All pain, no gain

Fitness can be a competitive business. Even if you’re not an athlete with pressure to outperform the opposition, it’s always satisfying to get the edge on a gym buddy, isn’t it?

Or maybe we’re our own competition. Battling the old us. We start hitting the gym, see and feel those improvements, then get that urge to keep pushing for more and more.

It’s an attitude that gets respect. We’ve all heard the sayings.

“Feel the burn!”
“Your body’s a temple!”
“Hit the wall but keep going!”

Don’t get us wrong, there’s absolutely a place for some Rocky montage stuff. Sensible high intensity workouts will bring huge benefits.

But power through too often without enough time to recover and you’re in danger of overtraining.

It would amaze you how many people who are hyper focused on their body, ignore what it’s telling them. Sometimes you feel the burn for a reason. Smash though your walls too often, eventually you’re going to hit a load bearing wall and bring that temple crashing down!

A lot of intense gym goers don’t realise that resting should be a part of their workout routine. An essential part.

Later we’ll touch on goes on in your body during rest and why it’s needed, but first let’s explore the dangers of going too far, too often.

Overtraining Syndrome

Overtraining syndrome is the name given to chronic over working of the body. This sets it apart from maybe just over doing it in the odd session and picking up a strain or feeling some short term fatigue.

Overtraining causes testable, sometimes long lasting changes, to your physiology like those seen in these two small but notable studies:

In 2001 the University Of Montreal tested 10 endurance athletes before and after doubling their normal physical regime for a period of 4 weeks. The found that 7 out of subjects developed a cluster of illnesses, injuries, suffered reduced performance and feelings of tiredness during training and daily life.

Those who didn’t display these symptoms still failed to improve despite the additional workload.

Tests revealed overtraining lowered ability to produce lactate, which is a good marker of anaerobic fitness. Even at the end of 2 weeks lactate levels had not returned to normal showing problems have the potential to be long term.

A Medical University Hospital, Freiburg study of 8 middle distance runners found similar. Over a period of a month they upped the distances volunteers ran, from an average of 85.9km in week 1 to 174.6km in week 4.

Again, 6 showed the effects of overtraining – muscle pain and fatigue increased, while lactate and max heart rate dropped. The other 2 saw their performances stall. Runners suffering overtraining saw their ability to maintain fast pace drastically reduce.

Signs to Look Out For

Overtraining can be an easy trap to fall into. Many people with stressful jobs workout to relax, not realizing they’re just putting their bodies under a different kind of pressure. And anything that produces feel good endorphins, as exercise does, can get a little addictive.

So it’s important that you’re aware of the early signs so you can slow down and minimize any damage.

At first signs may be tough to spot as it may just feel like your getting strains related to your routine. Worse, in the early stages you may even see some performance improvements (which is why high intensity training in moderation has a place.)

But persistent injuries, frequent illness, low libido or constant exhaustion are all obvious red flags.

A study by Morgan et al into the psychological effect overtraining on swimmers, found the condition can also trigger depression.

Battle on and ironically you may feel a surge in energy. Perhaps causing anxiety and trouble sleeping (further fuelling problems.) This is your adrenaline going into overdrive to cope with the demands you’re placing on the body. More adrenaline means higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Raised cortisol means more insulin, reducing your ability to burn fat and increasing fat storage. Cortisol also blocks testosterone, which amongst other things determines strength, stamina, muscle mass and sex drive. This hormonal imbalance is part of the reason for crashing performance levels.

Calm down, rest up.

Recovery is important because it’s the time when your body adapts to the stress of exercise and the real improvements are made. Basically, it’s when you take all that hard work to the bank.

You’re not slacking off, you’re replenishing energy stores, known as muscle glycogen, and repairing the breakdown of vital muscle tissue caused by exercise. You’re laying down foundations that allow you to level-up fitness wise.

If you don’t allow time to absorb work you’ve done, you’ll not progress. Think of a construction worker who’s so busy constantly signing for new van loads of new materials, he never gets a chance to build with what he’s got.

Regular down time can guard against, even reverse the effects overtraining, But deny yourself what we all need and stress cycle will only worsen to the point where problems will be severe and possibly permanent.

By all means get that barbell up early and often, just remember to make time to get your feet up too.

For sure, feel the burn but beware the burnout

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