When it comes to exercise, conventional wisdom dictates that more is better. The more you work out, the faster you get the results you’re after, right? Well, not always. It’s especially likely that those who have weight-loss or performance goals will find themselves training 5–7 days a week, which means there’s very little time for recovery. Depending on your unique level of fitness, how intense your workouts are and the other stressors in your life, exercising at this volume can lead to overtraining, which can seriously hinder your progress — and even make you sick.
Most people don’t worry about missing overtraining signs because many of the signs are relatively obvious. “Excessive muscle soreness, increased fatigue, decreased performance, irritability, difficulty sleeping and injuries are all symptoms of overtraining,” says Tim Hartwig, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Los Angeles. That being said, the signs can be more subtle, particularly in people who are used to hitting the gym frequently. So, if you find yourself working out five or more days per week, here’s what to watch out for.
1. YOU KEEP GETTING A WORKOUT HANGOVER
If you wake up the morning following a workout and feel so sick or exhausted you don’t want to head to work, let alone the gym, you might be experiencing what experts refer to as a “workout hangover,” which is a pretty clear sign of overtraining. “You don’t want to get out of bed and possibly have a headache, as well. Your body is downright exhausted,” says Darin Hulslander, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who runs This Is Performance, an online performance and nutrition program based in Chicago. “Many people think they ate something bad or should have slept more, (which may also be true), but more exercise than the body is willing to handle can play a major role.”
2. YOU HAVE UNEXPLAINED LOW LIBIDO
One of the most easily missed signs of overtraining is a decreased sex drive, according to Hartwig. “Most people become lethargic and disinterested,” he says. That’s because training too much increases your level of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and decreases levels of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, the hormones that regulate libido, the menstrual cycle and more. “Lower hormone levels will decrease sex drive in both males and females,” Hartwig notes, so if you’re suddenly just not feeling it in the bedroom without an obvious reason, it might be time to take a look at your training schedule.
3. YOU’VE HIT A PLATEAU
Sometimes it feels like you’re doing everything right, but you’re still not making progress. You might even be going above and beyond what you’re supposed to do to meet your goals — and that might actually be the problem. “If you are burning the calories and lifting the weights, but aren’t seeing the fat drop like it once was or seeing the strength numbers increase, this is a good sign to step back,” Hulslander says. In his own work with clients who are overtraining, he notes that “once we scale things back, they see such sharp differences in results, they wonder why they didn’t do it sooner.”
4. YOUR HEAD ISN’T IN THE GAME
Hartwig refers to this as the “zombie workout” effect. “The body is there but the mind is slow and unaware,” he says. Most exercisers know that some level of mental toughness is needed to get through a difficult workout, but if you’ve been overtraining, you’ll find it’s just not there anymore. That’s because overtraining can produce mental fatigue, which wreaks havoc on your ability to mentally commit to workouts. “Many studies point to a depression-like state due to hormonal imbalances from overtraining,” Hartwig points out. This is often accompanied by a loss of competitive drive, he says, which for some people, is essential to staying motivated.
5. YOU DON’T FEEL HEALTHY
If you’re working out frequently, you probably expect to feel happy, healthy and energetic. But overdoing it can actually have the opposite effect. When you train too much, “your connective tissues get cranky and worn down and there’s way more inflammation in your body, all the way down to the cellular level,” Hulslander explains. “The chemicals in your brain that make you happy and the hormones that build muscle go down, while the stress hormones go way up.” This can lead to a variety of consequences, like increased susceptibility to illness, decreased metabolism and less-than-ideal food cravings. If you’re experiencing any of these, Hulslander recommends paying attention to what your body is telling you. “The more you continue to train and not listen to these signs, the more you pay via illness, weight gain, depression and more, plus the longer you have to wait to recover or take a break from exercise — and you certainly don’t want that.”