This is a post I’ve been sitting on for awhile. It’s one I’ve debated writing because my views on overtraining have changed over the years and it goes against common knowledge within the general health and fitness crowd.
It’s also a topic that I am not 100% well-versed in, because while I can read study after study about overtraining, overreaching, and proper athletic recovery, the fact of the matter is that there is conflicting information out there and I haven’t done any of these studies myself.
So I’ll start off by saying that what I’m about to write is a theory of mine – a theory that is backed by lots of scientific evidence and is a theory of many others’, but a theory that’s also disproven by other scientific evidence.
And please also note that this article is written with the non-professional-but-still-totally-badass athlete in mind – athletes like the women I have the pleasure of working with, athletes who workout on a regular basis but still have families and careers and social obligations to handle, and athletes like myself who like to pretend they’re pro but aren’t.
Are You Overtraining? Or Under-Recovering?
The concept of recovery is an important thing to understand. The vast majority of us fitness nuts know that recovery is essential – without it, our performance wouldn’t improve and we wouldn’t be able to do all these fun crazy things we love for many years to come. But I think there’s a widespread misunderstanding as to what actually constitutes as recovery.
Oftentimes, rest and recovery are used interchangeably. “I had a tough workout on Tuesday, so I took a rest day yesterday. I must be properly recovered and ready for another beating today!” Essentially, the idea is that abstinence from physical activity, specifically exercise, results in recovery. Which isn’t really the case.
There isn’t one universal definition for recovery, but I think this sums it up nicely:
Recovery encompasses active processes of re-establishing psychological and physiological resources and states that allow the individual to tax these resources again (Kellman, 2002.).
Translation: recovery happens when our insides have gotten over the madness we put our bodies through during a tough workout, to the point that we could repeat that same workout again at the same level of effort, if not at a higher level of effort.
Recovery isn’t the mere act of not doing anything – there is actually A LOT going on inside when we’re actively recovering! Proteins are synthesizing, muscles are repairing, hormones are fluctuating, and after certain activities, our metabolism is revved up like a fire engine.
So while taking a day off from exercising can definitely promote recovery, rest, as the regular human being with a busy life and schedule sees it, does not always equal recovery. What tends to happen on a “rest” day?
Grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, working, going to the pub with friends, getting the kids ready for a week of school, helping kids with homework, driving kids around, forgetting to eat because we’ve been on-the-go all day, stressing out about work, stressing out about arguments with a partner, wishing we could be exercising because we’re stressed out but we need to rest because that’s what we’re supposed to do so we stress out even more. All on 5 hours of sleep.
Sounds totally restful, hey? 😉 Through all this, we’re not giving our bodies the nutrients they need to repair from our recent bouts of training, we’re not allowing the recovery-promoting hormones to do their jobs because we’re stressed and on high alert, and we’re not really resting! Not exercising does not always equal recovering.
So yes – rest is important. But I would argue that what we do on a daily basis to promote our recovery is more important than how many days off we take from exercising.
What do I think is more important than taking a rest day?
- Getting an adequate amount of quality sleep (the actual amount differs for everyone, but a minimum of 7 hours is a general starting point, with individuals training 5+ hours each week needing more). Training hard or multiple times a day? Welcome naps into your life!
- Proper nutrient intake – high-quality complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein. Lots of plants, lots of real food.
- Reducing life stress. Admittedly, this is one I struggle with. But mental and emotional stress have a hugely negative impact on our bodies’ abilities to recover properly.
- Mixing up your training routine. Running the same distance along the same route at the same pace multiple times a week sets you up for an injury. As does lifting heavy-ass weights day after day without incorporating any lighter training days, or expecting to be able to go balls-to-the-walls at every CrossFit/spin class/HIIT class you go to.
- Approaching every single training session as the one to give it your all. Recovery workouts performed at a lower intensity are important. Full-on weeks where you lift lighter weights, run or cycle at a slower pace, or add in a few restorative activities like yoga are all great ways to remain active while avoiding the dreaded overtraining.
The reality is that the vast majority of us non-professional athletes – those of us who train for endurance events at the recreational level, who hit the gym regularly to stay healthy, or who train just because they love it – aren’t actually overtraining. We’re skimping out on things like sleeping, eating, and chilling the eff out and are under-recovering.
Overtraining is a nasty beast that has lasting physiological effects that can take years to overcome, and can even result in death. It’s something that’s experienced by high-level athletes training multiple hours a day every day and continuing to ignore the warning signs from their bodies, like decreased performance, increased fatigue, and increased injuries on a consistent basis.
When those sore muscles kick in, when you wake up feeling like you could hit the snooze button a dozen times, or when you feel like you have no motivation to do your beloved run, ask yourself the following questions:
- How has my nutrition been lately? Have I been fuelling myself to support my activities?
- What’s my stress level been like? Have I had to deal with a lot of difficult situations? Has my brain been working over-time?
- How much have I been sleeping? And what’s my quality of sleep been like?
- How hard have my workouts been? Have I been pushing myself to exhaustion every single day? Or have I been mixing it up throughout the week?
Instead of taking a rest day and calling recovery, review the above factors. What changes can you make that will allow you to continue to make progress and feel like a superhuman, all while giving your body the chance to rebuild and repair? If you’re in a high-stress period of life, it may require you to scale back the training. Similarly, if you’re training hard for a specific goal or event, it may require you to up your sleeping and eating game.
This is a lot of information about a topic I could talk about for hours and still never cover everything. Our bodies and lives are all unique and our workouts will all be affected by different things going on in our lives. So it’s important for us to learn to look at our training as a whole picture, as opposed to just something we do in the midst of everything else. And if you’re ever not sure if your lifestyle promotes adequate recovery for your favourite activities, you can always ask your favourite fitness professional 😉
So let’s open up the discussion – overtraining? Or under-recovering? What’s your take? Have you ever been in a state of overtraining? Ever recognized that other aspects of your life were taking away from your recovery?
Kellmann M. Underrecovery and overtraining: different concepts: similar impact? (2002.).