So I did hill repeats last Saturday, and then a long endurance workout last Sunday. And guess what? I was a mess all this week. I was exhausted, in a crappy mood, especially snappy with my kids, overwhelmed with work and life.
I don't think one weekend of hard work equals overtraining, but I know that my body is especially sensitive to doing too much. So I prematurely took a week of recovery--just two easy workouts with as much sleep as I could snag--and I feel much stronger and better now.
In the interest of keeping you superwomen from falling into the same trap I am susceptible to--and for the sake of your kids--I wanted to share this article I wrote about overtraining a few years ago. I was assigned to write it for an (unnamed) woman's magazine but for various reasons, it never saw the light of day. Bums me out because it goes above and beyond the typical lose 10 pounds in 6 weeks! and get buns of steel to boot! stories they run every.freakin.month.
If you don't want to read the whole thing, no worries. (I've bolded the parts I think apply especially to RLAM'ers.) But do scroll to the bottom of the story to take a helpful quiz about workout recovery. Because what woman's magazine article is complete without a quiz?
Training Gone Wild
My only strategy to survive a year of intense training and try to make the 1996 Olympic rowing team was this: pull as hard as possible, all the time. Coming from a collegiate club team—read: we partied as hard as we pulled—I was shocked by our two- and three-a-day workouts, which ranged from rowing to running sprints to weight lifting. Within weeks, I was a zombie. I’d wake up at 2 a.m., and read for hours because I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I cried way too much, usually in the shower to mask my tears from my teammates. I never felt rested, even after a day off. My progress, performance-wise, was minimal compared to the energy I was expending, but I continued to pull harder and harder. Not surprisingly, after eight months of hell, I didn’t feel capable, physically or mentally, of taking another stroke. Totally broken, I packed my car and slipped away from camp before official selection even began.
In hindsight, I was clearly overtrained, a stale, overexhausted state caused by a massive imbalance between training and recovery. On the court, road or field, you stagnate, while off it, you suffer nasty side effects like sleeplessness, irritability, loss of appetite and depression. While it may seem like those going for the gold are most prone to the syndrome, recreational athletes are also at risk. “Overtraining is a product of the cumulative amount of stress to which your body is exposed,” says Jack Raglin, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Indiana University in Bloomington, “For elite athletes, training alone can do it. But lack of sleep, poor nutritional habits and over-packed schedules also stress the body and add to the bottom line.” In other words, if you stay up all night preparing a PowerPoint or nursing a sick kid, then pound out five miles at the crack of dawn and skip breakfast, you’re pushing maximum stress capacity. Repeat the drill frequently enough without giving yourself a break, and you’re setting yourself up to go into OT.
Don’t Try this at Home: The Basics of Overtraining
Whether you’re doing roundhouses in kickboxing or intervals in Spinning, your muscles respond to intense exercise the same way: they break down. If you refuel and recover properly, your body goes into worker-bee mode, producing, among other things, proteins that prompt healing blood flow to the muscles and hormones that reduce swelling. With a few days, your guns are more capable than before, and they’re ready to hammer hard again. “A workout only sets the stage for you to become stronger and fitter,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D, assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University, “but the real process doesn’t happen until you recover.”
When you slack off on recovering, though, your body falls off the back of the proverbial treadmill. Although there are various theories, from genetics to overactive hormones, floating around about the physiological cause of overtraining, the jury is still out. “What we do know is that your body responds systemically to overtraining,” says Raglin. Translation: nearly everything is out of whack. In fact, there are over 130 signs of overtraining, from those measured in a lab (changes in blood-lactate levels, for one) to symptoms more easily self-diagnosed, including a rise in resting heart rate (measured before you get out of bed in the a.m); a cold you can’t shake; the inability to get into the fluid, effortless zone when you exercise; feeling as though you have Clysdale-heavy legs; and trouble falling—or staying—asleep.
But most likely, the first place overtraining will materialize is your mood. “Psychological changes are the best indication of doing too much,” says Raglin. When you’re overtrained, you feel like you’re in that irritable, weepy and tired PMS mode 24/7, and sucking down Advil or M ‘n’ M’s don’t help. Going for a run, which usually is a quick fix, is no longer effective at putting a smile on your face. “You can’t settle into that calm and relaxed state that you normally feel after a workout,” he says.
In one competitive season—just a couple months— studies have found about 10 to 15% of athletes are overtrained. “When you pull back and look at a lifetime, nearly one in three athletes have been overtrained,” says Raglin. Stereotypical type-A personalities—you know, the superwoman who is married, works full time, has kids, does triathlons— are easily prone to overtraining. “Most super-driven people say they exercise for stress relief,” says Dieffenbach, “But because they’re so driven, training becomes more focused and starts adding, not relieving, stress.”
Two other groups are also at a higher risk for going overboard. The first are former high school and collegiate athletes, who use their glory days as a measurement for what’s appropriate long after they donned a cap and gown. “Clients tell me, I’m not training half as much as I used to,” says Dieffenbach, “But with a job and a family, don’t have time to nap or just sit around like you did in college.” The others are those who have already been overtrained at some point. “Think of a sprained ankle,” says Raglin, who has seen the syndrome in athletes as young as nine years old, “You twist it once, and it’s weaker and more prone to injury for the rest of your life. If you’ve gone over the edge of overtraining, your whole body has been hurt. It’s easier to do it again.”
Step—and Stay—Away from the Edge
But the threat of overtraining, looming like a thunderstorm, isn’t enough to justify slashing your workouts or effort in half. Rather, it should force you to think about both sides of your schedule: workouts and recovery. The latter is especially if you’re on a preparing for a marathon, century or other long-distance event that requires consistent training. “If you know you’ll have a hectic day at work on Wednesday, don’t schedule a tough workout for Tuesday night,” says Dieffenbach. As a rule, give yourself between 24-48 hours to bounce back after really hard workouts; the day after you do sprints on a track, go for an easy jog. “Active recovery, or doing something at an easy pace, is actually better than doing nothing because it helps healing blood flow to your muscles,” she explains.
Similarly, plan out big breaks (a vacation is a no-brainer for a break from the routine) and smaller ones too. Schedule a massage at least once a month and map out ten minutes daily to stretch, meditate or do something similarly low-key that helps you unwind. Try to bank seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night and, when you can, grab a nap. Finally, pay attention to what goes into your recovering body. Eat within 30 minutes after a workout to optimize your recovery. Good choices=Whole grains, fruits and veggies , lean meats, unsaturated fats. Bad=carbs made with enriched flour, anything that comes glopped with special sauce or mini-sized snacks that usually get tossed in a Halloween bucket.
If that advice comes too late and you’ve already crashed to the bottom of the proverbial canyon, the cure for overtraining is refreshingly simple: rest. That doesn’t mean parking yourself on the couch and emptying your Netflix queue, but rather giving up intense exercise for at least two weeks. (Chronically overtrained athletes may need up to a year to recover, but a few weeks is probably sufficient for recreational athletes.) If you’ve been focusing on one sport, just say no to it—and while you’re at it, throw your heart rate monitor, Garmin and other indications of your performance in the closet too. Chill out with a game of pick-up basketball, go to a yoga class, go hiking with your dog, spin on your bike up to the store. Sleep as hard as you used to train, and eat like the food pyramid tells you to.
Any extra energy you have, devote to overhauling your training regimen. “If you recover, then go back to trying to cram in 60 hours of work, family demands and an intense training schedule, you’re going to repeat the pattern,” says Dieffenbach, “Slow down and realize you shouldn’t take yourself—or your sport—too seriously.”
Total Quality Recovery
This quiz, designed by Goran Kentta, Ph.D., a Sports Psychologist at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, determines how primed your body is for a workout. Answer the questions based on the previous 24 hours and add up the corresponding points. Then use the chart, which indicates how well you have recovered, to know how hard you can push during your next workout.
Over the previous 24 hours, I ate…
Breakfast: 1 point
Lunch: 2 points
Dinner: 2 points
Snacks between meals: 1 point
Carbs and protein after exercise: 2 points
I replaced my fluids…
Throughout the day: 1 point
During and after my workout: 1 point
I got in…
7-8 hours: 3 points
A 20-60 minute nap: 1 point
Totally relaxed, both psychologically and physically, after my workout: 2 points
Relaxed during the entire day: 1 point
I made sure to…
Do a proper cool-down after my workout: 2 points
Stretched the muscles I worked: 1 point
|If your score is…||Your recovery is…||And your next exercise effort can be….|
|6||No recovery||No exertion|
|7-8||Extremely poor||Extremely light|
|9-10||Very poor||Very light|
|17-18||Very good||Very hard|