Over-training is when you have worked your body hard, consistently, and it struggles to recover from each subsequent workout. The most telltale sign of over-training is an overall feeling of sluggishness when you work out. Your muscles burn and you feel tired, even if – or especially considering that – you aren’t doing anything particularly challenging, by the standards of your recent activities. You may experience other minor symptoms – aches and pains, sore muscles or joints that don’t seem to ever fully recover, headaches, sleep disruptions, and so on. But the major sign of over-training is that weird and otherwise-inexplicable sluggishness.
Over-training does not mean that your training level is “too high.” It does not mean that you over-extended yourself or did too much, too soon. Over-training does not happen as a result of doing something wrong or failing to do something right. All it really is is a situation in which your body can’t or won’t recover from whatever it is you’ve been doing. A person can be over-trained with even light levels of activity. Taking adequate-enough and frequent-enough rest days can definitely help prevent over-training, but at the same time it’s important to remember that failing to positively increment your workouts – i.e., doing the same thing over and over again – can also produce over-training.
In short, training is a complex series of steps designed to produce a particular outcome. Like diabetes management, it requires constant attention to detail. Things can fall off your radar and undermine your training goals. You might spend one too many nights staying up a little too late. 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and then after a couple of weeks you discover that you aren’t adequately rested. You might be attempting to increase your weekly mileage, and fail to pay attention to the rest your muscles need. You might eat too much of one thing or not enough of another, and tip the macronutrient balance out of your favor. Or you could get slightly off track on multiple factors, where no one thing would be enough to push you off, but the combination tips the scales.
Many casual fitness enthusiasts don’t appreciate this enough. An Olympic athlete can sometimes have his or her training regimen worked out for years into the future, including workouts, meals, rest days, and everything else. To achieve that level of fitness requires not only the foresight to be able to plan it out and the physicality to be able to deliver, but also enough luck that nothing unpredictable interferes with the best-laid plans. Even small divergences from a years-long training regimen can result in over-training. These are the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, athletes who are good enough to have won on any other day, but on that particular day a multiplicity of factors conspired against them.
The point is, if you feel over-trained, it’s not necessarily your fault.
How you choose to respond, however, is definitely within your control. Over-training means you need rest, and plenty of it. You need good food and lots of water. You need a regular pattern of sleep and lower-than-usual levels of emotional stress. Take the time to let your body recover. Remember, you’re not injured and all is not lost. You just need a short spell of time to let your body get back to doing what it does best.
As you might imagine, this blog post was inspired by… me. After three months of dedicated, fast, hard training, my muscles don’t want to work anymore. I can’t increase my weekly mileage, because my legs won’t move any further. I can’t even maintain my mileage from two or three weeks ago because each day it’s a struggle. I haven’t lost any speed or strength, but I simply don’t feel right. When that happens, injury often follows unless I take the time to give my body rest.
So, for the next two weeks, I’m taking a much-needed break from exercise. I’ll be eating good, nutritious food, drinking lots of water, eschewing alcohol and soda, and just generally trying to do my body right. I expect to come back feeling stronger at the end of the two weeks, and at that point, I might be ready to train for something fun, like a half-marathon or something. We’ll see.