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How to Know When to Take a Break from Training

Signs That You're Overtraining


Updated December 06, 2012

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(c) Paul Rogers / Cooloola Fitness

Find a fitness and conditioning 'sweet spot' for any goal you are pursuing and your results will be optimized.

The sweet spot is that frequency, intensity, type and time of training that prepares your body in the best way possible. The acronym F.I.T.T is often used to describe this approach to training programming and optimization.

  • Frequency - how often you train
  • Intensity - how hard you train
  • Type - the exercises you include in a workout
  • Time - the time elapsed of your workout (volume)

Over-training and Over-reaching

At some point in the last decade or so, someone decided that the term "over-training" was insufficient to describe symptoms of fatigue and poor performance that affect some athletes when they do more training than their bodies can accommodate. Thus was born the word "over-reaching." The distinction is supposed to be that over-reaching is a short-term (days or weeks) condition that improves with rest, and over-training is a chronic condition that continues on for longer and has, more or less, measurable elements of poor health and fitness.

For the most part, this distinction is unnecessary. Getting tired from training and improving with rest is a normal condition and most serious athletes recognize such a condition. It does not need to be called 'over-reaching' because it is not over-reaching; it is a normal amount of high-quality training at a particular time that requires a few extra days rest and perhaps a modification of volume or intensity. Let's not create a condition that does not exist for any useful purpose.

On the other hand, if you can't recover after appropriate short-term rest, you may well have a systemic condition that can be measured finitely -- blood tests for abnormal iron status and high resting heart rates for example. Overtraining may also have adverse effects on the immune system that may be measureable.

How to Know If You're Over-trained

Here are several indicators that you've done too much for now, and that you need to take a few days rest, reduce your program volume or intensity, or both. You may also need to seek a medical opinion.

  • Resting heart rate is elevated by 10 beats or more at your regular, consistent time of measuring resting heart rate, often taken first thing on waking. If it's normally 50 BPM and you consistently get it at 60 BPM (without exercise), then you may consider that your body is telling you that something is not quite right. It may be a looming infection, or it could be over-training. If you take a few days rest from training and it returns to normal, then you can usually confidently resume your normal training program. (Iron-deficiency anemia can cause an elevated heart rate.)
  • Muscle or tendon soreness. If you have injuries that consistently occur in repetitive cycles, then that may be an indication of over-training. Chronic, overuse injuries to tendons like the Achilles tendon are typical examples. Tennis, golf or pitcher's elbow are in this category. Medical attention and substantial rest of that part may be required for healing to occur.
  • Chronic fatigue, but not necessarily in the conventional non-athlete usage of the term, may have a clear nutritional cause. Low iron, inadequate carbohydrate consumption, and possibly low protein dietary status may cause a sense of fatigue and weakness. Consult a sports dietitian for best advice.
  • Abnormal weight loss beyond your normal training and competing lean weight could be a sign that you are doing too much work for the food energy you are able take in. A sports nutritionist can measure your energy balance and advise accordingly. Abnormal fatigue might accompany this weight loss. The 'female triad' is a constellation of over-training and under-nutrition symptoms that includes weight loss, loss of menstruation and bone weakening over time.

Psychological exhaustion may also account for some cases of fatigue, lassitude and disinterest in highly competitive sports and endeavors. See your doctor or an established and experienced sports psychologist.

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