A Special Fitness Friday: My Journey with Overtraining
A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on overtraining, also known as overexercising. In that post, I also promised that I would share my journey with overtraining, a journey that still hasn't ended yet. It is a hard journey to share, but my hope is that by sharing my story, I can help someone else out there who is struggling with the same addiction.
If I'm being honest, my struggles with overtraining began in high school, when I would have to exercise every day as a means to control my weight (since I couldn't be anorexic anymore).
I went through phases - sometimes it was intervals on the elliptical, sometimes it was jump rope, sometime it was bodyweight home workouts. No matter what it was, I had to get it in every day.
Fast forward to college: I started going to the rec and running on the treadmill - a lot.
I was scared to go in the weight room - what skinny, weak girl wouldn't be? I had never been strong, so I was intimidated by even the thought of lifting weights. So, I stuck with high intensity interval training and intervals on the treadmill. At one point, I was running close to 5-6 miles a day and not eating enough real food (especially fat and protein) to support that. When I think back to those days, I literally cringe because I have never liked running - ever. Yet, I did it day after day because I thought it was the best way to be skinny and "in shape."
Eventually, I got tired of the treadmill and moved onto exclusively doing high intensity interval training workouts. These type of workouts are meant to be performed about 2-3 times per week. Well, I was "special" in my mind, so I did them every day. If I was at home, I sometime used weights. If I was in college, I most stuck to tabatas, sprints, burpees, and other bodyweight options. Sometimes I'd venture into the corner of the weightroom for circuit training, but it was rare.
My junior year, I discovered group fitness classes and started going to those on a regular basis, in addition to my regular workouts. Some days, I would work out at noon and then go back to a fitness class in the evenings. (Side note: I am so grateful for the group fitness classes though, because they introduced me to a number of friends and lasting relationships, and got me to pursue my dream of a career as a health coach).
The summer after my junior year, I headed home and went back to my high intensity workouts at home, along with nightly walks outside. By this time, my diet had drastically improved, as I was eating more food and transitioning to a paleo template, so I my body was able to handle these workouts a bit better, but not much.
When I went back to school in the fall, I started going to the weightroom without hesitation. I was slowly moving away from the skinny mindset, and I wanted to get stronger. So, I was performing long, full body lifting workouts just about every day, along with high intensity cardio intervals about 3-4 times per week.
After a while though, I noticed that I was more fatigued than usual. My digestive system was off, and I was suffering from extreme bloating. Basically, I wasn't at a peak fitness level, even though I was working out every day, about 1-2 hours a day.
This past January, I finally had to come to terms with my disorder. I was overexercising and not allowing my body the rest and recovery it desperately needed. I had been reading articles for months about the dangers of overtraining, but like with all things, I had to come to terms with the idea for myself. I couldn't be told that I was overtraining and that I needed to stop. It had to be my idea.
Albeit a shortened version of my full story, this brings me to where I am today: working on recovering from overtraining.
It is not an easy process, especially when you throw my eating disorder past into the mix. All of the years of restricting my body and not nourishing it properly have finally caught up to me. And while yes, my 22 year old body can handle a lot, eventually it reached a point where it couldn't go any further.
Currently, I'm aiming to take two rest days per week in combination with weight training and walks outside. I don't do much high intensity interval training much anymore because it is just too hard on my body and my cortisol levels (our stress hormone). Because of overtraining, my cortisol levels are not normal, something I am currently working on fixing, but trust me - this is not an easy or enjoyable process.
This transition has been very very very difficult for me physically and mentally. I think what many people may not realize about overtraining is that it is more of a mental disorder or addiction than a physical one, and it takes so much more than just a simple "Ok, I'll just stop working out now."
Instead, it has taken a ton of self-talk, research, and patience to get myself to take two rest days per week. I am getting better about taking rest days and going a whole day without exercising, but I won't lie - it is very hard for me to do.
But, I'm working on educating myself and nourishing my body. If I want to achieve the aesthetic and strength goals that I have for myself, I need to allow myself rest and recovery.
I liken it to a car: I don't leave my car running all day every day with the air conditioner blasting without every filling up the gas tank. No - I turn it off when I'm not using it and fill it up when it gets low on fuel.
Our body is the same way. We need days when we "turn off" our stress hormones (which raise in response to exercise - this is a good thing, except when it is abused with overtraining) and refuel our bodies with real, whole, nourishing food.
Whenever I think back to my exercise "dark days," I realize that I wasn't ever really spending more than 2-3 hours working out. In fact, I don't think I ever reached the 3 hour mark. However, I still fell victim to overtraining, and now I'm paying for it physically and mentally.
That's what makes overtraining so sneaky - for one person, exercising 1 hour per day, 7 days a week may be too much, but for others, that might be just right. Or others, like professional athletes, can get away with exercising close to 6 hours a day, but most typical people can't.There is no definitive line that states whether or not you are in an overtraining state. That's why it is so difficult to diagnose!
However, if we find ourselves extremely guilty if we miss a workout, thinking about exercising all day, and planning our days around our workouts (to an extreme - it is helpful to schedule workouts to keep you accountable, but missing events just to workout is a red flag), maybe we need to step back and see if we are overtraining. Are we experiencing the signs and symptoms that I mentioned in my last post?
Again, this point of overtraining is different for everyone, and a number of factors are involved, including our caloric and nutrient intake, sleep patterns, and life stresses.
If our caloric and nutrient intake is high enough to support our level of training (like an athlete), we may be better off than a regular person eating 1200 calories and exercising 60 minutes a day.
Or, if we are consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night and working out every day, we may set ourselves up to develop overtraining.
Lastly, if our daily life is already full of stress, we do not need strenuous exercise to add to the problem. Instead, we need exercise that will calm and relax us, like yoga or walks outside.
There's so much more I could cover, but my bottom line is this: working out should not be our full time job. Our bodies were not meant to workout 3+ hours per day, especially if we aren't taking the proper amounts of rest days or getting enough calories and nutrients to support our training. We need balance in every area of our lives, and fitness is no exception.
If you suspect that you are struggling with overtraining or maybe know someone who is, consider seeking out professional help. I as a health coach can help to an extent, especially since I've struggled with overtraining myself; however, in the more serious cases, a professional counselor is necessary.
Again, it was hard for me to share my personal journey with overtraining so publicly, but my hope is that someone will read this or pass along the information to help someone.
Overtraining is not worth it - it messes with our minds, hormones, bodies, sleep, nutrient levels, and more. And recovering from overtraining takes much more time and effort than getting there in the first place.