There is a time and a place for killing yourself in the gym, and it isn’t everyday.
And if this is your philosophy, it’s very likely that you are suffering from some sort of injury or inflammation, or will be in the very near future. This also means suboptimal results; the very opposite of what you are hoping to achieve with your precious hours spent in the gym.
The best results often include less time at the gym, more time in the kitchen, and the most time spent sleeping.
Yet, most people think spending a few hours in the gym a day, or repeated high intensity workouts are they key to results. "If only I had more time to workout I would have that 6 pack..." sound familiar?
The average person gets 5 hours of sleep a night, which is far less than the recommended 8 hours of sleep required for optimal health, healing, and recovery. Most of us think we can get by on much less sleep, yet studied show that this is rarely true. A lack of sleep will catch up with you and your waistline, sooner of later regardless of whether you are exercising or not.
The killer of results, wreaking havoc on your body is the stress hormone cortisol.
When we have too much cortisol, the body is unable to cope and recover, resulting in stalled fat loss, fatigue, decreased motivation, and a myriad of health problems. How are your cortisol levels?
Too much time in the gym increases cortisol.
Too large of a calorie deficit increases cortisol.
Too little sleep increases cortisol.
Too much mental stress (work, relational, and any other mental and physiological stress) significantly increases cortisol.
Caffeine increases cortisol.
Poor nutrition can increase cortisol.
Cortisol is responsible for the fight or flight response of our sympathetic nervous system. It’s especially beneficial in the event of a tiger attack, but is particularly harmful when we have an abundance of it with no use for it.
It is important to be conscientious of the sum of the stressors you are experiencing and act, and exercise accordingly. Increased cortisol breaks down muscle mass, leading to strength and muscle loss, affects insulin sensitivity and responsiveness which can lead to an impaired ability to burn fat, and difficulty managing sleep, emotions, and anxiety. When you’re experiencing high mental or physical stress or a lack of sleep, it is best to keep your cortisol in check by avoiding caffeine, participating in meditation, eating nutritious foods, and prioritizing sleep over intense exercise.
It can be beneficial to plan your exercise around your level of stress. Typically, when your stress total is low, you have the green light to train at a vigorous intensity with maximal output most days of the week. With moderate stress, it’s okay to engage in strength training in combination with aerobic training, with a focus on 1-2 higher intensity workouts a week and focusing on recovery workouts the remainder of the week. During times of high stress, it is best to avoid any training that will place stress upon the body as the body will further experience more stress and a decreased ability to cope with stressors. Workouts should be shorter in duration and lower in volume. Yoga, tai chi, stretching, mind-body exercise, deep breathing, foam rolling and dancing are best to decrease stress and inflammation.
The most effective workouts are shown to be roughly 45 minutes in duration and should include some degree of strength training.
How do you know if you are overtraining?
Overtraining signs and symptoms include:
Lack of motivation: We all experience dips in motivation from time to time, but if you’re consistently finding yourself unmotivated and unable to bring yourself to workout, it may be time to take a rest, and then ease into exercise by finding something you enjoy.
You feel like you got run over by a bus: If you’re eating well and enough to fuel your workouts, and you are extra sore, there is a chance you are not allowing yourself enough time for recovery. Cut back your volume or intensity of workouts, and add in more recovery based exercise, such as yoga, stretching, and tai chi.
Restlessness and loss of focus: If your nervous system becomes over excited, which can result from high intensity interval training, it might be time to take a rest. Sleep is going to be of utmost importance.
You feel sluggish all day: Overtraining the sympathetic nervous system can also result in a feeling of persistent fatigue. This is frequent in long distance running. Fortunately, incorporating shorter, higher intensity workouts can help reduce total volume of training and result in similar or even greater results.
A weakened immune system: Diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management play an important role in managing immunity. However, if these things are on track and you find yourself ill more frequently, it is very possible this is a result of overtraining. Morning sniffles and a cough can be warning signs, when you experience these, back off your training and focus on recovery.
Experiencing any of these symptoms? Take a step back, assess your goals, and create a new plan to get your cortisol levels in check. Avoiding overtraining will allow you to avoid disease, chronic inflammation, and help you to manage your health and weight in the long run. Exercise is meant to be a lifelong habit to help you achieve optimal health, not a short term activity to burn fat. Grasp the concept of healthy habits, and you will enjoy a life of health and happiness.
Fun Fact: You can actually use your grip strength as an assessment for overtraining. If you struggle to achieve a near normal result, it might be a sign you need to back off your training.