In the pursuit of health and fitness, most people tend to focus their energies on food and training. However, there is a third component that is often overlooked and absolutely critical: RECOVERY.
What we do in the gym is important, so don’t get me wrong, but what we do AFTER the gym is critical to reaching our goals. It’s where the magic happens. Think, for a moment, about the process by which we grow our muscles: during weight training, we essentially break them down by creating damage to the muscle fibers. The process of repairing these damaged muscle fibers is what causes muscles to grow, as new cells are created to repair the site of the injury. The result is literally bigger and stronger muscles. Mind you, there are many factors, including genetics, that determine exactly what your bigger and stronger muscles will look like, but the process is the same for everyone. So stay with me for a minute—I’m not going to turn you into Arnold.
Continuing to train on muscles that are never allowed to recover is the fast track to overtraining; this not only halts any progress you are trying to make, but also leads to injury. Think about it: if you damage your muscle but don’t allow it to heal properly, and then train on it again, you just damage it further. And if you continue to push, your body will be miserable, you’ll be depressed, your progress will halt, and you’ll be wondering where on earth you went wrong. I am usually on the other end of this phone call or email at least once or twice a week.
Most people have experienced or will eventually encounter overtraining, whether they know it or not. So it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of overtraining. A quick Google search for “overtraining” will turn up an exhaustive list of all of the possible symptoms, but sometimes they are pretty far-reaching and may leave you wondering how to tell the difference between the flu and overtraining. So here are some descriptions of the ones I see the most. If you recognize yourself, as I suspect many of you will, be patient with me. And if you’re a skimmer, make sure you catch the last few paragraphs—I’ll tell you how you can avoid or respond to the following:
1. Lack of motivation.
I see this one most frequently, and for me it’s the first sign. Last week you couldn’t WAIT to get to the gym, but suddenly you realize that for the past few days you haven’t really been feeling it, your workouts seem aimless, and you can’t get motivated.
2. Changes in your normal sleep pattern.
Insomnia is usually my second sign. After a good workout, you should be tired at night! Suddenly you’re up all night for no reason, or just aren’t sleeping very soundly. You may also experience more difficulty getting out of bed than normal.
3. Low immune system.
You know that feeling you get when you’re just about to get sick? Learn to recognize it if you can’t already. When you feel this way, you usually have an opportunity to prevent the impending illness. When I encounter days like this, I know it can go either way: if I’m smart, I won’t train in this condition. Admittedly, I’m not always as smart as I should be. Do as I say, not as I do…I’ve learned this one the hard way!
4. General pain, discomfort, or not-quite-right-ness.
For me, this one shows up as a discomfort that edges on pain that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’ll usually say that “my central nervous system hurts,” as a joke that really isn’t funny because it’s kind of true. This one can also show up as muscle or joint pain that persists longer than normal or for no apparent reason.
5. Moodiness/irritability/low patience.
Usually due to one or more of the above. You know it when you have it.
6. Sudden decline in performance.
Weight that should be easy isn’t. Endurance is way off. You probably had trouble getting started (see #1), but once you did it didn’t get any better. Maybe you float around the gym unable to actually commit to your workout.
Great news: overtraining can be prevented! There are a few things you need to know. First and foremost, recognize that REST IS WORK. My clients should all recognize this statement! Do not allow yourself to feel guilty for taking time off. You need that time off for several reasons. It not only gives your body a chance to repair and recover from the work you’ve done, but it also gives you a necessary mental break. Too much of anything can lead to burnout, and this is true for the mental side of training–if you do something over and over, you’ll eventually get tired of it. The people who train the most consistently also usually rest consistently. Be the tortoise, not the hair. If you don’t plan for a rest, then you’ll be miserable when your body forces you to rest—and it will, eventually.
Realize the importance of nutrition. There is a reason why bodybuilders focus on protein—it’s what repairs the damages we inflict on our muscles! Translation: it’s what allows muscles to grow. <—–you want this. Trust me. Now, I could write a whole new post on exactly how to optimize your body’s ability to use this protein, but for now I’ll just leave you with the knowledge that it can indeed be sped up or slowed down based on the form you choose and what you choose to eat with it. If you want specifics, contact me or look it up. No, contact me—there is a lot of junk out there written by supplement companies who are just trying to sell you something.
If you are on a heavy lifting program, don’t forget to designate an occasional de-load week. I know it’s no fun to lift less than 65% of your max effort, or to sit around stretching while all of your friends are lifting; it’s tough on the ego. But it’s necessary. “Go hard or go home” is a great motto, but sometimes it’s counterproductive. No one should be lifting at or near full capacity every day of every week. A day off won’t cut it. You need several days of active recovery—keep your body moving, but lay off the heavy stuff. There are many ways to do this, and it really depends on how you train—again, if you have specific questions please feel free to run them by me so we can create a plan that works for you.
Go to bed at a decent hour! A large part of recovery takes place while you are asleep. The fastest way to overtrain and piss off your adrenals is to not get enough sleep. If you keep going and going, you will overtrain very quickly and end up in a vicious cycle that ends with fatigue and overcaffeination—eventually, your adrenals will hate you. If you push yourself into adrenal fatigue, you will have a very difficult time reaching your fitness goals—many people experience this wall and eventually give up, and its ‘ll because they didn’t get enough sleep. Very sad–don’t let this happen to you.
Add variety to your training. A lot of the smarter programs I have encountered have variety built in, but even still it’s important to switch it up. This functions in the same way as the de-load week, but gives your body a longer break from one kind of stressor while allowing you to focus on new goals. I prefer to stick to a program for 4-6 weeks at a time. If it is a program that I really enjoy, I might only interrupt it for a week or two, but it’s really important to me to focus on short term goals. How many people go to the gym and lift the same way every week for years at a time? Do you really think they get stronger every week? Probably not. Curling 25lb dumbbells every week for a year, with no variation in training, is not likely to result in a substantial increase in the amount of weight someone can curl. I often get emails from people who have become extremely frustrated and want to know why they are not getting stronger. The first thing I ask is how long they’ve been doing the same thing. Invariably, I find that the person has not changed his or her training in months or even years. In order to break past a plateau, try something different. Walk away, try something new, and come back to it.
At some point during your training, you are likely to encounter symptoms of overtraining. But there are degrees of severity—learn to recognize the signs quickly so that you can manage a small problem before it becomes a much larger problem with a much longer-lasting interruption to your training.
And now, the clean cookie recipe I promised:
- 3 cups oats
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- splenda/stevia (optional—I didn’t use any)
- 1 overripe banana
- 3/4 tsp vanilla
- 1 grated zucchini and/or carrot (I used both)
- ½ cup crushed walnuts
- 2tbsp peanut butter (ok, maybe 3…it was a big glob)
- ½ cup mini chocolate chips (optional for the kid version—I made it both ways)
Bake on 350 for 12 minutes. This yielded six very large cookies. I am not currently counting calories or macros, so if you are you may want to be mindful of the amount of nuts and peanut butter you use–they add up quickly.