Are You Overtraining?

Ben Craughwell | 3rd August 2016

When trying to lose fat without the guidance of a coach, many individuals think that more is better.
More cardio.
More time in the gym.
More caffeine.
More squatting.
More calorie restriction.
It is so very easy to back yourself into a corner with this mindset, having nowhere to turn to when plateaus occur. This eventually can cause injury, illness and what we call overtraining. I get asked quite a lot how to know if you are, in fact, overtraining, and as such, I’ve formulated the below information so that you can become aware of what’s too much before it’s too late. When it IS too late, you have to back off, and if you’ve goals and targets in mind, this is the last thing you want to do.

Have You Just Started Out or Know Someone Who Is A Beginner?

Often, men or women beginning a new fitness journey try to do everything at once. I’ll show you right now how that’s going to lead to disaster:

You start off at maximum intensity and continue to do workouts that absolutely destroy you everytime you step into the gym. You do HIIT and cardio at the end of every session, on top of being proactive with walking everywhere.

At the same time, you have cut your calories drastically, probably way below maintenance level, and continuously weigh, measure and track every bite.

When your supposed rest day roles around, you get impatient and agitated thinking that you aren’t actively working towards your goal, and head for the gym anyways.

What will then happen is, following a few weeks of this routine (if you make it this far), you will burn out.
Get sick.
Get injured.
Miss half a week’s training.
Get discourage by the lack of results.
Lose control and binge eat the kitchen cupboard.

You see how that just isn’t going to work long-term?

Even if you start the cycle all over again, you will fail. And thus the continuous slamming of the break, going full speed, then breaking again is just terrible not only on your body, but on your mind.

I understand – really I do – that when you get the fire in you to start losing fat or packing on lean tissue, you want to go hard. You want to put all of your energy and resources into meeting this goal because, quite simply, you want to get there faster. And while this approach might work for a couple of weeks, soon enough you’ll wake up aching all over with a sore throat that will knock you back.

You need to remember that exercise is a stressor. It is clearly beneficial in moderation, but if you already have stressors in your life (financial, relationships, insomnia etc.) like all of us do, adding in excessive training, you will run into trouble. Your allosteric load (the total stress your body is under at any given time) is what determines how well you will recover and indeed if you will need any extra recovery. So next Tuesday – when you were up half the night with the baby, have a massive report due in at work, and you missed breakfast because your child wouldn’t put their shoes on – when you head to the gym that evening, your body is without a doubt going to need a little longer to recover. 

But What Does Overtraining Even Look or Feel Like?

Overtraining will rear its ugly head if your body isn’t getting adequate time to rest and recover. There are two ways to look at this – inside the body and outside. The outside effects will be quite obvious, but those on the inside may not, and as such it’s important to be aware of what could potentially be going on beneath the surface.

In an individual who is overtraining:

 Connective tissues are damaged and stressed.

◙ There is increased inflammation within the body.

◙ Feel-good neurotransmitters have decreased and anabolic hormones have plummeted.

◙ Catabolic hormones such as cortisol, which degrade your muscle and make it easier to put on fat, have increased exponentially.

On the outside, this may look and feel like:

◙ Blood sugar crashing and rising in a perpetual cycle, messing with appetite.

◙ Depression or anxiety.


◙ Trouble sleeping or difficulty getting up in the mornings.

◙ Food cravings.

◙ Difficulty controlling your normally pristine nutrition habits.

◙ Lower metabolism as a result of decreased thyroid hormone output.

◙ Disrupted sex hormones, which will manifest itself as low libido and oftentimes in women, irregular/missing menstrual cycles.

You will not be able to reach your goals if your body is in the type of state described above. It has been shown that even just sleeping irregularly will hinder your results in the gym, so imagine adding in all those other factors listed and you can say goodbye to getting those abs ready for August.

So what can you actually do to avoid any of this occuring or, if you feel like you have been overtraining, what can you do to turn it around?

#1 Do Some Self Assessment

Now while it’s fair to say that taking a day off training is no issue for some of us, for others it requires a lot of willpower. Either way, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Sit down and ask yourself what exactly are your goals and why, and then answer whether or not you have been feeling tired, sluggish, achey and starving lately. If the answer is yes to any of those, it may be time to back off slightly, regardless of your stance on rest days. Having an extra rest day per week, for example, can be enough to allow your body that little bit of time to actually recover. This leads into point number two….

#2 Listen To Your Body

You are probably on the go all of the time and might not get a chance to actively think about how your body feels. Just like in point one, sit down and really think about how your body feels day-to-day, as it is obviously the best indictor of overtraining. If you feel consistently achey, fatigued, depressed or are having issues with sleeping, it’s time for a change. A new program, a new rest day protocol, an alteration to your nutrition or perhaps some supplementation. You know your body better than anyone else, so like I said; listen to it.

#3 Don’t Do Everything At Once!

If you have started, or want to start, a fat loss or muscle building routine; take it slow. Beginning with five weightlifting sessions a week, plus cardio everyday, plus severe calorie restrictions will only hinder your results long term – when you plateau, what will you do? You can’t add in more cardio, you’re already doing it everyday…you still need a couple of rest days a week, so you can’t add in any more training sessions..and you can’t lower your calories any more than they already are because then you’d be starving yourself. So you’ve just backed yourself into a corner and your body can’t recover, thus you’re overtraining and making zero progress…

Start with weightlifting a few times a week, lower calories by small increments as you plateau, and cardio should come last. This is something that is much better off being tailored to you and hiring a coach who knows how to start you off on the right track and knows when to add in new protocols is invaluable. Shop around and find a coach to your liking, as there is nothing as beneficial in terms of training as having someone to tell you exactly what you should be doing and when.

#4 Schedule Time For ACTIVE Recovery

Just like heading to the gym doesn’t happen by accident, neither does recovery. While it’s good to chill out, lazing on a couch for 15 hours mightn’t be the best route. Book the deep tissue massage you’ve been meaning to for months, start meditation, go for a swim and sauna, head down to the park for a walk; just unwind in a way that is good for both the body and mind.

#5 Maintain Training Balance

Just as a powerlifter still spends time focusing on mobility and accessory work, you too – no matter your training program – should achieve balance in the gym. Don’t add excessive cardio into your routine – instead, allow for small bursts of HIIT, for example, to compliment your workout (for fat loss, I personally have found that 20 minutes of HIIT a few times a week at the end of a session is great – battle ropes after an arm day, the bike after leg day and so on).

You also shouldn’t spend 3 out of 5 workouts a week killing yourself doing legs, just as much as you shouldn’t focus 70% of your gym time curling in front of the mirror. Find balance in your program and remember that there should be equal time devoted to everything. Just because you hate leg workouts doesn’t mean you should skip it. Just because you’re desperate to see some abs before your holiday doesn’t mean you should be doing an hour of cardio 7 days a week. Balance, balance, balance.

#Don’t Forget To Have Fun

Work, relationships, training. Up at 6.30am, asleep at 12pm. It is draining and can take its toll on the best of us. And when Saturday rolls around, sometimes you just want to lay in bed all morning, and move to the couch for the rest of the day. But there needs to be some fun in your life too. Yes, playing xbox is fun, but it can get as boring and repetitive as your work days if you’re doing it every weekend. Go and start a new hobby, dance with your kids in the living room, head up to Glendalough with your partner, get an ice-cream on Dunlaoghaire pier. It doesn’t matter what it is that you find fun, just find it and do it.