5 signs your workout regimen needs more recovery

With COVID-19 restrictions starting to ease, a form of normalcy has returned, and fitness centers are opening in some areas. It’s not exactly the same experience, but after months of home workouts, there’s variety and the ability to train intensely. But when you’re excited and eager to make up for lost time, it can be easy to overtrain. More isn’t necessarily better because stress is cumulative.

“A good workout is a measured dose of stress,” says Stefan Underwood, vice president of continuous improvement at EXOS. But too much stress can lead to problems. Something will happen. You’ll get hurt. You’ll be tired. You’ll have less desire to train. “The body will always win,” says Underwood, adding that rather than overtraining, the problem can be under-recovering.

While everything is interconnected, here’s a look at five common signs of overtraining and what to do about them.

1. Your appetite is decreasing.

Overtraining can increase stress hormones, such as cortisol, which affect the nervous system and can slow down digestion. Stress also lowers hunger hormones. Taken together, your metabolic rate and appetite go down, says Paige Crawford, performance dietitian at EXOS.

So what can you do? Crawford recommends eating good lean protein and adding in colorful fruits and vegetables for the micronutrients and antioxidants that help with the oxidative stress from training. Finish off the meal or snack with whole-grain carbohydrates. And stay hydrated.

But like with anything, your needs are unique. Crawford suggests assessing how you feel throughout the day. If you have ample energy, enough to consistently hit 7s and 8s for your workout, you’re eating well. And if you’re doing that, what you consume before or after your training, in general, requires less precision. 

2. You’re moody.

Since your nervous system is affected by overtraining, so is your emotional regulation. Any issue that you’re trying to deal with can be that much harder. Underwood recommends taking 5 to 10 minutes at the start of the day to put together a plan. Stress can come from surprises, but you’ll feel more prepared with even a three-item to-do list and having a goal can channel your energy and lift your mood.

A lack of variety in your workout hurts as well. If you’re having trouble getting in the right mood for a workout, add something fun like juggling, doing handstands, or anything you normally wouldn’t do in order to shift your focus. “It does a fantastic job in drawing you into the present. Your mind isn’t wandering,” Underwood says.

Two breathing practices can also help. One is cadence breathing, which lengthens the exhale, engages the parasympathetic nervous system and helps decrease anxiety. Inhale for six counts, hold for four, exhale for 10. You can also do in a four-two-six split. Another method is boxed breathing where you inhale, hold, exhale, hold for the same count. Think of a square, but the exhale still gets priority. Underwood suggests doing this for about 20 minutes total over the course of a day, but it’s particularly helpful for 3 to 5 minutes right before bed, since another symptom is sleep disruption (more on that next).

3. You’re not sleeping well.

Emotional stress can play a role, but chronically training too hard effects your hormones, resting heart rate, and breathing. Sleep is when your body repairs and allows you to train optimally. A lack of sleep also compromises your metabolic and nervous systems, affecting your mood and ability to focus, increasing the risk of injury, Underwood says.

The above breathing exercises can help, but the often-suggested sleep hygiene recommendations still hold true.

  • Be consistent with your bedtime.
  • Dim the lights 30 to 60 minutes before bed to produce melatonin and avoid screens with blue lights that cause arousal.
  • Maintain a dark, cool room since body temperature can wake you up.
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed so you don’t associate the two things.
  • And keep a notepad by the bed. Writing down lingering thoughts gets them out of your head and helps form tomorrow’s plan, allowing you to wake up with some momentum, Underwood says.

4. You’re excessively sore.

Aches come with training, but Underwood says that the pain feels good. There are two kinds that don’t. One is mechanical, or delayed onset muscle soreness, in which micro-tears aren’t repairing and can make something like taking stairs difficult. Take a foam roller or lacrosse ball and use broad sweeping strokes on the areas to increase circulation. A walk or light bike ride can also help carry nutrients through the body and flush out waste.

The other, a response to neural stress, is where you have something like knots or tight hamstrings. Take the same foam roller or lacrosse ball and hang out with some pressure on the hot spots without burrowing into them. Breathe. Underwood also suggests finding a way to smile to avoid tensing up. After that, you want to start to move your body through its full range of motion.

5. You’re low on energy or don’t feel like training.

Even if you’re not feeling sore, there are still days where a workout is the last thing you want to do. That’s because when your nervous system is depressed, your body feels lethargic. Again, your nutrition and sleep are components. Hydration is another. A simple formula is to drink one-half to one ounce of water per body weight in pounds. Sweating is a factor but check your urine over the course of the day. If it doesn’t become lighter, you need more fluid, says Crawford.

When you’re training with your normal energy, Underwood recommends writing down your workload and perceived exertion. You’ll have a baseline and be able to say, “165 feels heavy and that’s not usually the case.” More than merely being aware, your notes will show you a trend that you can correct.

The other thing to do is to rate how hard the overall workout was. “You don’t need to smash yourself,” Underwood says. You want to balance a couple of weekly 10s with 7s and 8s. Any score is subjective, but, as a gauge, “I like it when people walk out feeling an inch taller,” he says.

When you’re sluggish, skipping a week can be restorative, but, if that’s too much, do light cardio or something else physical, such as basketball or yoga, where the goal isn’t reps and quantity. When you return, you’ll have more energy and a clearer head, says Jaimie Lafler, performance specialist at EXOS.

Interested in more ways to stay strong and healthy at home? Visit exosathome.com for daily workouts, mindset practices, and more.

About the Author

Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a Boston-based writer and longtime contributing editor for Men's Health.

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