How Did We Get Here?
Once you get into it, it’s easy to get carried away.
Fitness is unique in this respect. As soon as you see your hard work bear fruit, you don’t dread exercise, you embrace it.
Countless gym goers, bodybuilders, and athletes alike have experienced the mental shift.
But as we become less exercise averse and indulge in our newfound love for exercise, we begin to get carried away.
When we see the progress; we shift from lazy and guilt-inducing inactivity to wholeheartedly pursuing all things fitness. When we exhibit such zeal, is it any surprise we overtrain?
But how harmful is the shift? Obviously, one should always strive for balance. If you’ve discovered your love for fitness, don’t be overzealous. Instead, figure out a healthy routine which won’t cause long-term damage. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.
With that said, let’s explore some of the problems associated with overtraining.
Intrinsically, overtraining seems like a strictly physical issue. After all, we’re talking consequences in the form of fatigue and injury. But what about the mental aspect?
Your mental health may be the last thing on your mind as you realize you need to slow down. But a recent article in the Journal of Addiction Theory & Research has shed light on the psychological side of things.
The article1 concedes that “exercise addiction is an area of great speculation with only limited evidence for its existence.”
However, while researchers haven’t conducted a great amount of empirical research or case studies, the paper frames exercise addiction in the same vein as other behavioral issues.
Specifically, exercise addicts exhibit the same conditions as other behavioral addiction sufferers; salience, tolerance, withdrawal, euphoria, conflict, and relapse.
Another article2, this time in the Journal of Substance Use & Misuse expands on the preliminary observations.
The review argues that exercise addiction is the most appropriate term when looking at overtraining from a mental standpoint.
Similarly to the aforementioned research, the authors note that “excessive physical exercise fits the typical and most common characteristics of behavioral addictions.”
Shifting gears, let’s look at overtraining’s physical repercussions.
Looking at the research, one notices a surprising dearth of injury-related literature. The lack of studies is especially puzzling when considering the subject.
We’re talking about too much exercise too often, shouldn’t there be an abundance of science discussing the probability of physical injury?
One possible explanation for the lack of research may be the subjective nature. Specifically, how likely you are to injure yourself depends on you specifically. You may get injured under the same exact circumstances that my body will sustain perfectly well.
For example, how do you measure how frequent squatting can affect the knee? People’s physiologies are way too varied to determine what the “healthy knee” to measure against should look like.
Overtraining Syndrome (OS)
There is, however, a growing body of research on one aspect of overtraining.
A 2013 Texas A&M University study3 examined Overtraining Syndrome (OS) – commonly known as chronic fatigue or burnout – a condition linked to adrenal insufficiency.
Specifically, the study explored the link between the “physical stress of overtraining and the adrenal gland, which may cause the hormones produced by the gland to become depleted.”
At the study’s conclusion, the authors found that “overtraining can be a part of healthy training if only done for a short period of time.” They further stated, “chronic overtraining is what leads to serious health problems, including adrenal gland insufficiency.”
An earlier study4, from the University Hospital Ulm in Germany, laid the foundation for the aforementioned connection.
In fact, the study reached some of the same conclusions on its own accord.
Namely, the authors noted that the majority of findings give evidence of reduced adrenal responsiveness after heavy endurance training.
Further, the researchers discovered that “cortisol responses decrease in an advanced stage of OS.” And if that weren’t enough, the researchers also noted poor sleep as a possible side effect!
The most expected side effect of overtraining, however, is fatigue. When discussing overtraining, the two go hand in hand.
When considering overtraining’s behavioral and addictive components, we can see fatigue in a whole new light. A good workout is exhausting. You’re breathing heavily, and your body is dying for a break.
But being tired beyond belief has become a badge of honor. Similar to being perpetually “busy,” post-exercise exhaustion is a symbol of ultimate discipline and productivity. It’s an accomplishment, something to be proud of.
However, fatigue doesn’t just indicate that you’ve crossed the finish line and deserve a pat on the back, it’s a legitimate physical condition.
But how much does fatigue affect our athletic performance?
Researchers from University Medical Hospital in Freiburg, Germany set out to find out exactly that.
The study5 compared short-term overtraining (lasting up to two weeks) with long-term overtraining (lasting months.) Their findings were illuminating.
Participants subjected to short-term overtraining experienced “reduction of maximum performance capacity, and brief competitive incompetence.” Fortunately, these participants achieved recovery “within days.”
Unsurprisingly, long-term overtraining participants fared worse. Specifically, they experienced all the short-term side effects, but also went through a “reduction in maximum performance capacity, mood state disturbances, muscle soreness, stiffness, and long-term competitive incompetence.”
If hormone deficiencies and a host of fatigue induced side effects won’t deter you, maybe this recent Mayo Clinic study6 will.
The researchers examined 3,175 participants to determine whether there’s a link between exercise and coronary artery
According to their findings, those who go to the gym and exercise around eight hours a week or more a
re at a risk for coronary artery calcification.
What does that mean? Put simply, those who work out eight hours or more are much more likely to develop heart disease than those who work out less.
There’s a bevy of side effects and risks associated with overtraining. But that shouldn’t be your takeaway. Instead, concentrate on the individual nature and responses our bodies elicit.
Specifically, each aforementioned study examined participants all over the exercise spectrum. Some subjects were athletes, others casual gym goers. Some overtrained for marathons, others simply lifted too much weight at the gym.
Overtraining for you, may not be overtraining for me. Consequently, it’s difficult to conduct a comprehensive analysis thatwill set universal guidelines. So what can you do in the meantime?
Use common sense! Get to know how much and what you can get with.
Admittedly, there’s a thin line between pushing yourself for greater gains and injuring yourself.
But as you become more experienced, that line will become increasingly clear.
As a result, you’ll get that much closer to the ultimate goal. A balance between efficient exercise and optimal recovery.