How To Avoid Overtraining
As athletes we often feel that fatigue is normal. But how do you know when you’re just tired from a heavy week of training or if you’re tired because you’re overtraining?
Sometimes the signs are hard to see because they creep up on you gradually. It starts with poor sleep or a subtle decrease in your libido. It might turn into a loss of appetite or perhaps food just doesn’t sound that good to you right now. Then you get a niggle here and an ache there or a nagging headache that keeps popping up and you’re not sure why. Then, every time someone walks past you with a sniffle, you catch it. If this sounds like you, then there is a strong possibility that you’re overtraining.
Overtraining occurs when you’ve put too much stress on your body, specifically your nervous system, and it shows up with a curious collection of symptoms.
What Is Overtraining?
In order to understand overtraining, you need to have a basic understanding of your nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system has two branches - the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branch.
The sympathetic branch is responsible for your fight or flight response. When you are working out, even though it’s a positive thing most of the time, you’re activating the sympathetic branch of your nervous system. This is the branch that also gets activated when you’re annoyed about sitting in traffic or you’re having a stressful meeting with your boss.
The parasympathetic branch is responsible for “rest and digest” mode. The parasympathetic branch is dominating when you are relaxing, having a nice conversation with a friend, or doing something calming and restorative like yoga.
Your body is designed to go back and forth between these two states as needed and your nervous system is function is functioning optimally when you spend a little bit of time in a sympathetic dominant state, but then easily return to a parasympathetic dominant state. When your parasympathetic branch is dominant, you are getting the recovery period that your body needs in order to be healthy and thrive.
Avoiding overtraining comes down to managing your nervous system function as much as it does managing the physical and physiological stress that occurs with training (all of these things are closely tied together).
Signs You’re Overtraining
When you have too much of a training load and not enough recovery, overtraining occurs. Some of the things that indicate that you may be overtraining or starting to get close to overtraining are:
Sub-optimal performance during races and training
Difficulty sleeping or feeling “tired but wired”
Increase in resting heart rate
Loss of appetite and/or weight loss
Reduced strength or physical performance
Mood issues, depression, and/or lack of motivation
Frequent or increasing illnesses
Don’t Cure, Prevent
It’s much easier to prevent overtraining than it is to “cure” it. However, it is often caught much too late when your only option is to take some time off and rest to avoid further problems.
There are three areas that are important for you to focus your attention on that will help to prevent you from getting stuck in a pattern of overtraining and to recognize it before it becomes a problem.
track your metrics
I know that there are two pretty distinct categories when it comes to tracking. Those who do and those who don’t. Tracking to avoid overtraining doesn’t have to be stressful or complicated, but there are a few key metrics that you should keep your eye on to identify or prevent overtraining.
Heart rate variability (HRV): This is an excellent measure of the overall health of your nervous system. It measures the interval between each heartbeat or the inter-beat interval. In someone with a healthy and well-functioning nervous system actually has more variability between heartbeats. You can measure your HRV with a blue-tooth enabled chest strap and an app on your phone. The OuraRing is a ring that will track your HRV and some Garmin devices also have this ability.
Resting heart rate (RHR): Your resting heart rate is how fast your heart beats when you are at rest. In this case, lower is generally better. As your aerobic fitness improves, your RHR will generally drop. If you are unable to measure your HRV (see below on how to do that), your RHR is an adequate substitute. Many Garmin devices will track your RHR if you wear them while you sleep. FitBit and the OuraRing will also track your RHR. If you don’t have one of these devices, simply take your heart rate manually first thing in the morning (as soon as you open your eyes).
Body temperature: One thing that many people don’t realize when they are in an overtraining pattern is that their body temperature starts to creep up. This is similar to what happens when you start to get sick. This is a good metric to keep track of because it often starts to rise before you notice any actual symptoms. Using a regular thermometer and checking your temperature first thing in the morning is the most effective way to track this (if you’re female you may already be familiar with this as it’s also a family planning method).
Neuromuscular function: A study done is Sweden found that following a highly competitive soccer game, sprint times returned to pre-game speeds more quickly than jump heights did.  The amount of reduction in jump height that might indicated excess fatigue is still unclear. However, during the competition phase when overall training load is decreased, a reduction in neuromuscular function of more than 3% might indicate cause for concern.  Performing a jump test is simple enough that it can be done on a weekly or daily basis and give immediate feedback on your neuromuscular function.
Psychological measures: Measuring how you perceive your own physical status is important. Any concerns or issues that aren’t addressed will negatively impact your training and performance. Assessing your “readiness to train” is an easy and effective way to measure your psychological status related to training. Scores range from 1 to 5 and anything below a 3 is a cause for concerns and should be investigated further. If readiness to train is monitored daily, it’s also easy to see how any adjustments to your training schedule change the way you feel.
Elite athletes have a team of people who monitor their training performance as well as what is going on with their bodies. Then they analyze both the objective and subjective data and make changes to the athlete’s schedule accordingly.
Even if you aren’t an elite athlete, you need to do the same thing. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, it’s important to recognize how you’re feeling, the impact that has on your performance, and how to adjust your schedule to adapt to what the data (both the metrics and how you’re feeling) is telling you.
This is a skill that can be hard to develop on your own, especially if you’re prone to pushing through when you shouldn’t or you have a hard time motivating yourself to train. Working with a good coach who will listen to what you’re feeling and help you adapt is a good way to hone this skill and avoid overtraining.
Recovery is one of the most underrated and underutilized pieces of training and optimizing performance. It’s probably safe to say that recovery is the most important part of your training plan.
The biggest and most important piece of recovery, is sleep. The average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep per night. If you’re an athlete, you need more. If you have trouble sleeping or want to do more to optimize your sleep, check out this post all about sleep hygiene and how to get deeper sleep.
Hot and cold therapy is another great recovery tool. You’ll want to make sure that you use both of these in small doses to create what’s called a hormetic response. This means that a small dose has a beneficial effect but a large dose has a negative effect.
Regular saunas and ice baths or cold showers are great for recovery. However, you want to make sure that you aren’t negating your training effects by using ice or cold showers too close to exercise or for too long. Having regular massages is also helpful for getting your body into rest and digest mode. Meditation is also incredibly beneficial. Even just five to ten minutes per day is enough to help get you out of a sympathetic dominant state and into a parasympathetic dominant state (and this is coming from a former meditation denier).
No matter how you recover, using your recovery days to cram in another workout is an excellent way to make sure that you are overtraining. Active recovery such as walking, stretching, or yoga is fine. But don’t skimp on rest and recovery or you’ll pay a high price.
Overtraining is an Avoidable Condition
Remember that it is possible to avoid overtraining. But, you must pay attention to what your body is telling you and how it responds to training and recovery. You need to know how to use data and also how to use your intuition to figure out what needs to happen.
The data (objective) is great for figuring out what state your nervous system is in. If your RHR is high and your HRV is low, it’s time to do some work to get yourself into a parasympathetic state and recovery. But also spend some time thinking about how you feel. If you dread the idea of working out, you might be overdoing it.
It’s also important to be flexible in your training. Yes a training plan is important, but even the most elite athletes adjust depending on what’s going on in their lives or based on how they are feeling. A plan is a guide, not the law.
Sometimes less is more. If you’re really feeling like you need to do a workout but you know you need a break, do less of the workout. In these cases you’ll probably get more of a physiological adaptation because you’re hitting a better balance between training and recovery. Sometimes the smallest effective dose that still positively affects your overall fitness/strength but isn’t big enough to push you over the edge is the sweet spot you need.