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Overtraining- What it looks like and Why (exactly!) it Prevents Progress

Most of the folks I speak to every week are looking for one of three things: weight loss, better performance, or accountability- sometimes it’s all three! And for good reason. Being at a healthy weight, having a good heart, and having a good set of lungs in the mountain are pivotal for success.

To accomplish this, we typically focus on a very basic, but a strategic plan to help move them from their starting point to their goal over a series of weeks. We build in training days and challenge those each week to see improvement. But, we also build in rest days; days to recover from the hard work we do during the week.

Occasionally you’ll get someone who is VERY zealous to see their goals achieved and will forgo the rest day under the guise of “if some is good, more has to be better!”

While it’s true that progressive overload is needed to see real progress in improving your fitness, there also comes a point where more isn’t better and hinders further progress. What’s worse is that this mindset carries with it the idea that if you do take your rest day you’re weak in mind, heart, and body.

The whole idea makes a great Instagram post and would probably even sell a lot of t-shirts, but it won’t give you the type of progress you desire with training. In fact, more could push you further from your goals or worse- sidelined with an injury and having to take a prolonged period of time away from training or skipping the entire season altogether.

What We Know About Overtraining, Rest and Recovery.

We split overtraining into two groups:

  1. Functional- Short in endurance and likely won’t cause any detrimental issues with long-term performance/improvement. Think a long backpacking trip or a week-long backcountry hunt even.

  2. Non-Functional- longer in endurance and far more likely to start producing some problems for you with performance/improvement and overall burnout. This is more like the WEEKS and MONTHS of training leading up to the aforementioned event/trip.

There’s no reason to dive deep into the functional piece of overtraining- it’s short and likely nearing the end of a tough training block/period and rest/lighter loads are just around the corner.

Non-functional is where we start to see some problems pop up.

Make no mistake about it- you can be as tough as you want; the TOUGHEST dude (or dudette) on the mountain- and not escape the domino of problems that come from constant training with little-to-no rest.

It looks a lot like this:

Once overtraining hits, it affects everything:

  • Changes in metabolism: increased blood pressure, increased blood glucose levels.

  • Reduced immunity (i.e. you get sick more often/greater chance of getting sick).

  • Increased fight or flight hormones (1.5-20 times normal amounts!)1

Making Matters Worse

For some reason, we (humans) sometimes tend to deprive ourselves of what we need most. Have a headache? We refuse aspirin. Want to get rid of excess debt? We refuse a budget. Want to lose weight? Don’t even THINK about asking me to track my nutrition.

Training and overtraining is no different. It’s always confused me why athletes and weekend warriors alike tend to remove good nutrition, get crummy sleep, and compare themselves to elite athletes on social media platforms after being exhausted from weeks of a tough training regimen.

It’s not just what I’ve seen, studies have shown that that’s exactly what we do. We compound overtraining by removing what’s going to refuel us (adequate nutrition), skipping rest, and comparing ourselves to our compadres on social media.2

Fixing the Issue

Bringing remedy to overtraining is quite simple and usually involves someone getting their mind to trust the process rather than anything related to physical activity.

If providing inadequate nutrition, rest, false pretenses, and excess volumes leads to overtraining, the reverse provides the remedy.

We focus on:

  1. Providing adequate nutrition. This USUALLY involves a significant increase in the number of carbohydrate calories the person is eating to stop the continued break down of protein further.3

  2. Getting adequate sleep/recovery cycles in training. Recovery is the unequivocal biggest piece of a person’s progress with training. If it’s not planned it likely won’t happen. And, if it doesn’t happen, further progress in training is also very unlikely to happen.

  3. Reminding the athlete of realities vs what culture/social media tells them they should be doing. I can’t tell you the number of folks I’ve spoken with who have story after story of how they wound up injured trying to compare to (insert popular athlete/influencer’s training plan).

By planning in rest days (rather than seeing them as a waste), fueling yourself well (yes, this means eating the same number of calories on rest days as you do on training days), and resisting the urge to compare your training regimens against “influencers”, you set yourself up for the BEST chance at making the most progress in less time with more rest. And, if there’s ever been a subject where “some is good, more has to be better”, it’s time….and chocolate cake. It seems like you can never have too much chocolate cake.

Just give me the simple take-home…

  • The rate of work cannot exceed the rate of recovery for meaningful progress.

  • If you don’t MAKE the time (i.e. plan) recovery you’ll inevitably digress in your training- no matter how mentally or physically strong you are. Or worse- wind up injured

  • A major piece of advancing and avoiding overtraining is planning rest (and seeing it as beneficial as training days), not cheating yourself on nutrition, and running your own race- not those you see posting their highlight reel on IG.

  • Eat more cake. :)

More Reading

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