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More Training Info > Overtraining Signals

Overtraining Signals
C.W. Schurman August 2007

In the middle of climbing season, or whatever sport you have been training for so diligently for months, you may feel a little burned out, become unenthusiastic about your workouts, suffer from illness, or just feel “stale.” What’s going on? You may be overtraining. What exactly should you look for? Well-tuned athletes learn to read their bodies just as well as experienced racecar drivers learn to read what their cars need and when. Both are instruments that need top-notch care to perform optimally. Read on to learn more about the different signals and what they may mean.

Physical signals

Muscle aches, tenderness, or twinges that are beyond what you usually experience can signify lowered immune system capabilities brought on by inadequate rest. A morning basal metabolic temperature (taken first thing in the morning using a digital thermometer for high accuracy) that differs more than 1 degree may be a signal to take it easy that day, as you may be staving off infection, or your body may be working harder than usual to repair damage from previous workouts.

Moods

If you get to the gym and you feel pretty sluggish, or you really do not feel like working out but you drag yourself to your exercise class anyway, pay attention to how you feel afterwards. You may be really glad that you followed through – in which case, you probably just needed some release from stress. If, however, you feel WORSE at any time during the workout, it probably means you need to ease up, do something else, or quit for the day and go home.

Any time you go to the gym for an aerobic, strength, or climbing-specific workout, if you are unable to increase some aspect of your performance--either a little harder route, longer on the wall, more weight or added repetitions, or comparable heart rate with similar effort--then you probably should not be there. It is better to give yourself a little more time to recover so you do not overdo it. Finally, if you start dreading your workouts or feel stagnant, it may mean that you need to revise your workout. If you have gone more than six weeks without changing things in some way, your mind and body may be telling you that you have reached a plateau and it is time for something new.

Energy levels

Workouts should, for the most part, leave you feeling more energized and excited about reaching your goals. There will always be times when you feel like you are dragging, whether from lack of food, not enough sleep, too much stress associated with family issues, or a tough day at work. On days that you feel more tired than usual, it is perfectly fine to change your plan and do a lighter workout, but DO SOMETHING. Sometimes half the battle is simply getting to the gym. Schedule your workouts to coincide with a friend’s, show up, and complete your warm-up. If several minutes into the workout you still feel like you are unable to continue, you may actually have a legitimate reason to stop. Better to get some healthy food (especially if it has been a while since you last ate) and strategize how you might change things for the next few days to increase your likelihood of following through successfully. Have a few healthy snacks with you at all times in case you experience low blood sugar and simply need some fuel.

Food cravings

You may also find at times that you simply crave certain foods for no apparent reason. If you are craving fresh fruits and vegetables, your body might be asking for additional anti-oxidants for recovery. If you crave protein, your body may need more amino acids for muscle tissue repair following demanding workouts. If you are thirsty beyond what is normal for you, you may need increased fluids to help with tissue repair, mental processing, hydration and many other functions. If you are female and craving chocolate, you may be low in vitamin B, or simply needing more rest--chocolate has caffeine and is a logical mid-afternoon snack if you are overly tired, but try not to give in all the time! Or just have a small portion! After breaking my foot five weeks before starting my climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I had an unusual craving for pineapple, only to discover that pineapple is rich in a natural anti-inflammatory called bromelain; now I make sure I include dried pineapple chunks as a snack on long multi-day climbs that may cause inflammation somewhere.

Exercise and Illness

The period of time six hours following a high-intensity workout or race appears to be the critical phase for remaining healthy, as the immune system is stressed and less capable of warding off illness. This is a good time to make sure your nutrition is optimal. If you feel a cold coming on and you are wondering whether to exercise, tune in to your body to detect where the symptoms are and what to do. I use the following silly reminder: "Above the neck, what the heck; below the head, stay in bed." In other words, if you suffer from a scratchy throat, runny nose, or sneezing you probably can work out at a somewhat reduced intensity, though you may prefer to stay outside so you don’t spread germs to everyone else at the gym. However, if you are suffering from chills, fever, aching muscles, or chest cold involving mucus or phlegm in your lungs, you may have a viral infection and you might benefit from a good night’s rest. Taking vitamin C, drinking lots of liquids, getting plenty of good sleep, taking some Echinacea, or even soaking in a hot tub can help at the first signs of a cold.

In some cases, a light workout can help you feel better than before you started, especially if you are feeling a little stiff from the workout you completed a day or two earlier. If you do not feel up to your usual early morning jog or pack hike, see if getting additional rest will help. You can always try to fit in your workout later in the day if you start to feel better.

Monthly cycle for women only!

Chart your monthly menstrual cycle and pay close attention to when you feel the weakest, strongest, least, and most energetic. You can actually take advantage of your own natural rhythm and plan outings to coincide with your stronger days, and avoid stressful outings during highly emotional times--your climbing partners will thank you. Charting your cycle also helps you to avoid being out on a long glacier climb in the middle of your period. It happens to nearly all women at some point, but it is not a very fun or convenient experience. By tracking your basal temperature you will see obvious fluctuations around certain times of the month; these fluctuations are not to be confused with overtraining temperature fluctuations, however! Yes, we do have our challenges, ladies!

For a similar question related to strength training, see another question and its linked answer: I've been working out harder and harder, lifting 5 days a week, but seem to have stopped making progress in my strength training. What's going on? overtraining



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