The cool thing about this “hustle harder” mentality that seems to have grown bigger and bigger over the last decade is that nothing seems off limits. You want to try something new? Go for it. Never done an Ironman before? What’s stopping you? Want to consistently best your personal record? Then you better push yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s optimistic, sure, but there’s a downside, and it’s called “overtraining.”
It’s good to have goals and to strive to be the hardest worker in the group. It’s noble to push yourself. But there is a limit. And whenever we place unreasonable demands on our body, nature has a way of bringing us back down to earth. Overtraining often leads to decreased performance, serious fatigue, and physical and mental burnout.
It’s usually hard to catch before this happens because so much of our sports mythology is based on the greats who went above and beyond. Think about when Odell Beckham Jr. first burst onto the scene, ESPN shared a now legendary account of how the wide receiver processed his LSU Tigers’ BCS title defeat to Alabama, which was played in New Orleans’ Superdome. A freshman at the time, he was on the field by himself the next morning practicing before the sun came up and reportedly ran sprints up the nearby levees until 2 a.m.
Make no mistake, logging many miles, spending hours at the gym and working hard day after day can certainly help you achieve your athletic goals. “When an athlete is trying to improve their performance, they have to push their limits,” says Marci A. Goolsby, MD, Medical Director of the Sports Medicine Center at HSS, “but sometimes a line is crossed. Repetitive, strenuous training without adequate recovery can lead to overtraining, causing a negative impact on how the athlete feels and performs.”
Overtraining occurs when an athlete ignores the signs - muscle soreness above and beyond what you typically experience that occurs when you don’t sufficiently recover between workouts - and continues to train. You’d think, since we’re living in the golden age of recovery (do you have a foam roller or massage gun in your house?), that athletes would know better than to overtax their bodies. But many of us believe that weakness or poor performance signals the need for even harder training, so we continue to push. Training longer and harder seems like a good idea. Rest is confused for laziness.
It may be hard to know when you’re overtraining. “It’s natural and expected to feel fatigued after challenging training sessions,” Dr. Goolsby says. “But feeling like you aren’t recovering between sessions or experiencing overall fatigue and difficulty pushing yourself during workouts can be indicators of overtraining.
So what are the signals you should look for?
Of course, it’s perfectly normal to have sore muscles for a day or two after a workout. But if you’re still legitimately sore past the 72-hour mark, be sure to schedule a break and give your body a rest.
If you’re wearing yourself out at the gym or spending all day outdoors being active, you shouldn’t have much trouble falling asleep. The docs say this is most likely a result of a combination of nervous system and or hormonal system overload from overtraining. They suggest getting to bed earlier to focus on quality sleep between the hours of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., because this is the part of your sleeping pattern where physical restoration occurs.
Decline in Motivation
If you feel your self-confidence lowering, or start experiencing a lack of enjoyment in favorite hobbies and interests, these are signs of depression. Exercise is typically good for your mental health - but if you’re overtraining, it could have the opposite effect.
Susceptibility to Illness
The benefit of a healthy lifestyle should be less sickness, not more. If you are constantly nagged by headaches, colds, infections or changes in blood pressure, that’s your body’s way of telling you that your immune system is suffering. Reduce your training and increase your rest to boost your immune system.
Increased / Prolonged Injuries
Like we said before, overtraining taxes the body and lowers its ability to heal itself. Training in a weakened state creates the ideal environment to injure yourself or re-aggravate old injuries.
* Further Reading: Dr. Amy Saltzman, author of A Still Quiet Place for Athletes, advocates for mindfulness in sport. It can help you lower your stress levels, connect with the moment, and mentally bounce back after setbacks.