Here’s What Happens When You Work Out Too Much, According to a Trainer
In the span of a day, your living room can go from an office to a classroom to a yoga studio (soothing candles and all). Just slide the coffee table to the right and open your favorite app. It’s the new frontier of fitness. But since when did two-a-days become a normal thing? We’re not training for the Olympics, people. And am I the only one feeling pressure to join every live workout Instagram posts throughout the day?
If spending more time at home has forced you into a fitness spiral, you’re not alone. But no matter where you’re getting sweaty or how much free time you have, working out too much can easily do more harm than good. “Exercise is a stressor,” Ryan Maciel, registered dietician and head nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition explains. “Even though it's usually a good one, it adds stress to your body, and our bodies need time to recover from all the stress we experience,” like dealing with your career, your relationships and, uh, living through a global pandemic. While working out more might seem like the best use of your newfound time, this habit can easily veer off into unhealthy territory. “Training too frequently and intensely without adequate rest and recovery can lead to a condition called overreaching or even a more severe condition known as overtraining syndrome,” Maciel tells us. Both conditions are caused by an imbalance between your exertion and recovery levels and can leave you on the sidelines for days, weeks or even months if not treated properly.
But how will I know if I’m working out too much? Tiredness and fatigue while exercising are two of the main symptoms of both overreaching and overtraining syndrome (OTS). If you notice yourself slowing down during a move that used to be a piece of cake, it might be time to take a breather and examine your workout schedule. Did you do two HIIT sessions back to back? Maybe running that extra mile wasn’t such a good idea after all. Did you barely get five hours of sleep last night? Did you skip breakfast?
All of these factors play a big role in maintaining a balanced workout regimen. Additional symptoms you might experience include muscle and joint pain, decreased immune function, loss of appetite, depression, sleep disorders and changes in mood. “If you've experienced any of these symptoms for a couple of weeks to a month, you may be suffering from overreaching,” Maciel warns. “More severe symptoms lasting longer than two months may indicate you’re at risk for OTS.” If left untreated, these conditions could result in additional long-term effects including an increased risk of injury and illness.
Luckily, treatment is easy: rest. Put away the dumbbells, hang up the boxing gloves and go to bed early, because your body is begging you to slow down. “In addition to rest,” Maciel advises, “it’s also important to prioritize sleep, nutrition and stress management.” While working out too much is the main cause of overreaching and OTS, it’s not the only factor. “The total amount of stress or allostatic load your body is under (aka the wear and tear we take on daily) will also determine how well you’ll recover.” So basically, if your body is still baring massive amounts of stress each day, avoiding the treadmill won’t suddenly revive you. You need to pump the breaks in all parts of your life: physically, mentally and emotionally.
So, how much should we be working out? Maciel helped us create this handy guide to better understand. Stick to the hours noted for your current fitness level and try to vary your workouts throughout the week. Oh, and don’t plan on going on a run right after a hard leg day. Instead, follow your strength training session with some active recovery, like a 20-minute yoga flow or a walk around the block.
“During this time, we need to continue to focus on our health and fitness,” Maciel says, “but we also need to adjust our goals and expectations.” Some of us might have all the free time in the world while others can barely muster the strength to pull on a sports bra. Either way, being mindful of your stress levels and how you’re spending your energy will help you stay on top of your fitness goals.