Our topic for today is overtraining. A phenomenon that even I, a strength athlete and physical therapist, have experienced firsthand. Overtraining is an umbrella term that describes a variety of potential symptoms. However, each are the result of doing too much and overtaxing the body. In my case, I had forearm splints.
A quick aside for those who don’t know, forearm splints are akin to shin splints, except obviously at a different location. It is an overuse injury that can manifest in significant pain and can almost render a limb useless if it progresses unchecked.
Aside from tangible injuries, overtraining can manifest in many other symptoms such as:
- General fatigue
- A drop in performance
- Loss of muscle
- Decreased appetite
- Poor quality sleep
- Excessive muscle soreness
- Reduced concentration
Even when you have the best intentions, mistakes can happen. At the time of my injury, I had been training forearms about 3x/week but I didn’t consider the constant stress my hands were under simply by performing my duties as a physical therapist involving a host of manual treatments. Luckily, I knew exactly what to do to work my way back from this injury. Let’s go over some key strategies for you to arm yourself against the pains of overtraining.
Step 1- Have a thoughtful training split
I could (and already have) written an entire post about this topic alone. But an important factor related to training stress is- How much rest time are you giving a muscle group before it’s used again? I recommend the 48hr rule between strong training sessions involving the same muscle group. If you are repeatedly training the same muscle group without adequate rest in between, it won’t be long before some of the symptoms of overtraining present.
Step 2- Limit significant increases in training volume
Do you think a recreational runner who runs 5-10 miles a week would be ready to run a marathon? Of course not. The same rules apply for other forms of exercise. Going from couch potato to cross fit 6 days a week is a catastrophic shock to the body. Stories like these often preclude a diagnosis of Rhabdomyolysis, a serious syndrome that results from death of muscle fibers and an excessive release of catabolic hormones into the blood stream. This particular diagnosis is very rare, but minor versions are what produce the chronic fatigue, poor quality sleep, and muscle decline seen in overtraining. It’s smart to limit significant increases in training load, no matter the type of training. If you’ve been weight lifting once a week over the last few months, don’t suddenly increase to five. Go to two, then three, then four and make sure your body is responding appropriately.
Step 3- Sleep and eat
A synonym to overtraining could be under-recovery. It’s all about maintaining the appropriate balance between the two. If your training is moderate, but your recovery is poor, you could still fall victim to many of the symptoms described. Sleep is paramount to muscle recovery, and therefore, it is necessary to maintaining a sustainable training program. The amount of sleep required varies from person to person, so do your due diligence to find out how much sleep you need. Food demands equal importance- specifically protein. Protein is the building block of muscle. Exercise breaks down muscle and relies on protein to build it back up, stronger and better than before. Without the necessary nutrients in your diet, you’ll be out of balance.
Step 4- Take planned breaks
For people who exercise regularly, this is likely their biggest issue. Breaks are necessary for a sustainable fitness program. In gym lingo, this is often referred to as a “deload.” A deload can take on many different forms, but the intention is to give your body a break from excessive amounts of stress being placed on it during vigorous exercise. If you only exercise 2-3x/week or train at intensities that would be considered mild to moderate, then a deload won’t be necessary. However, if you have been breaking through training plateaus and really pushing the body to physical limits with frequent muscle soreness and general body fatigue, a deload is tremendously important to limit a progression into overtraining. Some people deload by reducing their exercise frequency; others may maintain the same frequency but limit the volume and intensity to 50% of a standard training session. Another form of a deload is a no-load. Meaning take a full week off and indulge in recovery. That is exactly what I did when I developed forearm splints. One whole week without touching a weight. It coincided with a week vacation I took during the holidays, so I had a break from manual therapy as well. I still did a little cardio and general physical activity, but it was a complete deload from weightlifting tasks. It did wonders in bringing down my pain and allowing me to slowly work back into smarter forearm training (emphasis on slowly).
If you are highly active, chances are that at some point you will get an injury. But often, the frequency and intensity of these minor aches and pains can be reduced by being a little more mindful of your training regimen. Use the steps I outlined above to be more intentional about limiting overuse injuries and other annoying symptoms of overtraining. Otherwise, you will be putting your gains at risk!