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man tired at gym after workout overtraining syndrome

What Is Overtraining Syndrome?

Though 80 percent of U.S. adults don’t meet the minimum guidelines for physical activity, some certainly go above and beyond with their exercise routines. So far beyond, in fact, that their bodies can’t recover fast enough to keep up. The official term for this: overtraining syndrome. 

Exercise is all about balancing damage with recovery. “When you train, you deplete energy stores, cause small damage to muscle and connective tissue, and add stress to the body, which it has to recover from in order to see the benefits of the training,” explains exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S.

If you train too much (or too hard), you compromise that much-needed recovery time. Keep it up and you’ll see a long-term decrease in performance that may or may not be accompanied by other undesirable physical symptoms (more on those shortly).

Overtraining tends to affect competitive athletes, so odds are you won’t have to worry too much about it if you’re exercising for overall health. “The overwhelming majority of people training for fitness won’t ever reach a state of overtraining because they don’t train hard enough,” says Mike Young, Ph.D., director of performance at Athletic Lab Sports Performance Training Center.

That said, it’s definitely a possibility if you take your fitness super-seriously—and/or don’t take rest days. Here’s what to know.

Common Signs You Might Be Overtrained

At first, the signs that you’re overtraining can be subtle. “Overtraining can have some broad effects on your body, but it typically doesn’t affect your workouts much other than you being more tired or sore, or seeing some overuse injuries start to pop up,” Somerset says.

Usually, the effects of overtraining are more obvious on the lifestyle side of things, he adds. People in this state may wake up tired, notice a loss of appetite, and experience lowered immunity, depression, and GI issues.

However, symptoms aren’t one-size-fits-all. “Everyone is affected slightly differently,” says Young.

That said, if you’re overtrained, you may relate to one (or more) of the following symptoms.

1. A higher resting heart rate

When your body is constantly stressed (in this case, from exercise), your heart beats faster than normal—even at rest. If you typically track your resting heart rate (RHR) or have a fitness tracker that does it for you, check to see if your RHR has been trending up lately. If so, you could be overtraining, Somerset says.

Ideally, you’ll compare your current RHR to a solid baseline number. This means checking your heart rate first thing in the morning (before that cup of java or energy drink) on a day when you’re well-rested and recovered from exercise.

If you’re taking your RHR manually, find your pulse, and count the number of times your heart beats in 15 seconds. Then, multiply that number by four to get your total beats per minute. “Use that number to compare future readings against,” Somerset says.

2. Fatigue and mood swings

Feel tired and moody no matter how much sleep you get? “If you find you’re more lethargic, fatigued, and irritable than usual, it could be a sign of overtraining,” Somerset says. “This is especially likely if these symptoms are not associated with any life stress or monthly hormonal cycles.”

Read More: 7 Hormones That Can Mess With Your Weight

Overtraining is also associated with loss of motivation and a greater likelihood of depression, Young adds.

3. Decreased workout performance

This is the hallmark of overtraining syndrome. If you’re constantly stiff and achy, keep getting injured, and/or can’t seem to make gains in strength, speed, power, or muscle, chances are you’re not recovering from your workouts, Somerset says.

4. Lowered immunity

In healthy amounts, exercise is good for your immune system. But if you overdo it, you may feel under the weather more than usual.

The underlying mechanisms are still up for debate, but there is one theory (known as the “cytokine tissue-trauma” hypothesis). It suggests that too much training causes a buildup of pro-inflammatory cytokines (proteins secreted by the immune system). This then leads to immune system depression, sickness, loss of appetite, lethargy, and depression, according to a 2012 review in Acta Clinica Croatica.

What To Do If You Think You’re Overtrained

As unpleasant as overtraining syndrome may be, it luckily has a simple (and cheap) cure: rest and recovery.

“This could mean taking a de-load week, where you reduce workout frequency, volume or intensity,” Somerset says. Or, you could press pause on your workouts entirely.

While you rest or de-load, refocus on things you may have let slip during your training frenzy and prioritize habits and rituals that reduce overall stress. “This could be as simple as sleeping more, managing life stresses, and eating better,” Young says.

Read More: 8 Things To Do On An Active Recovery Day

Once symptoms improve, though, don’t try to pick up right where you left off in your training. Start slow and gradually add intensity, volume, and/or frequency as your body re-adapts to your workouts. Eventually, most people get to the point where they can comfortably handle up to five workouts per week without risk of overtraining, so long as they get good sleep, eat enough food to fuel their workouts, and balance other life stresses, Somerset says.

One more thing: As you build back up, be mindful of the symptoms that preceded overtraining in the first place, Young says. This is where keeping an accurate training journal comes in handy. Doing so allows you to keep track of the workouts you did and how you felt doing them. If overtraining symptoms creep up again, make note of it so you know how much training was too much. Then, back off a bit.

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