The main wellness message around activity and exercise is invariably “do some” or “do more”. And that’s fair enough, given that more than half of us are inactive / sedentary. Exercise and activity is one of the cornerstones of healthy balanced living and we are not shy to encourage it. But what about overtraining?
What is overtraining?
It is what it says it is. Doing too much exercise for your own good. Training too hard, for too long, or too often. Overtraining can cause:
Reduced performance – slower times, feeling of struggling, halt in progress.
Fatigue – during training and in general.
Injuries – there are several classical overtraining injuries (e.g. shin splints, ITB,) but almost any injury is more likely if you overtrain.
Muscle soreness – generalised or localised muscle ache (without a specific injury as such).
Infections – overtrained athletes become more prone to infections like colds, flu, gastroenteritis, etc.
Irritability – this can lead to burnout and even depression.
It has been estimated that at least 10% of competitive athletes are overtraining at any one time. Overtraining as a term is usually reserved for active folks, but it could be argued that the new-exerciser is also at risk of overtraining (even more so because they are inactive to begin with) if they take on too much too soon.
What to do?
There are really two approaches to this:
Prevention – build up your exercise regime gradually (e.g. no more than 5% increase per week) and monitor how you feel so that you “nip it in the bud” if you sense some fatigue, dulled performance, loss of enthusiasm, pain, etc. As a rough guide most healthy adults can aim to gradually build up to 4-5 hours of exercise per week – overtraining is uncommon at this level, but becomes more common beyond this.
Treatment – rest! If you think you may be overtraining we recommend a few days (sometimes more) of complete rest and then a resumption of exercise at perhaps 50% – 75% of previous levels. This varies greatly (especially if there are injuries or muscle soreness) and so seeking the advice of a personal trainer or biokineticist would be ideal here.
Most regular exercisers will have a fairly good sense of the optimum level they can train at, so the trick is really just avoiding the temptation to “do (too much) more”.
Overtraining is a very real thing that all exercisers should be aware of. The prevention and treatment approaches are mostly simple common-sense so the trick is just knowing how real this is.