People are obsessed with “more” when it comes to health and fitness
More cardio. More calorie restriction. More squats. More workouts. But if you’re not careful, “more” can lead to overtraining, injury, and illness.
Yep, there is such a thing as too much. Here's what that looks like.
Though I've only been coaching a few years, I've been fascinated by training for over a decade. I've thrown myself into all kinds of different workouts & training styles, and I've take on some pretty hefty challenges.
On top of that, I've always watched how people train. And I'm always interested in how my clients have trained previously - not just as a professional, but as a fitness and psychology geek.
Generally, there's a common theme.
Many of them tend to treat their bodies like teenage lads learning to drive a car.
"Full speed ahead on killer workouts! Max effort each time! Add another hour of cardio!"
Get hurt. Get sick. Feel discouraged.
But then, they're back on it...
"Cut calories! Weigh and measure everything!"
BANG! The "car" breaks down.
They lose control. They feel even more discouraged. They blame the diet, the trainer and/or themselves.
I've seen this cycle with so many people.
When they decide to get moving, they go in hard.
They throw everything — energy, time, money — at their weight loss, strength gain, or health goals. They feel invigorated and energized, high on their new workout drug:
"Have you tried the new Insanity workout? I've been sweating for like 16 hours since."
"I'm on a 6-part two a day split right now. Feel my quads bro!"
This "pedal to the metal" approach seems to work for a little while...
… but then it doesn’t.
One day it’s hard to get out of bed. Their back/shoulders/hips ache a bit. They feel a bit run down...maybe the sniffles appear.
A week later they mistime a movement an old injury pop up again. No big deal.
Until it gets worse.
A few days later their on the phone to the chiropractor booking in a same-day appointment. Game over, at least for a few weeks. They get given a few exercises to do, but they don't bother with them. They're too simple.
They lose their motivation, reach for the ice cream and head on back to square one.
What happened? Where did it all go wrong?
The problem isn’t usually the exercise, or even the intensity (though the programming of some of these workouts leaves a lot to be desired).
The problem is not balancing stress with recovery.
Exercise is a stressor.
It's usually a pretty good one...but it's still a stressor.
If you exercise intensely and/or often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other life stuff like work, relationships, travel, late nights, etc.
Now this isn't always a bad thing. There is plenty of evidence around showing that exercise can relieve stress.
But in terms of a physical demand, we still need to help our bodies recover from all the stress we experience.
How well you’ll recover (and how much extra recovery you might need) depends on something called the allostatic load — how much total stress you’re under at any given moment.
In other words, on those days when you're late for work, your boss gives you grief, you spill coffee on your trousers and your low on sleep from looking after your sick daughter all night before...
...performing intense HIIT workouts for 40 minutes or hitting the weight room for two 90-minute sessions could well be a recipe for disaster.
(Better keep the chiropractors number and the tub of ice cream close.)
On the other hand, if you slept well, woke up to sunshine, had a terrific breakfast, and strutted into the gym feeling like a rock star...
...your body is probably going to perform and recover pretty damn well.
If we challenge our bodies with the right amount of exercise, at the right intensity at the right time?
We get healthier and stronger.
If we take on too much exercise, with too high an intensity, and do it too often:
We break down.
Overtraining isn’t a failure of willpower, discipline or our balls (or ovaries).
Our bodies have complex feedback loops and elegant shutdown systems that actively prevent us from over-reaching or pushing ourselves too hard.
Two systems are at play here :
- Our central nervous system (CNS) acts like a car engine regulator. If the engine on a car revs too high for too long, it shuts down. Similarly, if we exercise too much, our brain tries to protect our muscles by reducing the rate of nerve impulses so we can’t (or don’t want to) move as much. And we certainly can’t work as hard.
- Local fatigue, the result of energy system depletion and/or metabolic byproduct accumulation, makes your muscles feel really tired, lethargic, and weak. Using our car analogy, this is sort of like running out of gas.
If we train too frequently and intensely (without prioritising recovery), the stress never subsides.
We never get a chance to put gas in the tank or change the oil. We just drive and drive and drive, mashing the pedals harder and harder.
If we “lift the hood” we might see:
- Poor lubrication: Our connective tissues are creaky and frayed.
- Radiator overheating: More inflammation.
- Battery drained: Feel-good brain chemicals and anabolic (building-up) hormones have gone down.
- Rust: Catabolic (breaking-down) hormones such as cortisol have gone up.
As a result, you might experience:
- Blood sugar ups and downs.
- Depression, anxiety, and/or racing thoughts.
- Trouble sleeping or early wakeups.
- Food cravings, maybe even trouble controlling your eating.
- Lower metabolism due to decreased thyroid hormone output.
- Disrupted sex hormones (which means less mojo overall, and in women, irregular or missing menstrual cycles).
And the real kicker?
You don’t get to decide if you need recovery or not.
Your body just decides for you.
If you don’t build recovery into your plan, your body will eventually force it.
The more extreme your overtraining, the more you’ll “pay” via illness, injury, or exhaustion. The more severe the payback, the more “time off” you’ll need from exercise.
What drives people to overtrain?
A lot of the time, when I start working with a new client, they worry that the program I've written for them won't be enough. There are usually a few reasons why this is the case:
1. Some people depend on intense exercise to feel good about themselves
They might tell themselves it’s “for their health” or “to get the perfect body”.
But, the truth is, many people depend on their extreme exercise regimen to feel good about themselves.
Those intense, laborious workouts can feel good. Almost too good.
Strenuous exercise releases chemicals that kill pain and make us happy… temporarily.
By the way, these chemicals are also released when your body thinks you’re in big trouble and about to die. Their evolutionary job is to help us float away in a happy painless haze as the saber-toothed tiger is eating our arm off. So in a sense, they’re stress-related chemicals.
For some people, these chemicals become a “hit”.
Pushing their bodies to the limit and working hard becomes their drug.
It's interesting how the stigma around different things we do to in order to get our fixes varies so wildly...but that's for another conversation.
(And yes, I have used illegal drug addiction as an analogy with clients, to varying levels of success haha).
2. Intense exercise gives you a sense of control over your body and life
It’s drilled into people’s heads via popular media: If you want control over how your body looks, hit the gym (and then hit it again).
People who overtrain often want to try hard and do their best to reach their goals. They think they’re “doing what it takes”.
If some exercise is good, more must be better, right?
And if low calories help me lose weight...well lower calories will get me in the shape of my life, yeah?
This is why when trainers start chatting about how people just simplify everything down to simply "moving more and eating less"...
...well, it really p*sses me off.
Again though, that's for another time.
3. Most people don’t know that overtraining can work against them
Clients I work with are often show surprise - along with scepticism, disbelief and, in one case, outright anger - when I tell them they’re doing too much.
Nobody’s ever told them that there’s a “sweet spot” for exercise that balances work and recovery.
Sometimes, less is more.
Long-term consistent effort often wins out over the "crash and burn" episodes that extreme in exercise and calorie reduction often bring with them.
Seriously. If cutting out all my clients' carbs and making them want to puke at the end of every session was the answer?
I'd turn up to every session with a low-carb protein bar and a bucket.
But it isn't, so I don't.
Exercise should enhance our lives.
We should leave the gym feeling energised and ready to take on the day...
...not exhausted and fearing the stairs.
Why not try better, instead of just "more"?
For a lot of people, doing a little less (and in a lot of cases, eating a little more) can be a terrifying prospect.
At the very minimum, it goes against the advice they've been given for a lot of their lives.
But try asking yourself this simple question:
"How's this working for me really?"
Are you getting the results you want? Are you constantly a little bit tired, a little bit sore, and a little bit p*ssed off? Do you even know why you're doing what you're doing?
Because if you're making your life a misery and you're not even getting what you want from it...
...well maybe it's time for a change.
I'm not saying you shouldn't ever train hard.
In fact, your body can recover from a pretty incredible workload...
...if you put in the time for rest and recovery, and learn to listen to what's really going on with your body.
And that might mean some sessions feel almost easy, like they're just a part of your normal, everyday life.
Those crazy, hardcore workouts? They're reserved for special occasions (unless you spend the other 23 hours of your day in a dream-like cocoon of total relaxation).
Fnding that balance and creating that relationship with exercise and movement can be the difference between finding health, happiness and strength...
...and spinning your wheels for the rest of your days.
Need help finding that balance?