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Risks of Overtraining

Getting in shape and training for an event such as a marathon or triathlon requires prolonged and often intense physical dedication. It can take months of running, biking, swimming and weight training to get your body where it needs to be. For some, just working out hard day after day is a way of life. We would generally assume that intense exercise on a regular basis would be good for our overall health. But the truth is, sometimes the very acts we do to get healthy can actually push us past our physical limits.

Overtraining is an issue seen in countless athletes who increase training or train intensely for prolonged periods of time. Specifically, overtraining is a set of signs and symptoms that occur when your body is not able to recover sufficiently before going into your next workout. Over time, this cycle of starting the next training session before allowing recovery causes breakdown of the very parts of the body that you work so hard to build up. 

Your body needs proper nutrition and rest so that it can build up the areas that you worked, including your muscles, bones, heart and lungs. The structures and systems of your body adapt to the demands you have placed on them before the rest time. If your workout slightly exceeds your current ability, it will adapt toward what you did in a positive way. If the workout far exceeds your ability, it will take a longer recovery time to adapt, and may lead to injury.

This same phenomena occurs with trees. When the wind blows a tree, the roots will get stronger after the stress is gone. But if the wind is too strong, the roots will be pulled up and the tree will fall. The structure can be uprooted by a single gust of strong wind or a prolonged period of moderately strong wind.

The problem with overtraining is that the signs and symptoms show up very gradually and can look like other problems. Below are the hallmark signs and symptoms of overtraining.

  • Recurrent or prolonged injuries like tendinitis or stress fractures.
  • Illnesses caused by decreased immune system function.
  • Decreased performance (getting slower or weaker).
  • Amenorrhea, or the absence of periods in women.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Rapid loss of lean body weight (weight loss without body fat loss).
  • Increase in morning resting heart rate.

Preparing for and allowing time for recovery is essential. Your body uses the nutrients you have given it during the rest time, especially sleep, to strengthen. When you care for your body appropriately, you will see results. If your muscles were stressed, they will build themselves stronger (or bigger). If your heart and lungs were stressed, they will become more efficient. If the bones and joints were stressed, they will become stronger. But don't forget about that tree. Two main factors are necessary in recovery: nutrition and time. Good nutrition, including hydration and protein intake, is extremely important, especially within 40 minutes of your workout. 

One of the best ways to prevent overtraining is to focus on your morning resting heart rate. It's the last sign listed above and the easiest to measure and track. Generally, you will detect an increase in your heart rate before the other symptoms or signs show up. Tracking it in a log can be a great way to monitor your recovery.

Overtraining can set you months behind. Planning ahead, listening to your body and paying attention to nutrition will assure that you stay on target to reach your goals.