How Much Is Too Much?

How Much Is Too Much?

Signs You Might be Over-Training.

Phil Hueston, PES, YFS, YSAS
All-Star Sports Academy


Many of us have over-indulged in something we like, usually as kids. When that happened, chances are someone looked at us and said "you had too much of a good thing." Cliched, yes. True, maybe. But what if that over-indulgence could lead to serious health issues? Would you be more careful then?

In recent years, the fitness industry has adopted some troubling habits. High volume, high intensity training has become far too common. In fact, this kind of all-out, run-through-a-wall-then-repeat exercise is held up as a standard, rather than an exception.

In this way, it's much like the pictures of skinny supermodels in years past. Remember how these media representations of women were considered partially to blame for the rise in eating disorders in young women and girls? By similar logic, we can view the idolization of the "uber-exerciser" as part of what is leading us to a rise in the incidences of over-training among average people as well as elite athletes.

But how do we cross the line from intense to hazardous? How can we tell when our "elite fitness" is likely to land us on the couch or even the emergency room? There are warning signs, if we're willing to pay attention.

Let's take a look at some of them.

1. Increased difficulty perception during normal workloads. Have your "easy" workouts recently started seeming harder to complete? Is it harder to get started and push through your workouts? Because your body is fatigued and not getting enough rest, it isn't responding to the exercise stimulus like it once did. You may notice you don't get the "pump" you once did. You're likely also not getting the post-exercise endorphin response you once did, either.

2. Reduced performance. You're slower, weaker and have less endurance. See #1, also. Hand-eye coordination can also be affected. The nervous system is taking a beating and trying to keep up. Muscles aren't getting the time they need to repair and replenish. Soft tissue is weakened by overtraining. This weakness may manifest in nagging, low grade injuries which negatively impact performance.

3. Excessive fatigue and frequent illnesses. Bodies not allowed to recover from repeated bouts of exercise suffer a kind of general malaise. Exercisers describe "heavy legs" and a feeling of dragging through their day and their workout. Because the immune system is under constant "attack" it is drawing resources - vitamins, minerals, glycogen and others - from the body to manage the stress. With reduced levels of things like Vitamins, especially Vitamin C, the immune system loses some of its resistive power. Higher frequency of viral illnesses has been noted, along with longer healing and recovery times.

4. Insomnia or restless sleep. Over-trained bodies have hormonal imbalances that negatively impact sleep. Additionally, they tend not to slow down during rest periods due to increased metabolic rate. Poor sleep or lack of sleep contributes to the cycle, worsening the effects of the over-training condition.

5. Chronic muscle or joint pain. Over-training never lets muscles and joints repair themselves. Arthritis-like conditions can set in, making joints hurt even when they are at rest. The associated muscle weakness leads to joint instability, raising the likelihood of a more serious joint injury.

6. Agitation, loss of focus, irritability, angry or melancholy bouts or outbursts. The hormonal system is under extreme stress and is unable to assist with emotional management. This system is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. We know that the HPA axis gets suppressed in over-trained individuals. As a result, these folks secrete less of the hormones that help manage emotional response to stress. Since over-training is a form of stress, this leads to unwanted changes in mood, sense of self and even cognitive function.

7. Loss of appetite. Since over-training can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine, which tend to inhibit appetite, the over-trained individual often loses their appetite. The physical exhaustion, general fatigue and anxiety associated with over-training also serve to suppress appetite.

8. Heart rate deviations. It is not uncommon for over-trained individuals to have heart rate elevation at rest. Heart rate may become elevated beyond normal during training, then take much longer than usual to recover after completion. As a result, there is an increased risk of cardiac event during these occurrences.

9. Menstrual cycle dysfunctions in women. Very high training volume, combined with eating too few calories can lead to a disruption of a woman's menstrual cycle. In some over-trained women, the menstrual cycle may cease altogether.

These are the signs of over-training that should be fairly easy to spot. Over-training can result from simply training too many days in a row. It can also result from repeating the same kind of exercises or exercise programs too often during a training period, say, a week or a month.

It can also occur from focusing all your work on one kind of exercise with ever-increasing volume and intensity. The body will respond with altered hormonal and energy system functions that negatively impact the day to day operation of its' systems. In the extreme, over-training can lead to debilitating injury or even death. And that's kind of the opposite of the desired outcome, one would think.

Next: What to do if YOU are over-trained.