Whether you are an athlete, a fitness junkie, or the occasional gym-goer, you have probably heard the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” You may have also been given encouragement in the form of “just keep pushing through.” While these phrases can help us overcome mental obstacles, they may lead us to cause physical damage to our body in the form of overtraining. In this article, we will discuss overtraining and make some key distinctions in training that can help you accomplish your goals without setbacks and injury.
Overtraining occurs when the body is physically overloaded in such a way that the tissue fails. When I say “fails” I do not mean a tendon or muscle rupture (although that could happen), I mean failure in the sense that the muscle is used and unable to recover in a typical timeframe. Many of us have heard of the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. What this means is that the body (and its tissues) will adapt to the specific loads applied to it. The SAID principle informs our exercise parameters (reps, sets, volume, etc.). Based on our goals, we can apply parameters to our exercise that create an optimal challenge point. This challenge point puts sufficient stress on the body to cause positive adaptations such as increased strength or muscle mass, but not so much that we are unable to recover. Overloading occurs when the demand placed on the body is too great for it to handle.
This overload can occur in one exercise session consisting of a higher typical intensity, or over several exercise bouts with inadequate rest between sessions. As I mentioned previously, overloading does not always mean that there will be an injury. If anything, one would likely continue training in a state of overload and an injury would occur later down the line. So, how do you know if you are overtraining? Here are some signs that you may have gone too far:
- Increased pain that does not resolve within 12 hours
- Pain that is increased over the previous session, or comes on earlier in the exercise session
- Decreased ability to use the body part (fear, early fatigue, increased muscle guarding)
- Increased swelling, warmth, or redness in the injury area (rehab/injury-specific)
What about DOMS?
Excellent question! Just so we are all on the same page, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is muscle soreness that occurs long after exercise, and peaks between 24-72 hours post-exercise. It is typically associated with novel high-intensity exercise and/or heavy eccentric exercise. There are two physiological theories behind DOMS: one regarding micro-tearing of the muscle fibers, requiring more time for the muscle to recover, and the other regarding the accumulation of calcium in the muscle cells causing inflammation. Either or both mechanisms may be occurring, and (in my opinion) this speaks to the importance of post-exercise diet and recovery.
All this to say, DOMS is expected in specific training situations: new, high intensity exercise and eccentric exercise. Outside of these conditions, muscle pain lasting greater than 12 hours may be a sign of overload. In order to prevent DOMS from converting into chronic muscle pain (and therefore overtraining), ensure appropriate recovery time between training sessions and utilize a progressive, variable exercise program (see Periodization later on).
Overtraining can absolutely be prevented! The key is to know your body and to exercise smart. Several of the signs of overtraining are “pain.” Remember “no pain, no gain?” I used to tell my clients, “no discomfort, no adaptations.” It is important to be able to distinguish pain from discomfort. Pain is an output: your body sends sensory information to the brain, which then decides if that information is damaging to the body. If it thinks that it is, we experience pain. If it thinks that it is not, we simply note the quality of the feeling (tender, hot, cool, rough, sore, etc.).
Everyone experiences pain differently, and to get into that would be an entirely different article (or essay). The key for now, is simply to know when too much is too much before lifting that heavy weight or going on that 30-mile run. A good way to do this is to use a 1-10 rating scale, with 0 being no pain, and 10 being emergency-room pain. For a high intensity workout day, being between a 7-8/10 is perfect. Anything above that indicates too much.
A lot of overtraining occurs because of a failure to recognize the condition of the body before the exercise session. This is where rest and recovery come into play. Rest involves the time of inactivity between exercises (and sets), the time between exercise bouts, and the quality and quantity of sleep day to day. Our muscles have their own recovery timeline; it is important to allow them that time within our workouts to get the most out of each set. As a general rule, 30-60 seconds between sets should be adequate, although some people require longer based on their bodies or the intensity of their exercise. Personally, I rest until I feel like I can complete the next set +1 rep, or until my HR decreases to about 110bpm after a heavy set.
(NOTE: these rules may not apply to other individuals in the same way, they are merely provided as examples of how to read your body for rest periods).
Recovery is everything done between exercise bouts to prepare for the next workout. It includes pre- and post- workout nutrition, low intensity mobility and aerobic work, body mechanics during day to day tasks, and the other aspects of rest (time between workouts and sleep). One of the best ways to beat muscle soreness is to keep moving! After a day of heavy squats, it helps to perform bodyweight squats the next day; working through the same range of motion, but without the load gets your muscles firing without eliminating all of their resources. Sleep is another one that I could write on and on about. The bottom line is this: if your sleep is poor, your workouts will be too. There is a higher risk of injury working out on a poor night’s sleep than not. Use your rating scale to determine how intense you can go that day. If you slept really badly, consider a yoga class or a light walk-jog that day. Save your max-outs and sprints for when you are most prepared for optimal performance.
Finally, I cannot stress the importance of a smart, periodized workout program. Periodization is a big picture view of training that informs how we plan and program our workouts with respect to preparation, competition, and transition. These phases are not solely for athletes; they can be implemented for the “average gym-joe” by thinking of the competition phase as a max or a PR (personal record) week. If you do not use any outcome measures currently, I highly encourage it as a way to ensure that you are creating specific goals and meeting them.
Using periodization as a tool for programming workouts helps prevent overtraining by providing the appropriate phases, timing, and variables for desired results. The preparation phase can be used to develop improved neuromuscular performance, work capacity, and technical skills. The “competition” (or “testing” if you prefer) phase is an opportunity to assess your progress in your short term and long-term goals. The transition phase is like a cool down, but for your exercise program. This phase is typically a week or two, and can also be termed as “unloading,” or a lighter workout (65% 1RM is typical). This resets the body for the next preparation phase. Again, this is a brief intro to a huge topic that I could write books about (in fact, there is a great book out there already…see source #4). If you are interested in creating a periodized program, grab a personal trainer or a strength coach to collaborate!
We covered a lot, so here are the heavy hitters: Overtraining happens when the physical load on the body surpasses what it can recover in a reasonable timeframe. It can occur after one high intensity exercise session, or after several sessions of too high intensity or inadequate rest and recovery. Ways to prevent overtraining include being humble, knowing yourself, and exercising smart. Know your limitations, interpret what your body is truly up for, and plan your workouts to both prepare you for high intensity and to recover from it. Periodization is one way to do this and has been highly effective in athletic populations. Remember: no discomfort, no adaptations. Happy training!
- Tissue Injury and Repair: Application to the Phases of Rehabilitation. Lecture presented by Dr. Holly Jonely and Dr. DhinuJayaseelan. Aug 19, 2018.
- Bompa, Tudor O., and Michael Carrera. Periodization Training for Sports. Human Kinetics, 2015.