You're Not Overtraining, You're Under-Recovering
“Overtraining” is a buzzword that is tossed around the fitness community. It’s the result of pushing your body past its threshold, and it causes symptoms like fatigue, apathy towards workouts, persistent muscle soreness or joint pain, lack of gains, and lowered immunity. Essentially, it leaves you out of balance.
Competitive athletes regularly spend anywhere from 3-6 (or more) hours in the gym most days of the week. While the philosophy that nothing replaces hard work is valid, this amount of training for the average Joe may be considered overtraining.
But perhaps the real question is: does overtraining really exist?
How you recover is as important as how you train.
Train Your Recovery
The short answer? No. Under-recovering, on the other hand, does exist.
Although genetics play a role in your ability to train like a beast, how you recover is critical for training more to get better, stronger, and fitter. Just like working towards a heavier back squat or faster 500-meter row split, recovery must be trained. Chances are, if you think you are over-trained, you are actually under-recovered.
Recovery doesn’t mean taking ice baths, booking massages, drinking post-workout protein shakes, or sitting on your couch eating ice cream. While all of these certainly play a role in recovery, the two biggest factors you need to dial in for recovery are:
Proper nutrition will ensure that you are fully recovered between training sessions, whether it’s your day-to-day gym routine, a weekend throw down, or a big competition. Take the following steps to to prepare your body for your next workout.
Eat More. Food is essential to restore muscles after an intense workout. The harder you train, the more food you need to eat. The amount of fuel you eat will either make or break you, and far too often athletes under-eat for a few reasons:
- Lack of preparation or planning.
- Blunted hunger due to elevated cortisol (stress) levels from intense training.
- Thinking they are eating enough.
Eating more doesn’t necessarily mean you have to add in a Hulk shake or another full meal. Simply increasing a little bit at each meal may be enough. For example, a large sweet potato versus a small sweet potato, two tablespoons of almond butter with a banana instead of one, or coconut water or almond milk as a base for your smoothie instead of water. When you factor in the true demands of your training, you may be surprised to find out how much your training could improve by eating more food.
Carb Consciousness. Carbs get a lot of flak, particularly with the popularity of low-carb, no-carb, paleo, and ketogenic diets. However, depending on your training, adding carbs into your diet may be the approach you need to enhance your muscle gain goals. Post-workout is the ideal time to consume starchy carbs. Quality, real-food sources include sweet potatoes, potatoes, tubers, winter squash, pre-soaked rice, pre-soaked steel cut oats, or bananas.
Quality Fuel. A calorie is not just a calorie, and the way your body absorbs and uses the food you eat depends on the micronutrient makeup of those food (i.e., vitamins and minerals). Your body will get the biggest bang for its nutritional buck from meals made with high-quality ingredients. In addition, your body’s ability to digest food is greatly dependent on the type of food you eat. Which do you think your body will recognize: a dry, chemical-filled protein bar or real food? Eat that.
Digest. An often overlooked factor for recovery is your digestion. Approximately 75 percent of Americans report some sort of digestive distress (e.g., leaky gut, GERD, IBS, bloating, gas, constipation, etc.). If you aren’t digesting your food, your body is not absorbing the nutrients it needs to replenish energy stores to build muscle. How do you know if you’re not digesting well? Signs include bloating, constipation, gas, poor appetite, hormonal imbalances, general fatigue, headaches, and blood sugar imbalances, to name a few.
Preventive measures to aid in digestion include:
- Drink at least half of your bodyweight of water in ounces throughout the day, plus more around training.
- Take a probiotic and eat fermented foods 1-2 times per day (2-4 ounces of sauerkraut, fermented plain yogurt, or kombucha).
- Chew your food well. Slow down to taste and enjoy it.
There is no escaping the power of sleep for recovery. Five to six hours won’t cut it, and neither will seven. If you want to see what kind of performance your body is truly capable of, aim to log 8-10 hours of sleep each night.
A recent study1 of basketball players found that when instructed to get as much extra sleep as possible (following 2 weeks of normal sleep habits), faster sprint times and increased free-throw accuracy were reported. Mood was also significantly improved, with increased vigor and decreased fatigue. The same research group also evaluated a group of swimmers, increasing their sleep time to 10 hours per night for 6-7 weeks. At the end of the study, all athletes reported improvements in their 15-meter sprint, reaction time, turn time, and mood. This data suggests that increasing the amount of sleep an athlete receives may significantly enhance performance.
Stress is the root of inflammation, illness, and poor recovery. When your cortisol remains elevated (or out of balance), your body does anything but recover. Chronic stress from repeat pounding in the gym impacts your stress hormones, which can lead to decreased testosterone or estrogen (females), digestive dysfunction, plateaus, regression, mood imbalances, lowered immunity, and a lack of “pep in your step” for the gym.
Unfortunately, managing stress is often easier said than done. Many of our daily stressors, like traffic or your email inbox, are small in comparison to some of life’s greater challenges. When you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s helpful to keep things in perspective.
A slight change can make all the difference in decreasing your internal stress. Some simple stress hacks include:
- Variance in your hard and easier workout days.
- Getting enough sunlight and/or vitamin D.
- Adding a recovery-based workout in your regime (e.g., yoga, swimming, or hiking).
- Sleeping 30 minutes to 1-2 hours more.
- Counseling or talking to someone about things pressing on you.
- Scheduling an hour of "you" time on your busy days.
- Listening to a podcast or reading a book for escape and pleasure instead of watching the news, working late into the night, or listening to the drone of the radio on your commuter.
- Downloading the f.lux app to eliminate harsh blue light on your phone and computer screens.
Do your post-workout habits support high-intensity training?
High-Activity Recovery Meal Plan
Here is a sample of what a recovery meal plan to support intense training (2.5+ hours per day) could look like. Note: Serving sizes will vary depending on factors like gender and training intensity.
Here is a guide for your nutrient breakdown:
- Sedentary (relaxing day, work from home, no training): 0.5g/lb of lean body mass (LMB)
- Light activity (up to 45 minutes of hard training): 0.5-1.0g/lb LMB
- Moderate activity (up to 1.5 hours of hard training): 1.0-1.5g/lb LMB
- Hard activity (up to 1.5-2.5 hours of hard training): 1.5-2.0g/lb LMB
- Very hard activity (2.5+ hours of hard training): 2.0-3.0g/lb LMB
Protein: Baseline requirements are 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, or about 0.5 grams for every pound of body weight. Athletes need more protein to support their activity level, and should consider the following recommendations:
- Light activity: 0.7g/lb LBM
- Moderate activity: 0.9g/lb LBM
- High activity: 1.1g/lb LBM
- Very hard activity: 1.3g/lb LBM
Fats: The minimum intake of fats for maintenance is around 30% in grams per pound of your lean body mass. Thus, a 140lb woman with 20% body fat needs around 34 grams (112 x 0.3) of fat per day. Some people actually benefit from consuming more fats, as they are the densest source of energy of all macronutrients. With a more ketogenic approach, up to 60% of your calories can be from fat.
Meal Plan Sample Template
Water Intake: 1/2 bodyweight (in pounds) in ounces per day, plus 8-16 ounces around workouts.
Upon Waking: 16oz lemon water (warmed for extra bonus) with a sprinkle of sea salt (promotes balance and electrolytes). Probiotic supplement or fermented food (1-2 spoonfuls of sauerkraut or 2-4oz of Kombucha)
Pre-Workout: Coconut water (8oz) plus quality protein powder, or a green-smoothie (greens, coconut water, 1 serving collagen, 1 Tablespoon MCT oil or coconut oil)
Morning Training Session (1-3 hours)
- 3-6 pasture-raised eggs
- 2 slices nitrate-free uncured bacon or turkey bacon
- 6-10oz sweet potato, 1/2-1 cup pre-soaked rice or steel cut oats
- Healthy fat: 1/2 avocado, 1-2 Tablespoons coconut butter, coconut oil, or 2 teaspoons grass-fed butter or ghee
- 8oz coffee - black (optional)
- 6-8oz animal protein (meat, fish, egg, poultry)
- 6-10oz starchy veggie (sweet potato, tubers, beets and carrots, etc.)
- 1-2 cups greens/green veggie
- Healthy fat: 1/2 avocado, 1-2 Tablespoons coconut butter, coconut oil, or 2 teaspoons grass-fed butter, ghee, raw nuts, or seeds
Evening Training Session (1-3 hours)
Post Workout Meal (option 1):
- 1/2 sweet potato, rice, or fruit
- 4-8oz animal protein
- 1-2 cups green vegetable (optional)
Post Workout Meal (option 2):
- Quality protein powder
- Coconut water or fruit
- Greens (optional)
- 6-8oz animal protein
- 2-3 cups veggies
- Healthy fat: 1/2 avocado, olives, 1-2 Tablespoons coconut butter, coconut oil, or 2 teaspoons grass-fed butter or ghee.
- Probiotic supplement or fermented food (1-2 spoonfuls of sauerkraut or 2-4oz of kombucha)
How Can You Improve?
Take a look at these recovery recommendations. Which ones are you actually doing? They may not be sexy, but they work. You have to prioritize recovery to let your own greatness unfold. Overtraining may not exist, but under-recovery does. If you like to train hard, the right fuel and adequate sleep will allow you to continue to do what you love and make gains.
You'll Also Enjoy:
- Nutrition Advice to Turn You Into a Strength Training Animal
- Eat to Perform: Simple Dietary Advice for the Athlete
- Sleep Better: A Proven Way to Train Hard and Feel Your Best
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Cheri D. Mah, et al. "The Effects of Sleep Extension on The Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players," Sleep 34(2011):943-950.