The Overtraining Myth

Do you know how to train hard, but also when to back off, listen to your coach, take care of your body, and take rest days in order to get stronger?

We’ve been told that overtraining isn’t good for us, but what does it really look like? Ultra-marathoners may run upwards of 20-30 miles every week as part of a “light” maintenance phase of their training. That is considered normal (or even a bit lazy) for them, while the girl glued to her Stairmaster or treadmill for an hour every day may be told she is overtraining. Here are some other examples:

  • A triathlete or a bodybuilder prepping for a show may train over three hours per day in order to get all their training in, and that’s considered normal. The mere thought of that training volume is enough to make you tired.
  • An elite CrossFit athlete may spend six to eight hours per day in their gym, and for them it is just another day at work. You, by contrast, are thankful that you can even find one to two hours a few days per week to lift some weights and get your metcon in.
  • One girl may hit up Orange Theory Fitness (OTF) workouts five to six days per week. She has the body that you want and crushes her workouts in the “Orange Zone” every time, without breaking a sweat. You try to hit up your OTF workout as often as you can, yet your metabolism won’t budge.

What gives?

The Real Definition of Overtraining

There really is no such thing as overtraining. Instead, there are five factors that separate those who thrive from those who struggle with the extra work asked of their body:

  1. Under-recovering
  2. Work Capacity
  3. Mindset
  4. Underlying imbalances
  5. Stress

1. Under-Recovering

My first ever personal trainer used to tell me all the time, “There’s no such thing as overtraining. Instead, there is such a thing as under-recovering.” In other words, if you are not supporting your body’s needs outside the gym, or you are not training within your personal threshold for activity, then the effects of overtraining begin to happen:

  • Slowed metabolism
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Lowered mood
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Missing periods
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue

You are a smart cookie, and probably have heard about what you should be doing for recovery efforts. Things like:

  • Eating enough real food
  • Digesting your food properly (gut health)
  • Not relying on caffeine or sugar to function
  • Sleeping 7-9 hours per night
  • Drinking an adequate amount of water
  • Mobility and stretching
  • Varying the intensity of your training
  • Recovery hacks (ice baths, infrared saunas, massage, chiropractic care, etc.)

If you’re having a hard time hitting your training as hard as you like, chances are you are missing critical components of your recovery. One of the most common missing links I see in my own practice is the concept of eating enough. Quite frankly, if you are a moderately active female and eating less than 1800-2200 calories per day, you are not eating enough.

Eating enough also includes the types of foods you are eating. Are you eating only chicken and broccoli out of fear of what carbs or fats will do to you? Are you avoiding fruit because sugar makes you fat? Are you avoiding “too much” fat? Are you simply not planning your meals or eating erratically?

2. Your Work Capacity

In addition to your recovery efforts, everyone’s body has threshold where they thrive in training. If you go over that threshold too often or too quickly, then you end up digging a hole, instead of getting fitter. I am talking about your body’s work capacity.

This theory of capacity stems from John Welbourn, founder of Power Athlete, who cited a Russian science experiment that observed the differences in the work capacity of larger monkeys versus smaller monkeys. This information can help us answer the big question in fitness: Why do some of the fittest people in the world thrive off of one hour in the gym per day, while others spend six to eight hours; training like it is their job?

In the experiment, scientists observed that the larger monkeys were naturally active. They spent most of their waking hours moving around, eating, and playing. The smaller monkeys were naturally less active. The researchers then forced both types of monkeys to swap lifestyles, just to see what would happen.

The big monkeys (the active ones) were put into cages and allowed only a small amount of time each day to eat and move around. The little monkeys (the less active ones) were given various activities and obstacles to get food each day to increase activity levels. The results? Both types of monkeys experienced a significant decline in health, temperament, and performance.

Like the monkeys, some athletes thrive upon more activity or more volume, and others actually need less. A lower volume of quality training is key for them. Neither is better than the other. In fact, you see results with each, as long as you are training according to your body type.

3. The Mindset

Another huge piece of the training question is to ask yourself: “Where is my mindset?” This question is one only you can truly answer. Consider these examples:

  • Do you have a smart athlete mindset? Do you know how to train hard, but also when to back off, listen to your coach, take care of your body, and take rest days in order to get stronger?
  • Do you have a joyful mindset? Is training truly an enriching experience? Do you walk away from a session happier, more at peace, and more connected to your body?
  • Do you hate on your body throughout the session by talking down to it?
  • Do you find yourself thinking about your next meal, what calories you are burning, or your next workout during your sessions?
  • Do you find yourself looking forward to when the session is over? Is exercise is more of a chore than a joy?
  • Do you feel like working out is part of your daily checklist, even multiple times per day?
  • Do you pride yourself in never taking a rest day? Or do you make sure you train in order to justify eating that day?
  • Do you feel like a kid again, totally doing things you love, with no cares in the world?

4. Underlying Imbalances

The current state of your health also plays a role in your ability to handle more or less training. Predisposing factors or underlying body imbalances may hold you back from fully recovering.

Digestive distress is a common woe I see in average Joes and athletes alike. When your gut health is off (leaky gut, bacterial overgrowth, IBS, low stomach acid), then the rest of your health and recovery efforts are thrown off. In fact, overtraining actually makes things worse because it naturally suppresses stomach acid, making you more susceptible to constipation, bloating, wonky blood sugar, suppressed or ravenous appetite, and irregular bowels.

Other factors to consider that may set off the symptoms and side effects of overtraining include poor thyroid function, hormonal and metabolic imbalances (low or high estrogen, testosterone, progesterone or cortisol), autoimmune conditions, and underlying stress. If you have any of these underlying imbalances, then training more is not going to do a body good.

5. Stress

If your body is over-stressed, you will reap the consequences. Your ability to keep up with training will suffer, and with it, your results. Like our “big monkey” and “little monkey” example, everybody has a unique threshold of just how much stress one can handle. What stress looks like for each person is unique. Once you pass that threshold, you’re left spinning your wheels, despite doing everything right.

Say Cathy has 20 “stress dollars” in her account. She spent 10 of them on her eating disorder that she struggled with for 5 years; 10 dollars was zapped from her account because of the toll that undereating took on her body. Even though she is in a better place today, her body is still recovering and is 10 stress dollars down. Couple this with the 5 (sometimes 6) stress dollars she uses juggling a busy work schedule, and 3 stress dollars she uses on her constant need to please others. Then she wants to spend 5-6 stress dollars on 5-6 days per week of HIIT style workouts, plus at least 1-2 stress dollars on normal, everyday stress. She’s way over her limit.

On the other hand, take Sarah. She also has 20 stress dollars to spend, and she tries to use them wisely. She loves training, so she spends about 5-6 of her stress dollars towards her workouts, another 5 at her job, and another 5 towards her side business. Then 1 or 2 on the normal daily life stresses. She is just under that 20 stress dollar limit.

Sarah is able to handle the extra stress of training 5 to 6 days per week, despite her busy life outside as well, because she is under her stress limit. Couple this with some extra de-stressing efforts she takes to add bonus dollars to her stress account. She is eating enough, takes a complete day off from the gym regularly, uses proper nutrient and supplement support, and employs a gut health protocol. As a result, she’s actually earned 4 more dollars to add to her account.

Stress will constantly change throughout our lives. De-stress to restore your body and get the most out of your training.

7 Steps to Find Your Balance

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to find just the right balance for your training. For some, less is more. Some can handle more. Below are some steps to take to discover that balance for yourself.

1. Halt

Whatever it is you’re doing currently, put a halt on it, even if just for a short experiment. If something is not working or is broken, then it’s time to fix it. You have the power to do just that. Take a break for 7-30 days. As hard as it may be, in order to start fresh, you need a clean slate. What to do during the next 7-30 days? The opposite of whatever stress you’re putting on your body. Halting does not necessarily mean you have to stop moving at all. In fact, I’d advise against that. What it does mean is halting the stress and instead, getting back in touch with your innate human wiring—how you were designed to move.

2. Get Back in Touch with Your Ancestors

Like a plant needs water and sunshine to thrive, and the human body requires food and water and sleep to function, we also require movement. Not just any movement, but the innately wired movement that both you and I were created to thrive upon. When we look to our ancestors and how humans were designed to move, here’s what we see: Humans were designed to lift heavy things (moving logs, building houses, carrying stones), occasionally sprint (HIIT) from bears or for food, and thrived upon lots of low-intensity, daily activity like walking, foraging, and homemaking.

Fast forward to today, you and I still have the same wiring in us. We are not designed to sit at computers for long hours, or glue ourselves to treadmills watching Friends reruns. We thrive on variety. We thrive on function. We thrive on being connected to nature as much as possible. Include variety whenever possible.

3. Explore

What moves you? What do you love to do that makes you come alive? Team sports? Lifting? Yoga? Dance? Pilates? Spin? Group classes? A mix of it all? Make a list of your favorite ways to move your body—even if you’re not currently doing it (or not doing it as often as you like). It can be anything. Go try things that your current program hasn’t allowed you to try.

4. Adopt a Smart Athlete Mindset

Your mindset is your surest safeguard against overtraining. When your mind is in a thriving and healthy place, it will fight to help protect you from overtraining past your body’s thriving place.

Consider the athlete who genuinely wants to get better at her sport. If she is not improving, despite all her hard work and training, what does she do? She re-evaluates her training. Then she fixes it. She does what she needs to do to enhance her performance, not take away from it.

5. Set Intention

A way cooler version of goal setting is to set an intention for your fitness. Instead of just spinning your wheels, take a moment to define your top three fitness goals at this season in your life. I am not talking about body composition goals, either. I am talking about strength and performance-based goals. Things like: “I want to add 10 pounds to my back squat,” “I want to do three unassisted pull-ups,” “I want to jump up to a 20-24 inch box,” etc. You decide your top three, then set a deadline and a game plan for making that goal a reality.

6. Reach Out

You don’t have to go it alone. Overcoming a compulsion to overtrain, improving your fitness (on your own), or healing from the side effects of overtraining can feel overwhelming. The good news? Reach out. Connect to a trainer or Thrive for help in customizing a training blueprint that can help you get where you want to be.

7. See Yourself Where You Want to Be

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, envision where you want to be. Whatever you can imagine is within your capability to achieve. Do you really want to improve in your fitness or health? What does a thriving, healthy you look like? Who is the person you want to be in your relationship with your body? Get a clear picture of her.

Chances are, she is not obsessively thinking about food, fitness, or her body all the time. She is at peace in her own skin, not freaking out if she misses her workout that day. She is glowing and radiating, healthy and fit because she’s taking care of herself, not running herself into the ground. Get a clear picture of the girl you want to be and the relationship you want to have with fitness. Then, embody her. As we think, so we become. Even if you don’t feel like you are her yet, be her today, act like you are her today, and take care of yourself.

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