When Does Training Hurt You?

One of the most overlooked pieces of any training schedule are the days and times where you are supposed to do NOTHING.  While most competitive athletes consider these days as a waste they are probably the most important days.  In fact, many times I see that athletes are not building enough of these into their training schedule.  Your body only gets stronger when you are resting.  Training is used to tear the body apart so that it can grow back stronger.  This increase in strength (or speed or endurance) can only fully be realized if the body is given enough time to recover.  If not, the next day of exercise stress will occur to a body that is beginning the day at a sub-optimal level.  

Now, the body can handle this routine for quite a while, but at some point it will become overwhelmed and not only will injury occur, but continued training will provide no benefits.  As you can see in the graph below, increasing exercise intensity improves your health to a certain point.  

However, there is a time where continued exercise drives a person into metabolic overtraining syndrome.  This is not a good place to be as an athlete.  Many things can start to change at this point both physically and mentally.  Some common overtraining symptoms are:

  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Excessive and chronic muscle soreness
  • Increased injuries and pain
  • Irritability and moodiness 
  • Depression
  • Frequent sickness
  • Loss of motivation
  • Difficulty sleeping

When athletes reach this stage not only are their training hours being wasted since increased performance is no longer a result of training, but their injury-risk goes through the roof!  And not only are injuries a concern, but overall health also diminishes.  This leaves an athlete open for things such as fatigue, sickness, decreased mental function, elevated heart rate, irritability, lack of motivation, and many other symptoms.

This is really why rest days are so crucial.  Rest days allow the body to fully recover from the multiple bouts of training stress to the body.  This allows athletes to start the next day at 100% (or close to) which allows for much better training sessions and less chance of injury.  It is the same reason why endurance athletes have a taper period at the end of the training schedule just before the race. This is to allow the body to fully recover so that you are feeling 100% for race day.  Nobody thinks twice about allowing this increased rest into their schedule, but they many times have a difficult time taking time off throughout the earlier portion of training plan.  Getting to the start of the race or to a competition at 100% is much better than completing every single training session and getting there at 80%.   Seems obvious but many athletes are doing this all the time!  We become so neurotic about not missing one single thing in our plans that we loose sight of the fact that the entire thing is designed to make us perform better.  And if performance hinges highly on health status (which is does!), then we need to start paying more attention to our bodies and not just what our GPS and fit watches say.

I’m sure many of you have had times where you were unexpectedly forced to miss some training sessions due to work or home life.  I’m also confident that you have also at some time noticed that some of your best training sessions were just after taking this extended time off.  This is probably because you were headed into metabolic overtraining syndrome and the extra time off allowed you to actually fully recover.  That was not a fluke!  Sometimes less is more.  Most of the time when this phrase applies to athletes it is because their training is excessive in relation to what their body can handle.  

Now, the longer you stay in this overtrained state, the less work you can actually do before you start having a decline in health.  You ability to handle training volume and intensity begins to decline.  This is a double whammy!  Not only are you hitting the point of diminishing returns, but you are going to start hitting that point at early points in your training sessions.

This may be another thing that you start noticing.  If you have repeated training sessions where you notice fatigue much early than you should, this is probably what it happening.  This should tell you that it is time to rest, give you body some time to recover, then come back strong once you’re recovered.

After looking at both of the graphs in this article the question should really be, “ How can I push that point on the graph upwards instead of downwards?”.  If that was what you were thinking then nice work!  

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The answer to that is improve your overall health and fitness.

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The healthier you are as an individual the more stressors your body can endure and recover from without harm.  So, some ideas you can start thinking of are:

  • Improve your nutrition
  • Reduce overall inflammation
  • Make sure hormones are balanced and sufficient
  • Incorporate things to speed physical recovery (massage, chiro, foam rolling, epsom salt baths, grounding, etc.)
  • Make sure total caloric intake is appropriate for your exercise output
  • Hit the best carb, protein, and fat counts specific to you
  • Make sure blood labs look good
  • Improve your sleep quantity and quality

As I’ve said many times before, improve your health and you will improve your performance.  Too often we put 100% confidence in our training program without thinking much about the status of the person going through the program.  We figure that if we can just check off every workout then we will automatically hit our goal and become better.  Unfortunately, this is not the case all too frequently.  Injuries sideline us, burnout crushes us, sickness overwhelms us, and then the target is never reached.   Or, if we are able to get to the end goal, the performance gains are nowhere near where they should be.

Understanding this concept of metabolic overtraining syndrome can really help you appreciate and enjoy the days off from training.  After all, this is where the real magic happens.  Don’t consider yourself lazy or unproductive when you are not training.  You are actually both improving your health and your performance on those days!