If you spend enough time around any popular fitness forum, read any fitness magazine, or watch youtube videos you are bound to stumble upon the concept of “Overtraining”. First, we will examine what coaches and science classify as overtraining and then we will uncover whether this is a concept that applies to regular hard-working gym-goers like yourself.
First let’s examine the concept of overtraining. Somewhere many Olympiads ago foreign coaches testing their athletes with brutal two a day sessions and aggressive Bulgarian squat cycles uncovered the concept that the body can only tolerate a certain degree of working out before it would eventually begin to rebel via overuse injuries, decreased performance, or other negative biofeedback & symptoms (such as changes in body temperature, sleep disturbances etc.). However, let’s remember this occurred within the framework of perfectly monitored conditions with athletes whose full time job is just to train, recover, and optimize their life solely for the sake of lifting performance. Unfortunately, this concept of “overtraining” wasn’t created in the lab of a stressful white collar desk job, a strenuous manual labor job, or the parent who can barely make it to the gym in time before the child care desk closes. So then why do symptoms of overtraining occur in a population of individuals like yourself who aren’t working out 14 times per week? The answer – LIFE STRESS.
Our bodies were programmed thousands of years ago to manage acute physical stress or trauma. If there was no food around, or some beastly animal happened to find where you were camping we would face very intermittent stressful situations where we would likely either a) escape or b) die. In modern day society we face what scientists and doctors consider to be chronic stressors – too many TPS reports from our boss, kids not sleeping through the night, paying the bills on time, or telling little Timmy to stop playing video games. These are problems, stressors, and stimuli that simply didn’t exist thousands of years ago, nor did they exist within the social vacuum of an athlete’s training camp. Combine this with the fact that a challenging workout is physiologically stressful in an acute (short-lived) manner (albeit the good kind) and we have a recipe for limited recovery capacity. Whether we like it or not we are still largely biologically identical to our ancestors and this happens to backfire within the context of balancing work, life and training.
Did I lose you somewhere in the science between life stress and TPS reports? Don’t worry – here’s an easy way to break things down- Think of your total volume of stress like a bank account. While individual tolerances and savings thresholds may vary we walk into the week with a set amount of “cash flow” or, in this case “stress flow”, along with a set amount of recovery. To keep your account balanced you need to carefully monitor the outputs or stressors drawing from the account, and the inputs or personal recovery investments you are making into the account. Maintaining this fine balance it what allows some to train more than others over the course of weeks, months and years. Compound this over time and you’ve got a recipe for continued progress.
If you find yourself struggling to recover from your weekly workouts begin to ask yourself – have I balanced my account? Are my life stressors + training stressors exceeding my capacity to recover? If so, we need to implement more tools for recovery: sleep, nutrition, meditation, breathing, soft tissue work, or any other activity that primes the “rest and digest” response in your body (also known as the “parasympathetic”). Keep a close eye on your progress (weight lifted, repetitions performed, and workout time) as well as a general awareness for your current life demands outside of the gym. There’s a chance your workout routine doesn’t have you over-trained. You may just be overloaded in life.
– Sam Miller