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Can You Exercise Too Much?

Feel slow, weak, or fatigued despite a busy workout schedule? Overtraining could be to blame.
Can You Exercise Too Much?

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Exercise is healthy (and maybe even addicting), but when it comes to hitting the gym, is there such a thing as too much? When the amount of exercise exceeds the body's ability to recover, instead of getting faster and stronger, we can actually end up becoming slower and weaker (not to mention sick and injured). So rest those tired muscles and learn the warning signs of when the body has had enough — or even too much [1] [2].

Does This Hurt? — The Need-to-Know

For many, the fun of working out comes with reaching our goals at a steady place, be it for a championship team or personal best in the weight room. Sometimes, though, we can actually push our bodies too hard, resulting in a state of chronic fatigue and decreased performance known as overtraining. And though very intense exercise might increase the likelihood of pushing things a bit too far, athletes of all shapes, sizes, and sports — from runners to weightlifters — are susceptible.

A lack of progress is often a first sign of overtraining, signaling it's probably time to make some adjustments to allow for better recovery (and maybe take a good mental break, too) [3]. But the symptoms of overtraining include a variety of other aches, pains, and seemingly every other annoyance in between:

  • Achey Breaky Heart. Experiencing marked fluctuations in resting heart rate and blood pressure [4]? It could be a sign the body needs more rest. Some observational research also suggests chronic endurance exercise can contribute to irregular heart rates [5] [6]. While the link between tons of exercise and heart rate problems isn't fully understood — or accepted — it's best to take any noticeable abnormalities seriously if they begin to occur.
  • It Hurts to Move. Chronic soreness — even days after exercise — and very slow recovery rates are also common warning signs.
  • Ouch! Keeping getting injured? Overtraining could lead to an increased likelihood of injury. The same goes for colds and infections.
  • It's No Buffet. Dramatic fluctuations in appetite or weight could mean the body is chronically overexerted [4].
  • Not Enough Zzzs. Overtraining can also disturb our sleep patterns, making it even harder for the body to recovery [7]

A Reason to Rest — Your Action Plan

Training breaks the body down, and taking time to recover lets it build back up stronger and faster than before. That means days off are often just as important as days on, and making sure a routine allows for R & R is key to making progress. Here are some other tips that will help anyone steer clear of overtraining [8] [9]:

  • Mix It Up. Doing the same thing over and over again can be stressful on the body and mind. A little variety helps keep things fresh, and if done correctly can even help us reach our original goals.
  • Increase Intensity Carefully. If a runner can only run a mile today, chances are they won't be conquering a marathon tomorrow. Plan on making small steps every day toward those goals, one pound or meter at a time [10].
  • Fuel Up Wisely. Machines don't run well without the right type of fuel. Make sure dietary choices match up with the type of exercise and goals.
  • Catch Plenty of Sleep. We all need our beauty sleep, and so do tired muscles. Plan on getting at least eight hours of sleep a night for optimum recovery.
  • Chill Out. Everyday stress can affect our performance in the gym, so grab a stress ball and smile more often to feel more refreshed.

Already overtrained? Consider taking some additional time off. While the right amount of rest will vary depending on the individual, but a week or two will likely give the body time to recharge to return faster, stronger, and better rested than ever before [11].

Photo: Jordan Shakeshaft

Do you ever overdo it at the gym? Sound off in the comments below.

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Works Cited +

  1. The overtraining syndrome in athletes: a stress-related disorder. Angeli A, Minetto, Dovio A, Paccotti P. General Medical Clinic, Departement of Clinical and Biological Sciences, San Luigi Hospital, Orbassano, Turin, Italy. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation; 2004 Jun;27(6):603-12.
  2. A practical approach to the overtraining syndrome. Pearce PZ. The Rockwood Clinic, Spokane, WA. Current Sports Medicine Reports; 2002 Jun;1(3):179-83.
  3. Diagnosis of Overtraining- What tools do we have? Urhausen A, Kindermann W. Institute of Sports and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Clinical Medicine, University of Saarland, Saarbruecken, Germany. Sports Medicine; 2002;32(2):95-102.
  4. A review of overtraining syndrome- recognizing the signs and symptoms. Johnson MB, Thiese SM. Journal of Athletic Training; 1992;27(4):352-4.
  5. Risk of arrhythmias in 52755 long-distance cross-country skiers: a cohort study. Andersen, K., Farahmand, B., Ahlbom, A., et al. Department of Medical Sciences, Uppsala University Hospital. European Heart Journal. 2013 Jun 11.
  6. Atrial fibrillation promotion by endurance exercise: demonstration and mechanistic exploration in an animal model. Gausch, E., Benito, B., Qi, X., et al. Montreal Heart Institute and University of Montreal. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013 Jul 2;62(1):68-77.
  7. Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide. Kreher, J.B., Schwartz, J. B. Sports Health. 2012 March; 4(2): 128-138.
  8. Overtraining Syndrome: A guide to diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Hawley CJ, Schoene RB. Sports Medicine Clinic of the University Health Services, University of Texas, Austin, TX. The Physician and Sports Medicine; 2003 Jun;31(6):25-31.
  9. Training and overtraining: an overview and experimental results in endurance sports. Lehmann MJ, Lormes W, Optiz-Gree A, Steinracker JM, Netzer N, Foster C, Gastmann U. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; Department of Sports Medicine, University Medical Hospital Ulm;1997 Mar;37(1):7-17.
  10. Fundamentals of Resistance Training: Progression and Exercise Prescription. Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA; 2004 Apr;36(4):674-88
  11. Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Lehmann M, Foster C, Keul J. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. University Medical Hospital, Department of Sport and Performance Medicine, Freiburg, Germany. 1993 Jul;25(7):854-62.