It’s no secret that I’m a huge proponent of exercise to improve physical and mental health. Whether you’re working toward a fitter physique or struggling with stress, exercise can help. When training for a goal, though, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. Pushing yourself is part of the process—I’m an Ironman triathlete, so I certainly understand testing one’s limits—but you risk injury if you push too hard. How do you know when it’s time to pull back a bit? Here are some definite signs of overtraining.
Since a certain amount of soreness is not only normal but desirable, this one can be tricky to diagnose. But Men’s Fitness says if you’re still feeling sore 72 hours after working out, your muscles might not be recovering the way they should. What can you do? Take a break from training! You can also try soaking in an Epsom salt bath. As LIVESTRONG explains, Epsom salt’s high magnesium content may help clear out the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, allowing them to relax. They recommend adding a couple cups of Epsom salt to a tub full of warm water. Using a foam roller on sore muscles can also be a good way to relieve pain. In a study examining the effects of foam rolling on delayed-onset muscle soreness, subjects who used a foam roller after intense exercise experienced substantially improved quadriceps muscle tenderness.
You’d think someone who goes hard would have no trouble falling asleep the minute his head hits the pillow, right? After all, exercise is often recommended as a remedy for sleeplessness. Well if that person is overtraining, he might actually have the opposite experience, struggling with restlessness and insomnia at night. As explained by Muscle for Life, working out too much can overstimulate your sympathetic nervous system, making it difficult for you to settle into sleep. This is the same reason some people should avoid evening workouts – the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that happens when you work out can leave you too hyped up to sleep. Since adequate rest is important not only for muscle recovery but also for general physical and mental function, it’s crucial you pull back on training if it begins to affect your sleep habits.
Are you a gym rat who seems to be getting sick constantly? While there’s no doubt about the benefits of exercise for body and mind, too much of it can take a serious toll on your immune system. As personal trainer and nutrition expert Jay Cardiello, C.S.C.S., told Men’s Fitness, overtraining can put your body into a catabolic state where it begins consuming your own muscles for protein. Perpetual existence in this state weakens your immune system, causing you to feel run down and making you susceptible to sickness. To rebuild immunity, Cardiello advises reducing training, getting plenty of rest, and taking a look at your diet to make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition. Supplements can be useful, too—I write about which ones you can take for CrossFit and other intense exercise here.
Low Mood and/or Self Esteem
This is another tricky one. Isn’t exercise supposed to make us feel good? What about the “runner’s high” that happens when our body releases feel-good endorphins after a workout? It’s undeniable that exercise can have a profoundly positive effect on our mental health, especially as we start to see the results (increased muscle mass, weight loss) of our hard work. At some point, though, fitness can become an obsession. You may think to yourself, if I’m looking and feeling this good from hitting the gym three times a week, why not go every day? If lifting weights for 30 minutes builds me up this much, why not do it for an hour or more? Suddenly an activity that was fun and rewarding becomes a chore (or even an obsession). And the results you were so proud of suddenly don’t seem like nearly enough as you become increasingly critical of your appearance. If you find yourself feeling low in the midst of an intense bout of training, you’re not alone. One study found nearly a quarter of all Division I college athletes show signs of depression. What can you do to prevent sinking spirits? Go easy on yourself. As I write about here, I’m all for setting goals – even very difficult ones that might not be met – in order to drive meaningful growth and stimulate true authentic expression of what matters to you, but not at the expense of your mental health. Keep your eyes on the prize, but also keep your training plan in perspective.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.