Overtraining can also lead to irregular movement or mechanics placing stress on body parts that conventionally don’t play major roles in movement, leading to further injury risk.
The other element to consider with overtraining is the psychosomatic impact. The stress your body is under physically can impact other parts of your life, such as mood and sleep.
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How do you avoid overtraining?
You are essentially aiming for an optimal balance of fatigue and fitness over time, and the simple solution is recovery and rest. If your body is given time to recover, then it adapts to improve performance for next time.
If you’re starting from scratch, build slowly over time with plenty of rest days between sessions. In this way your body builds its own protection against overtraining. If you’re at the level where you complete multiple sessions during the same day, try to leave at least six hours between training or running.
If you have overtrained, how can you recover? And how long will it take to recover?
It depends on what the impact of the overtraining is. If it is significant overtraining, the muscles can take two to four months to recover. If the body is just feeling generally fatigued, you may just need a week’s rest.
There are also other factors that will hinder the body’s ability to recover, such as the everyday mental stresses of life, like tiredness and feeling overworked. When a person is experiencing high stress, it can affect their ability to recover. Life plays a big part in how our body copes and recovers with exercise.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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