Though getting whooped in the gym on a daily basis might seem like the fast track to fitness, going hard all the time can actually backfire on your overall health—especially if you’re under stress.
“There’s a lot more to overtraining than just exercise,” explains Craig Weller, Exercise Specialist for Precision Nutrition. “If you’re constantly on edge about work deadlines, kids being late for school—you name it—intense exercise can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
In other words, routinely following up a hectic 10-hour workday with CrossFit might not be the best idea.
If your daily grind feels more like a daily struggle, look out for these five signs that it’s time to dial it back, take a recovery day, and reevaluate your workout routine.
1. You Feel Generally Pooped
If you walk around like a zombie in and out of the gym, it’s a clear signal your body, specifically your nervous system, isn’t happy with you.
Refresher: The nervous system transports signals between your brain and the rest of your body, and determines how you respond to the outside world. It controls everything from your heartrate, to your ability to move, to what stresses you out.
“Our nervous systems naturally cycle between two modes throughout the day and night: ‘rest and relax’ mode and ‘fight or flight’ mode,” explains Weller. “Stressors like exercise or an argument shift you into ‘fight or flight’ mode, and your body releases stress hormones like cortisol to power your body through. Once that stressor is gone, you shift back into ‘rest and relax’ mode when your hormones reset and your body recovers.”
Too much stress too often can get you stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode, which totally conks you out over time. “When your nervous system stays flat instead of cycling up and down, you’ll feel fatigued 24/7,” says Weller.
This burnout can come from any combo of training too hard or too often, skimping on proper nutrition, and feeling stressed about your job or personal life.
2. Your Mental Motivation Is MIA
When your body is stressed out, the gym starts to feel more like torture than a treat. “You’ll find you just don’t feel like exercising or can’t wait for your workout to be over,” says Weller.
That’s because overtraining affects how certain hormones function in your body. “Dopamine, for example, plays a major role in your motivational or ‘reward-seeking’ drive,” says Weller. “The more overtrained you are, the more dopamine you’ll need to get going.”
3. Your Gains Are In Decline
Haven’t been able to up your squat weight or hit that PR? Yep, another sign you’re burnt out.
“Your brain signals to your muscles when it’s time to contract or fire,” says Weller. So even if your muscles themselves are strong, your strength and performance may suffer because your nervous system is worn down.
4. You Just Can’t Sleep
When you’re fatigued, just as your nervous system struggles to rev during the day, it also doesn’t fully wind down for sleep. “If you start losing sleep consistently, it means your body is stressed enough to keep releasing those ‘fight or flight’ stress hormones when you’d normally be resting,” says Weller.
5. You Keep Getting Sick
The effect overtraining has on your nervous system hits your immune system, too—hence those constant, mysterious sniffles.
“The chronic stress of overtraining produces inflammation in your body, just like an allergy or virus would,” says Weller. Inflammation in your immune system means you’re less able to fend off minor ailments, and you’ll feel generally groggy and achy,” he says.
So, How Do You Get Back On Track?
Do these symptoms describe your life? Don’t panic. You can reboot your nervous system by reassessing these three major factors: your fitness routine, general stress, and your nutrition.
Step 1: Change Your Workout Game
So, yes, you should probably skip CrossFit tonight—but that doesn’t mean you need to hit the couch hard. “Your body reads any deviation from your norm as a stressor, so don’t just go from 90mph to zero,” says Weller.
Swap your HIIT workout for a hike or a bike ride instead of a nap. A mild, enjoyable activity can actually help your nervous system finally shift back into that ‘relax and recovery’ mode, says Weller. Plus, your joints need movement in order to get the fluid circulation that’ll help them repair themselves. If you go cold turkey on exercise, you’re already tired body might only feel stiffer in a day or two.
Step 2: Tune Up Your Nutrition
If showing your nervous system more love doesn’t snap you out of zombie mode, healthier eating habits—especially post-workout—can help do the trick.
“Since your body burns through stored energy (called glycogen) and starts to break down muscle during exercise, you need carbs and protein post-workout to recover,” says Pamela Nisevich-Bede, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D, owner of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat! Sports Nutrition.
Carbs restore your glycogen and protein stops muscle breakdown and promotes new muscle growth, she says. Eat 15-20g of protein and at least twice that in carbs after working out to help your muscles bounce back.
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Step 3: Prune Away Stress
Now that you know your body interprets all stressors—everything from your job to your workouts—the same way, something’s gotta give if you want to continue hitting the gym.
“If you want to perform well and benefit from your workouts, you need to eliminate other sources of chronic stress in your life,” says Weller. “Anything that triggers your ‘fight or flight’ response could push you over the edge into exhaustion.”
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