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Overtraining: When pushing to the limit isn’t enough

Welcome to another part of my series ‘The Dark Side of Fitness’ and a journey, where passion and dedication meet their breaking point.

For all us fitness enthusiasts, we know the feeling. The thrill, the hard work, the feeling after. We all know the saying ‘no pain, no gain’ and we have all pushed a little beyond that point at least once in our life. 

But, what if that pain becomes a risk to our physical health and our mental well-being? What if we can’t tell the difference anymore between being sore or being injured?

What is Overtraining?

Looking at its definition, overtraining literally means ‘training too hard or too long’, sometimes both. 

I already said it: exercising can be like a drug, it gives us this sensational feeling, the adrenaline is pumping, endorphins are getting released. 

We feel invincible, we have achieved something really big today (maybe hit your PB). We can see the gains in the mirror, we look more defined, leaner. Our endurance is getting better, we can last so much longer. 

Well, conquering new milestones on our fitness journey can give us so much satisfaction, that is becomes an addiction. Here we go, that’s where the training addiction comes in to play as well. So, we train and train because it makes us feel good, we can’t without anymore – at least that’s what our brain is telling us. 

And before we notice, with this excessive amount of exercising – overtraining – we are putting enormous stress on our muscles, our bones, our joints, our central nervous system. 

The signs.

While in the gym, we are full of energy, fuelled by adrenaline and our body keeps pushing through absolutely everything. Don’t think so? 

Trust me, I have done it for years and once the adrenaline wears off, our body shows us how it really feels. 

Fatigue. The feeling of coming home from the gym and wanting to crash straight away. All life has left us, there is no energy left. 

Constant soreness. There is just always something that hurts. Sore legs, lower back, shoulders. Of course, we would never admit it because it would tell us to take a rest. 

Trouble sleeping. Our body is so tired and exhausted, hurting, that we have trouble sleeping through the night. 

Decreased performance. Although we might not notice it, our body is at capacity. There is no way we can give 100% all the time without ever taking a rest. We might be able to push through at 80% and believe we are giving it our all but the truth is, we are not. But how can we know that if we never allow ourselves to recover? We don’t know how much more potential we actually have. 

Mood swings. Oh yeah, that’s a big one and I can tell you a thing or two. You are irritated all day because you are so exhausted. Any little thing can bring you to the tipping point. You are miserable, depressed, anti-social. 

What happens when we overtrain?

It is not a secret that overusing our body, our muscles and our joints every single day for a long period of time or high-intensity workouts can lead to some serious physical consequences

Because we ignore the signs and pretend that everything is okay, we run the risk of injuring ourselves and potentially even training through those injuries. We are burnt out and we might even lose the passion for what we once loved and exercising becomes more of a chore to us. 

On top of what we do to our body, our mental well-being suffers, too. Currently thriving for perfection, setting ourselves unrealistic demands can leave a toll on us. We become anxious and depressed. We have self-doubt, we don’t believe in ourselves anymore and what we are capable of. We feel inadequate once we notice that our body can’t keep up anymore. We feel like we have failed…failed although we have worked so hard. Too hard. 

I overtrained for years.

I am no good example when it comes to overtraining, I have done it for too long and I took it beyond the tipping point. 

I love exercising, it has become my passion, my life. Spending time in the gym, no matter if it is around others in a group environment or by myself, is my place of peace. I can socialise, I can compete in a fun way with others, I can switch off from the daily responsibilities for a little while and just focus on myself. It calms me down. I can sweat it out in a high-intensity cardio session or feel my muscles burn during strength training. It is a feeling like no other. 

I always had my daily session in the gym, usually before work in the morning. Quick 45 minute sweat session, shower and off to the office. That was all I had time for. 

But then lockdown hit and I had plenty of time to do what I loved. I trained every single day (what else was there to do?), I didn’t have to rush and I could train even longer or multiple times per day. Unlike others who spent majority of the time in lockdown on the couch, I became fitter than ever.

When some form of normality came back and we were allowed to go to the gym again, my endurance was through the roof. The one training session just didn’t do it for me anymore. So I added more in before or I did a second class. 

I joined a second gym so sometimes I did both in a row. Trust me, this requires excellent time management. 

And it is not a surprise, that my body couldn’t keep up with this for very long. I injured my back, resulting in chronic lower back pain. Did I rest after I hurt myself? Of course, NOT. I took a couple of days off because I wasn’t able to move but I always found a way to get the blood pumping. I had sore knees, a stiff neck, I strained my Achilles. I was a walking injury. 

But, I kept showing up EVERY SINGLE DAY

It’s a vicious cycle. It is so addictive. You can’t stop it. You don’t listen to the people around you. You start making excuses or you train in secret. 

I have done it all. 

How I got out of it? 

I learned to listen to my body. It didn’t come all of the sudden. 

It came with education. 

I started to read more, I watched more, I educated myself more about our bodies and muscles and what is actually required in order to see success. And surprise, surprise…it is not excessive daily training. 

I knew I had to give my body the rest and recovery it needed if I wanted to progress in my training. It was hard to allow myself a rest day, but it gets easier I promise. 

Finding the right balance.

It is never easy to change habits. It is kind of scary. But when your health is at stake, then we need to just suck it up!

Well, what is the first step to find a healthier approach to fitness?

1. Acknowledgement

Admit to yourself that you have crossed a line and that you went too far. You need to acknowledge that a balanced fitness routine will benefit you a lot more in the long run. Going all out will hinder your progress. 

2. Rest Days

Rest and recovery is essential for you to progress and is as important as the actual training itself. Make a weekly plan and incorporate set rest days. Allow time for muscle repair, get sufficient sleep and focus on a balanced diet. 

3. Cross-training

Mix up your workouts. Have your cardio days, have your strength training days, have your recovery days. Incorporate some yoga or pilates if you are the person for it, do some stretching. You can still train daily (although give it at least one rest day) but ensure you bring some variety into your schedule. This will allow to take away the stress of specific muscle groups each day. 

4. Support

If you feel like you are stuck. You want to get out but you can’t. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It shows courage and the willpower that you want to make a change. Speak to a professional, find a coach that can help you with a balanced workout plan and stick to it. There are plenty of people out there, that know what they are talking about. 

Fitness is a journey, not a destination.

We need to remember, that becoming fit and healthy and achieving the goal we are working towards is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, it takes determination and commitment. But it also requires us to find the balance between pushing our limits and pushing ourselves to breaking point.

Overtraining and going beyond a healthy training routine will only set us back. It will push physical and mental pressure on us and will delay our progress further and further. 

We need to acknowledge rest days as a part of our progress and embrace it as an important part of our exercise routine. We need to listen to our body and sometimes push the voices in our head aside. 

Read Next: Breaking free from the Chains of Exercise Guilt