Overtraining syndrome is curable, it just doesn’t happen overnight
Overtraining syndrome is curable, it just doesn’t happen overnight
Image: Unsplash / Eduardo Flores

My gym partner is forever telling me we need to back off or we will become overtrained and reverse our fitness gains. Is overtraining real or is it her excuse not to train hard?

Imagine our country was a body. Just think about what this body has gone through over hundreds of years. Somehow, it hobbled into a new dispensation, mostly intact. Over the past 30 years, it has seen highs and lows, but the intensity of pain it suffers continues unabated.

Yet, somehow, it stands. We voted yesterday, and trusted that the limbs and organs hold for another five years without imploding, or that we genuinely see gradual healing. This body can fail, yet most of us want it to thrive.

Some commentators believe this body is already on life support. If you’re of the optimistic persuasion, you could — possibly — argue that it has, rather, become severely overtrained and critical functions are failing as a consequence. There simply hasn’t been enough time for recovery and healing, there’s no genuine care for wellbeing, it’s tired, it hurts, it’s moody and it’s volatile. Overtraining syndrome is curable, it just doesn’t happen overnight and requires commitment to change. The point is, it takes a lot to get to the point of overtraining, but when you do, you need to take it seriously or you could suffer severe consequences. Just look around you.

The human body is also remarkably resilient and it appears to be able to handle far more than our minds believe it can. That doesn’t mean it is unbreakable, though — millions of people damage their bodies and their health with their lifestyle choices and that’s fairly easy to do.

On the other hand, many people live their training lives terrified that they will overtrain. In fact, some people spend more time on pre-hab, foam rolling, deloading and recovering than actual training. It’s no surprise they never achieve their goals and a huge one that they stick to their routines.

However, I do not belong to the “no pain, no gain” gang. No, I don’t believe that pain is weakness leaving the body and while I am entertained by David Goggins’ demands of never quitting, even with a broken foot, I am a pragmatist. There’s no overtraining denialism here.

However, the chances of overtraining — unless you’re an elite athlete or crazy crossfitter — are slim. Overtraining is caused by excessive training, such as every day or a few times a day, and at an intensity at the upper end or higher than you can manage, for a protracted period of time, along with underrecovery, meaning not enough sleep, water and food, and too much mental and emotional stress. This needs to happen constantly for months.

See how a two-week spinning obsession or throwing in two extra HIIT classes doesn’t count?

On the other hand, what you are far more likely to experience is overreaching. If you train at or above your threshold for a shorter period of time, maybe a week or two, you are likely to overreach. Overreaching requires adequate recovery — more than if you were training normally. If you carry on like this — we all have that crazy friend — you may well be on your way to reduced, and reversed, gains.

Athletes use periodised functional overreaching as a way to push boundaries and make performance gains through a phenomenon known as supercompensation. However, they then rest and recover adequately. Keep this up for too long — which some people call non-functional overreaching — without sufficient recovery, and your performance starts suffering.

Your friend needs to see an expert who can assess whether she is overreaching or not prioritising recovery in the form of sleep and adequate food. She may be confusing muscle stiffness with injury, or perhaps she simply sees training as an avenue to de-stress and switch off from life — which is fine, as exercise is very good at that job.

If you wish to train more intensely, don’t just randomly increase distances, sets, reps and weight. Work with a trainer who can design a programme that gets the results you desire, with periods of higher and lower intensity appropriate for your lifestyle and current fitness level.

This article was originally published in Business Day and repurposed for Wanted. 

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