Overtraining And How to Enhance Recovery

By on April 9, 2018

Anyone can write a training program that will get them ripped and strong. One hundred sets of your one rep max on exercises targeting all the muscle groups, followed by a 10-mile run. Daily. That ought to do it.

The problem is writing a training program like this that someone can actually stick to and that won’t kill them in the process. That’s the hard part.

There’s no shortage of controversial subjects in the world of fitness. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can list on one hand the things that everyone agrees on.

  1. Eating your own weight in cheese every day is bad
  2. Or wait… isn’t that just a keto diet?

Perhaps surprisingly, rest and recovery is also highly controversial.

On the one hand, you have people that tell you that you have to be very careful not to overtrain. Then you have the other side of the argument that basically says overtraining is a myth and an excuse. If professional athletes aren’t overtrained, then you aren’t going to be either!

So, who is right?

Overtraining: Is it a Thing?

The first point to address I guess is whether or not overtraining is even a ‘thing’.

What is a very real danger for the average gym rat is under recovery.

And ultimately, the issue here comes down to semantics. Overtraining is a thing yes, but it’s not a thing you’re likely to encounter. That’s because overtraining is a very rare phenomenon with profound symptoms that can last for months. Unless you are going through military training or somesuch, then you probably aren’t overtrained. So, for your purposes, overtraining probably isn’t a thing that you need to worry about.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to rest. Because what is a very real danger for the average gym rat is under recovery. And in fact, this is a serious issue that affects far more people than you might think. It probably has affected you at some point or another and may even be affecting you right now.

So, What is Under Recovery?

Training is ‘biphasic’. That means that it has two phases. Phase one is the workout itself, when you break down your muscle or stress your cardiovascular system and you trigger change in your body to adapt to that stress.

Phase two is when you rest and that damage is repaired, allowing you to come back stronger, faster and fitter.

This dichotomy applies to pretty much everything we do and from a metabolic standpoint, these stages can be described as being ‘catabolic’ and ‘anabolic’. You also know them as sympathetic and parasympathetic. Or ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’.

In order for your training to be effective then, you need to give your body time to heal and repair the damage you’ve inflicted. That means resting up and it means providing the necessary building blocks – i.e. proteins and energy – for it to make those repairs.

If you don’t give yourself this time to recover, then you will be piling damage on top of damage and thereby leaving gainz on the table.

More to the point though, you will also put yourself in risk of injury and adrenal fatigue. And while this isn’t technically ‘overtraining’, it is nevertheless what most of us refer to as overtraining.

So, What’s the Risk?

In this state of ‘under recovery’, you will now be considerably more likely to sustain an injury. Your muscles are weakened because they’re still recovering from the last time you put them through hell and you may well have slight damage in other areas that you’re unaware of too – in your ligaments or hamstrings for instance.

And that means that you’re going to be much more likely to compensate for the damage with incorrect movement patterns. If you have a slightly dicky knee, you might be more likely to squat with bad form and do more damage to it – or do more damage to your back.

And the longer you keep this going, the more likely one of these injuries is to be serious.

Meanwhile, you will also become increasingly more likely to get a cold or a flu. That’s because you aren’t allowing your body to spend enough time in the anabolic, recovery state. In other words, you’re in a state of constant physiological stress.

You likely know this already, but when your body is in fight-or-flight mode – when it is sympathetic dominant – blood and energy area diverted from your digestion, your immune system and all other secondary systems and sent to your brain and your muscles instead so that you can… well… fight or fly.

This is why chronic stress is so bad for us. Fight or flight was only ever meant to be a short-term response to an immediate threat. When you spend all day worrying about debt – or repeatedly beat yourself up in the gym without the proper recovery – you supress your digestion and your immune system.

Of course you’re going to get ill. And then you’re going to spend more time out of the gym than you would have done if you had just taken a shorter break.

Fight or flight was only ever meant to be a short-term response to an immediate threat.

And likewise, you might even find you become deficient in key nutrients even though they’re in your diet.

Does all this sound familiar? If so, then it means you’re not putting enough emphasis on the recovery portion of your training.

And if a fitness YouTube ignores this aspect of your training because ‘overtraining doesn’t exist’ – when it’s really just a matter of semantics – then they are being pig-headed and not particularly helpful.

Your Other Lifestyle Factors

Some people won’t know what I’m talking about. Some people never get ill and never get injured and can easily burn the candle at both ends. There are lots of potential explanations for this.

But for others, three days a week of moderate training might be enough to lead to injury, flu and downtime. So, what’s going on?

The answer lies with the rest of your lifestyle.

I was driven to write this post by my own personal experience. I love training and I love training hard. I find myself going through periods of making amazing progress, loving every workout and going 100%. That lasts a couple of months. Then I injure myself, get a bad cold or both. Or I get behind on work and become incredibly stressed.

Cue about a month off work. Then I return. Elliot Hulse described something similar in one of his videos, describing this cycle as being natural, almost like the ‘seasons’. There’s definitely some truth in that.

But then I asked myself: why was this never a problem when I was in my teens and early twenties? I remember at Uni I would often do a night out of solid drinking, get in at 4am and then do a workout. That’s how committed I was! Am I just getting old? That is too depressing a thought to face.

And fortunately, the answer is not to do with age. It’s to do with all the surrounding stuff.

Because when I was at Uni, I had about 8 one hour lectures a week and the rest of the time I slept, or had fun with my buddies.

In my early 20s I lived with my best mate and worked purely as a freelance writer. I’d often wake up at 1pm in the afternoon!

Today, I have a mortgage. That means there’s a minimum amount of work I have to do. My business has also grown out of control. I write 10,000 words a day… in just the second half of the day. The first half of the day often involves video editing to deadlines, covering events in London and discussing things with colleagues. I drive my wife to and from work every day. We’re doing DIY. And I have other personal stuff that I don’t want to talk about. Kay?

Point is, I’m super busy. And often a bit stressed.

And likely so are you.

So, is your recovery really recovery? Not really.

Because in order to fully recover from the gym, it’s not enough that you simply ‘not train’. You have to actively recover. That means you need to be lying down, chilling out, packed full of protein and comfortable. I’ve said it before, but for successfully adding muscle you need to live like a lion.

If you are chronically stressed about work, you’re rushing around all day and you’re not sleeping properly. Then you aren’t actually recovering. Suddenly, your routine isn’t that much easier than those professional athletes we referenced earlier.

And it actually cuts both ways. Because if you spend your down time when away from a very stressful job working out in the gym, then you’re not recovering from that either. The overall workload has simply become too much and this won’t just hurt your workouts and your health – it will hurt your productivity in the office.

And it’s a terrible slippery slope, because then you’re going to get behind, and then being behind will make you more stressed…

21st Century Syndrome

This is a very modern problem. So much so that it has actually been dubbed ‘21st century syndrome’, which is just a trendy name for ‘adrenal fatigue’.

Adrenal fatigue is what happens when you spend so long in a highly aroused state, that your adrenal glands actually stop producing the necessary amounts of adrenaline. The result is that you lose motivation and energy and it can drastically damage your performance in the gym – actually weakening the ‘mind muscle connection’ (studies show that adrenaline increases 1RM).

Adrenal fatigue is what happens when you spend so long in a highly aroused state, that your adrenal glands actually stop producing the necessary amounts of adrenaline.

The reason this happens so much these days, is that we are constantly wired – with our technology having a lot to answer for in this regard. You’ve probably heard by now that looking at screens makes us produce cortisol and interferes with our sleep. Then there’s the fact that so much of what’s on our phones is designed to ‘hack’ our dopamine systems and elevate arousal. We’re addicted to Facebook, addicted to Candy Crush (that reference is already dated, but you know what I mean) and many of us find it hard not to ‘check in’ with work even on our down time. Thanks to email, our employers and clients can reach us at any time of day, wherever we are. Walk down the road and you’ll be bombarded by adverts designed with flashing lights and shocking imagery to activate your salience network. Meanwhile, you’ll be surrounded by unnatural urban sights, honking horns and thousands of people walking directly toward you.

Many of us are so over-worked and out of sync that we rely on caffeine to wake up in the morning and stay focussed in the face of so many distractions (guilty!). Caffeine has its merits, but it is effectively stress in a cup.

Throw in ongoing stress about work, relationships, debt and whatever else and you can actually exhaust your adrenal glands. This is called adrenal fatigue and it can actually impair your body’s ability to produce adrenal hormones thereby blunting your ability to get excited about anything, to summon energy to do anything. It leads to tiredness, brain fog, depression and increased risk of injury. It damages your ability to digest food, to run your immune system and much more.

Overtraining is simply a form of adrenal fatigue. And seeing as it’s possible – and common – to get this simply from living a normal life, it therefore follows that it could be even more of a problem for those stacking intense workouts on top of that routine!

So, What Can You Do About it?

Right, so what can you do about it?

The first thing I recommend is considering some active recovery. Be more mindful about your time recovering, and whether or not you are actually getting quality down time.

One of the most important things you can possibly do is to get lots of sleep. Breaking Muscle has an excellent article on this subject and references some interesting studies showing just how incredibly getting more sleep will boost your performance (study).

In one study, it was found that basketball players optimizing their sleep could increase their sprint times and free-throw accuracy. Mood and vigour also improved. In another study, it was found that swimmers who slept 10 hours a night for 6-7 weeks could increase their 15 meter times, reaction time, turn time and mood.

Swimmers who slept 10 hours a night for 6-7 weeks could increase their 15 meter times, reaction time, turn time and mood.

You might not be able to manage 10 hours of sleep a night, fair enough. But you should really strive for 8, even if it means going to be earlier.

At the same time, try to manage stress. That might mean learning meditation, or it might simply mean setting aside plenty of time to just relax. Prioritise your recovery a little and maybe commit yourself to fewer activities. My wife has been ill the last couple of weeks and that means we’ve cancelled all our usual activities. It also means we’re waking up a couple of hours later – seeing as I work from home and now neither of us has a commute into work (I often drive her). While I’m sad for my wife and hope she improves soon (honest!), my training has benefited from this greatly!

Drinking lots of water is also critical. Most of us live in a constant state of dehydration which actually triggers a stress response and inhibits our ability to digest food, rebuild muscle and more. Water is crucial for countless chemical reactions within your body and if you train regularly, then you need even more. The same Breaking Muscle article recommends drinking ½ your bodyweight in pounds in ounces of water every day. So, if you weigh 180lbs, you’re going to drink 90 ounces – about 11 glasses.

Finally, most important of all is simply to eat more. If you train hard, then you need more energy in the form of fats and carbohydrates to fuel workouts and recovery, and you need more protein in order to restore the muscle tissue you’re breaking down. If you are prone to injury and fatigue, just try increasing the amount of food you’re eating between workouts and you may be surprised at the difference it can make.

If you really want to get serious, then stop using your phone in the evenings, stop taking caffeine and don’t let your blood sugar drop.

Deload Weeks

While quality recovery is important, quantity doesn’t go amiss either and it’s a very good idea to occasionally schedule a deload week. This is a week when you either aren’t training or where you switch to non-intensive training such as stretching and skills work. This is the perfect time to focus on flexibility for instance, or to try a little hand balancing. Or how about doing some reading and brain training? But, the aim is to not aim for your 1RMs or to use intensity techniques. Ideally, you’ll take an entire week off.

You will not lose muscle during this time. It takes several weeks before the body will begin breaking down muscle tissue and your extra myonuclei will hang around for much longer (possibly indefinitely) making it much easier to regain any lost tissue anyway.

But what you will do is give yourself time to recover from any minor niggling injuries that could develop into something more serious later on. You’ll give your body time to refuel and rebuild and you’ll allow your nervous system to recover. If you’re wondering whether you should train while on holiday then, the answer is ‘absolutely not’. Go somewhere all inclusive, eat all the meat, lounge in the sun… this is the perfect time to do some active recovery! It has taken me a long time to learn this.

A deload week could even help you to overcome the ‘repeated bouts’ effect. That means in other words, that it may be able to

It takes several weeks before the body will begin breaking down muscle tissue

A de-load week as often as once every 6 weeks is absolutely to be encouraged.

Also: Listen to your body. If you need to take time off sooner: then do it. You can even try testing your grip strength in the mornings with a hand dynamometer, which correlates with recovery and cortisol:testosterone ratio.

Individual Differences and Testosterone

I’m just going to take a moment to point out that overtraining is very much dependent on the individual. Some people can get away with far more than others and that’s likely down to individual stress responses, hormone balance and more.

In my video on flow states, I discussed that the very top performers in athletics and military settings are those that show heightened arousal during work but also a greater parasympathetic response during rest. In other words, the ones who were better at recovery, performed best overall (study). Possibly this can be trained by enhancing your mental resiliency with tools like meditation, box breathing and CBT.

And think about it: the ultimate ‘hack’ for building more muscle (though not one that I recommend) is to take steroids. And the way that anabolic steroids work is to enhance recovery. Steroids raise testosterone, which is the number one anabolic hormone, and that puts the body into ‘repair mode’. It also lowers cortisol, preventing fat storage and rapidly accelerating recovery.

Steroids also have a ton of negative health effects and are illegal. But my point is simply that if you really want to enhance your physical performance, then you should prioritize recovery.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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