Whether you’re training for a race or competition or just serious about your workout grind, it can be easy to let a commitment to fitness to turn into an obsession. And when you just can’t miss a workout, your gym time can become more of a burden on your body than a benefit.
Why? Working out inflicts minor trauma on your body by creating micro-tears in your muscles, which then repair themselves and grow back stronger—unless you don’t give them proper rest to do so, explains Laura Miranda, D.P.T., M.S.P.T,. C.S.C.S., creator of PURSUIT. When you don’t balance working out with recovery and rest, you put your body in a state of overtraining, which the experts call ‘overtraining syndrome.’ When you work out too much and rest too little, your body can’t adapt and mayhem snowballs throughout your body, affecting your mood, hormones, nervous system, and immune function.
If you can’t remember the last time you took a rest day, these common signs and symptoms might mean you’re over-training and need to pump the brakes.
1. Your Sleep Quality Is Garbage
When your central nervous system is firing on all cylinders in an attempt to heal your muscles, you might have a hard time falling or staying asleep, explains Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., Pn1, founder of Training2xl. (This is because your nervous system, when in ‘go’ mode, churns out hormones like the stress hormone cortisol, which can mess with your Zzz’s.) Not sleeping well enough or long enough for a few days in a row can then impact your reaction time, immunity, cognitive function, and endurance.
Your body should be able to shift back into a normal sleep schedule after two rest days that involve ample bed time, but you may need additional rest days if you still experience sleep disturbances that second night, says Luciani.
2. Your Resting Heart Rate Is Elevated
Your normal resting heart rate is the number of beats per minute (BPM) your heart beats at the start of the day—once you’ve chilled out after being woken up by your alarm. If your resting heart rate is higher than normal, it could be because your body is pumping more oxygen to your muscles to help them recover and heal, explains Grayson Wickham D.P.T., C.S.C.S founder of Movement Vault.
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Tons of fitness trackers and watches monitor your resting heart rate—but here’s how to test it manually, if you like doing things old school: Set a timer for 10 seconds and count the number of pulses on your wrist or neck, then multiply it by six. If your resting heart rate is five to 10 beats per minute higher than your usual number, it’s a sign that your body is under stress, says Luciani.
3. You Feel Moody And Unmotivated
Whether you’re hitting the gym, walking the dog, or flowing through some yoga, that movement usually improves your mood. However, if you train too much, you may experience the opposite effect and feel mentally fatigued and grumpy. “You might even start to lose your love of working out because your body can’t handle the stress those workouts are placing on it,” says Luciani.
If you feel unusually moody, stressed out, or uninterested in getting yourself to the gym, your nervous system and hormones may be burnt out from too much stress and not enough rest. You may also notice that your sex drive takes a hit, says Miranda. If overtraining persists for a long period of time (we’re talking months, here), you may even feel depressed, says Wickham. It’s scary, but true—and research backs it up.
4. You Spend A Lot Of Time Under The Weather
While research shows that regular exercise can help boost your immune system, too much of it can actually have a negative effect on your immunity and make it harder for your body to fight off illness and infection. “If you’re over-training, you become more susceptible to sickness because you’re forcing your body to work so hard that it uses all its energy for training and can’t fully maintain up a strong immune system and keep your healthy,” explains Luciani.
If you notice you’re getting sick more often, dedicate a couple days a week to active recovery, on which you’ll stick to long walks, low-intensity yoga classes, or stretching, which increase circulation (and transport nutrients to our muscles) to boost recovery without putting extra stress on our bodies.
5. You’re ALWAYS Sore
Muscle soreness is your body’s way of telling you to that it needs more energy to repair and recover—and while a bit of muscle soreness is totally normal at the start of a new exercise routine, you shouldn’t constantly feel sore after your workouts.
“Athletes tend to ignore fatigue because they mistake soreness as a sign of getting better, faster, stronger, and tougher,” explains Miranda. Studies show that muscles may need anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to recover—and any soreness past that point indicates you’re just not recovering, says Luciani.
6. Your Last Few Workouts Have Been Lame
If you’ve felt slow or weak during your usual workouts, look out. For example, if you can usually handle a 60-minute HIIT class, crank out an eight-minute mile, or a 90-minute leg day, but find yourself huffing and puffing at your usual pace or weight, you’re in need of rest, explains Miranda. Consider a few bad workouts in a row your body’s way of telling you to take it easy—not a sign that you need to train more and harder.
7. You’re Not Getting Stronger
When you hit a strength-building plateau, there are two possible causes: either your body has gotten used to your workout or you’re not giving your muscles enough time to heal and grow stronger. Basically, you’re creating micro-tears on top of micro-tears in your muscles, says Luciani. So if you’re giving the weights your all but not seeing progress, chances are you’re overtraining.
The Bottom Line
When you know you need a rest, you can still move—just keep it light and easy. Do a low-intensity activity (like yoga, walking, or light swimming), make sure you’re eating ample protein, and take some time to generally unwind, recommends Luciani.
While how many recovery days you need depends on factors like your fitness level and the type and intensity of your workouts, most athletes will need about two or three per week.The most important thing, though, is to listen to your body. If you tend to push through the signals your body and mind send you, ask yourself the following three questions before hitting the gym: Did I sleep for seven hours last night without waking up? Do I want to train today? Am I in a good mood? If you answer ‘no’ to two or more of these questions, take the day off, says Wickham.