Too Much of a Good Thing? How to Prevent Exercise Burnout

The “no pain, no gain” workout mantra might seem motivating on a poster at the gym, but it may ultimately not work. We will explore why overtraining can actually work against your health and fitness goals.

What does it mean to “over-exercise”?

Whether your goal is building strength or increasing heart health, the basic physical function is the same: exercise breaks down muscle fibers, and then your body repairs and rebuilds the muscle. But in order to do that important repair work, the body must experience a period of rest. No rest, no recovery.

In addition to adequate downtime between workouts, your body also has basic needs like sleep, food, and water. Get too little of any of those requirements when your body is in a rebuilding phase, and you run the risk of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). It seems counterintuitive, but OTS can actually work directly opposite to your goals, leaving you less strong, more tired, and possibly even heavier than before.

How to know if you’re overdoing it

While it has an official-sounding name and even a commonly used acronym, OTS is more a collection of symptoms than a diagnosable disorder. If you’ve been hitting your training regimen harder than usual and start to experience any of these side effects, it may be a signal that your body isn’t coping with your new routine.

  1. Lack of progress: Whatever your goal – whether weight loss, increased strength, improved running times, or other – OTS will very likely impede your progress. If you feel like you should be inching toward your goals but you’re backsliding instead, OTS may be the culprit.
  2. Reduced muscle tone: Muscles aren’t built in the gym; they’re built during rest. If you’re doing the work to break down the muscles (the gym part) but not giving them the opportunity to rebuild (the rest part), you’ll end up with less muscle tone than you started with.
  3. Weight gain: There are few things more frustrating than exercising to lose weight and having the opposite happen, but it’s a common response when a body is over-exercised. The stress caused by chronic lack of rest can affect hormone levels and impact your metabolism, leading to weight gain. So unfair!
  4. Extreme soreness: The breakdown of muscle tissue typically leads to mild and temporary soreness. If your body isn’t given the opportunity (rest) to repair and rebuild that tissue, the degree and duration of pain can increase sharply. Sore after leg day? Fine. Still sore a week later? Not okay.
  5. Poor sleep quality: This is another area where OTS seems to run counter to common sense. A good, hard workout should make you tired and ready for a great night’s sleep, right? Not if your hormones are out of whack from over-exercising – your unregulated cortisol levels will have you counting sheep into the wee hours.
  6. More frequent injuries: Muscles caught mid-cycle between the breakdown and the repair are at increased risk of injury. Training again before your muscle has time to rebuild can lead to sprains and strains, or even trigger old injuries you thought you had recovered from years ago.

How to counteract OTS

Unfortunately, but logically, the best way to recover from over-exercise is to under-exercise for a while. Take at least a few days (though preferably up to a week or even two) to let your body catch up on what you’ve been denying it: REST. Then, ease back into your chosen activity and use your new awareness of the symptoms of OTS to adjust your routine accordingly. If you’re still experiencing any symptoms at that point, consider discussing them with your healthcare provider.